Focus and concentration, while normally considered beneficial attributes, can stymie creativity – especially the generation of novel ideas. This has led some to wonder whether people with “leaky attention“, and especially those with ADHD – who have what Holly White, writing recently in the Journal of Creative Behaviour, calls “chaotic minds” – might have a creative advantage when it comes to breaking free from prior examples. White, who is based at the University of Michigan, has tested this possibility, and though she acknowledges her new study is small, she believes her findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that “ADHD may be advantageous for certain types of creative thinking; specifically, divergent, unconstrained creative cognition.”
White recruited 26 male and female undergrads diagnosed with ADHD and 26 male and female undergrads without ADHD, and asked them to complete two tests of creativity.
For the first, the student volunteers spent 20 minutes drawing and describing pictures of alien fruit, following the instruction to be as creative and unusual as they could, trying not to duplicate fruit that exists on earth (see some of their efforts above).
Two trained judges, who did not know the ADHD status of the artists, then carefully rated all the drawings. Drawings by the undergrads with ADHD were rated as more original and containing more atypical features – evidence, White said, of their greater “conceptual expansion”, a process “whereby traditional conceptual boundaries are extended”.
The second task was designed to test the students’ ability to break free from the influence of prior examples and involved them imagining they worked for an ad agency and coming up with original product names.
For this test, White first presented her volunteers with the names of six example products in three categories – pain relievers, nuclear elements and pasta. All six examples in each category had certain letters in common. For instance, the pain medication examples always ended in “ol” or “in”, such as Tylenol, Panadol, Aspirin and Bufferin. The nuclear elements always ended in -on or -ium, and the pastas always ended in -i or -a.
The students’ challenge was to spend 10 minutes coming up with new product names for each category, following the instruction not to use or copy any aspects of the examples. Raters – again blind to whose work they were scoring – then judged the students’ suggestions based on whether or not they had copied the endings of the examples, and whether they also managed to sound appropriate to the products they represented. The students with ADHD managed to break free more often from the spelling conventions in the examples, while also matching the control students on the ability to invent names that sounded appropriate.
It’s important not to minimise the problems faced by people with ADHD and those who care for them. Also, the study sample was not only small, it also featured exclusively students with ADHD who were high-functioning and free of other problematic diagnoses. Remember too that the full creative process is about more than coming up with new ideas – it also requires dedication and focus to turn those ideas into reality.
However, White said that her findings show ADHD might come with certain creative advantages, and further research might “explore the potential contribution of the chaotic ADHD mind in the workplace.” She added: “By leveraging ADHD-related strengths and providing the necessary structure and support, individuals and organisations alike may be able to unlock the imaginative and innovative potential of the ADHD mind.”