Research suggests that people with ADHD perform better than those without ADHD in tasks requiring creativity and originality.
Right from its name - Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is strongly associated with the ADHD-related challenges, namely: attention deficit or distractibility, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These challenges may indeed present obstacles related to academic achievement, employment performance, and social relationships.
The ability to focus and concentrate, which the ADHD mind in general struggles with, are believed to be very beneficial attributes, but research shows that they actually can hamper creativity. Therefore ADHD may bring advantages, like the ability to think more creatively and with more originality. This has led scientists to wonder whether or not people with attention deficit, especially those with ADHD, have a creative advantage in regards to thinking outside the box (1).
Chaotic minds, as the scientist, Holly White, refers to minds with ADHD, are particularly good at thinking creatively and originally, whilst breaking free from prior examples, as can be seen from the picture above. White recruited 26 male and female undergraduates diagnosed with ADHD and 26 male and female undergraduates without ADHD and had them complete two tests of creativity (1).
There are two images below.
Can you tell which set of images have been drawn by people with ADHD and which set have been drawn by people without ADHD?
The first task was a test of the students' imagination and creativity. The students spent 20 minutes drawing and describing pictures of alien fruit that had to be as unusual and creative as they could imagine, all the while trying not to duplicate already existing fruit from earth. Some of their efforts can be seen above: Image 1 was made by students without ADHD and the image 2 was made by people with an ADHD diagnosis. Afterwards, two judges, unaware of the ADHD status of each student, carefully rated all the drawings and descriptions. The conclusion was that drawings by the undergraduates with ADHD were rated as more original and had more atypical attributes. Attributing minds with ADHD as having greater "conceptual expansion” according to White, which is a process “whereby traditional conceptual boundaries are extended”(1).
The second task was designed to test the undergrads' ability to think outside the box without having prior influence on their imaginations. The students were told to come up with new and original product names within three product categories; pain relievers, nuclear elements and pasta. White presented the students with names of six examples for each of the three categories, with certain lettering in common. The examples of pain medication ended on “ol” or “in”, like Tylenol, Panadol, Aspirin and Bufferin. While the nuclear elements always ended in "-on" or "-ium", like plutonium, uranium and radon. The pasta always ended in "-i" or "-a", like tortellini, ravioli and lasagna. The students had 10 minutes to invent new product names for each category, while not copying any of the prior given examples. The judges rated the new product names to whether the names sounded appropriate to the products they represented and that they hadn’t copied the endings of the examples. Again while not knowing the ADHD-status of the students. The results concluded that students with ADHD were more original and better at breaking free from conventional thinking (1).
Creativity is many things. Google dictionary describes creativity as "the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness".
Though most definitions of creativity comprise three components. First, an idea must represent something original, different, like or a change from tradition, new, or innovative. Second, an idea must be of high quality - even though the value of creativity to the creator and recipients may differ. Third, an idea must also be appropriate for the task at hand and must either be a solution to a problem or counterpart to the present. A creative response is often judged by its newness, adequacy, and relevance (2).
The results of the study concluded that students with ADHD may be less constrained by old models, conventions or knowledge during creative generation.
A few words of caution on the results -this study is small and further investigation on the subject is needed. Moreover, it is important not to belittle the problems that both people with ADHD face on a daily basis. Additionally, this study was done with undergraduates without any other additional diagnosis.
ADHD may create difficulties for the individual in many contexts that requires focus, constraint and attention - like in a school setting where the individuals are expected to sit still and pay attention. Yet it is this same distractibility and chaotic mind that contribute to creative, original thinking. White furthermore believes that “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” (1). Perhaps not the best cloth from which to tailor an engineer, but these traits may be solid assets in fields that value innovative and nontraditional approaches, such as marketing, product design, technology, and computer engineering, White explains (1).
White, H. A. (2018). Thinking “Outside the Box”: Unconstrained Creative Generation in Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jocb.382.
Kaufman, J. C., & Sternberg, R. J. (2007). Creativity. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(4), 55-60.