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ADHD & Creativity

Instructor: Kaitlin Baker

Kaitlin has taught nursing students and has a master's degree in nursing leaderhsip, as well as a bachelor's degree in English literature.

In this lesson, you will learn about the association between Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and creativity. We will discuss the basics of how the ADHD brain works, as well how people with ADHD may tend to use their brains to think more creatively.

ADHD and Creativity

What do Justin Timberlake, Michael Phelps, and Albert Einstein have in common? All have been diagnosed with, or were suspected to have, some form of ADHD. ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and is also called ADD or Attention Deficit Disorder in the absence of hyperactivity traits. It is the most common psychiatric disorder in both children and adults, affecting 5 to 10 percent of the population. It's common characteristics include: short attention span, distractibility, disorganization, impulsivity, procrastination, and poor impulse control. Less commonly recognized is the propensity for people with ADHD to be creative and high-achieving. This is not to say that all people with ADHD are creative, but that the very traits which cause them difficulties may be exactly those that make them uniquely inventive.

Traits commonly associated with ADHD

Common Misconceptions

The brains of people with ADD/ADHD work differently than the brains of people without these disorders. And there is no shortage of misconceptions surrounding them. For starters, although it is often thought of as primarily a male issue, ADHD symptoms occur nearly equally among boys and girls. In addition, it is not simply a childhood issue; the majority of children with ADHD do not outgrow it. Finally, one does not have to be 'hyperactive' to have ADD/ADHD. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), ADHD symptoms usually fall into one of three categories: hyperactive, inattentive, or combined type. Regardless of the category, there are some things most people with ADHD have in common. These people struggle with regulation of executive functioning skills. Such skills include concentration and attention, memory, motivation, learning from mistakes, controlling impulses, hyperactivity, organization, and social skills. Of course, multiple factors influence these skills and related behaviors, but in ADD/ADHD, chemical and structural differences in the brain as well as genetics play significant roles.

Types of ADD

Convergent versus Divergent Thinking

When discussing creativity and ADD/ADHD, we must talk about some fundamental concepts in creativity itself: convergent thinking and divergent thinking.

Convergent Thinking

'Convergent' means something that is ''coming together.'' Convergent thinking refers to what happens when you answer a multiple choice question that only has one answer, as you will do when you finish this lesson! In convergent thinking, the brain focuses on a limited number of choices and chooses an answer from a set of possibilities. This type of thinking is what neurotypical (i.e. non-ADD/ADHD) people are commonly better at.

An illustration of Convergent Thinking

Divergent Thinking

While convergent thinking means ''coming together,'' divergent thinking means ''developing in different directions.'' Divergent thinking can be thought of as tree branches, shooting off in many directions from a single trunk. These branches represent possibilities that aren't immediately apparent to the average person.

Studies suggest that people with ADHD are better at divergent thinking and worse at convergent thinking. For example, there is a story about Albert Einstein as a child; when he first met his newborn baby sister, he reportedly asked, ''Where are the wheels?''

An illustration of Divergent Thinking

Divergent Thinking and Creativity

So what does divergent thinking have to do with creativity? Divergent thinking, since it branches away from from already known ideas, may help people find new and exciting ones! In creativity tests, researchers testing divergent thinking will ask, ''How many uses can you think of for a shoe?'' The ADHD brain may think of far more and far more varied uses for a shoe than the non-ADHD brain, for the simple reason that it may be more able to 'think outside the box'. So, while ADHD minds tend to wander more, they just might wander into previously undiscovered territory.

What is Creativity?

Many scientists and researchers agree that ADHD goes hand-in-hand with out-of-the-box thinking. And thinking outside the box is often associated with creativity. But creativity is difficult to define. All we can really measure are aspects of creativity, such as divergent and convergent thinking. While we can say that people who score better on divergent tasks are more creative, this doesn't automatically mean these people will be more creative in life.

To be more exact, many studies are showing that people with ADHD commonly excel at certain aspects of creativity. For example, one study of adolescents found that people with ADHD did better at thinking outside the box to overcome limits, but worse at using imagery to come up with inventions.

It's a Complex Issue

Even though people with ADHD do better with creative measures like divergent thinking, it's not guaranteed that they will experience greater achievement in the real world. In fact, there are certainly tradeoffs that come with the enhanced creativity of ADHD. People with ADD/ADHD struggle in certain areas that may make success in certain work environments difficult. Difficulties with planning and attention, as well a tendency to be impulsive may make traditional jobs hard.

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