Does having ADHD optimise creativity?
Research shows that those with ADHD are shown to have better skills in creative cognition, conceptual expansion and innovative thinking – Eleanor Turner digs into these links and speaks to experts and creative practitioners about the correlation.
The visuals for this article were made by four creatives living with ADHD responding to what this experience is like for them.
It was life changing to discover, at the age of 22, that the forgetfulness, disorganisation, distractibility, chronic boredom, physical and mental restlessness, messiness and emotional inconsistency that had plagued my life were not only not my fault – but they had an acronym.
ADHD, also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. As I’ve navigated the world over the past three years with this new awareness of my divergent brain, I’ve discovered that ADHD may not only be the reason for my lack of clean socks and many missed trains, but also the myriad of imagination games I invented as a child, my ability to find a unique way through problems, and my love for conjuring up household DIY methods. In other words: my creativity.
Researching this piece has catapulted me into the complex world of creativity research and it turns out, as with most things in life, a lot of different people have a lot of different opinions about what the hell creativity is. Julia Cameron, author of the iconic The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, describes creativity as a spiritual experience – a connection with the mystical – while the more generally accepted theory sets out three clear components for creativity: creating a product that is both novel and useful or effective in achieving a desired outcome.
By its nature, this latter, modern definition of creativity is capable of encompassing a broader range of fields such as technology, medicine, engineering, health care and, in the opinion of a friend of mine, body-building. This represents a current rise in the belief, present in other cultures and civilisations throughout history, that creativity should be used to promote social justice, health and wellbeing, economic advancement and even peace – as opposed to simply producing objects that are aesthetically pleasing.
So how does this relate to those of us with ADHD? Well, a stack of evidence suggests that people with ADHD are especially good at creative cognition – a set of mental processes consisting of divergent thinking (generating ideas beyond expectations or repeated thinking), conceptual expansion (the ability to broaden existing conceptual structures) and overcoming knowledge constraints. For example, in a study highlighted in the Journal of Creative Behaviour, participants were asked to create an “alien fruit” and product names without using aspects of the task examples. Compared to the control group, the ADHD participants produced alien fruit that “diverged more from earth fruit” as well as labels which conformed less to the given examples. Similar results were found in a 2006 study whereby children with ADHD performed better than their non-ADHD peers at inventing a new toy that differed from the given examples. Meanwhile, studies have demonstrated that for those without ADHD, task examples can result in “design fixation”, whereby a designer’s creations are limited by their reliance on pre-existing designs. Additionally, exposure to pre-existent solutions has been shown to encourage individuals to simply reuse old solutions, rather than devise new ones. In other words, neurotypical brains appear to be less correlated with creative originality than ADHD brains.
“Interestingly, the resulting impulsive and hyperactive behaviours common to ADHD are identical to the personality traits researchers have linked to heightened creativity.”Eleanor Turner
Why ADHD-ers are better at overcoming the limitations of prior knowledge and dreaming up novel solutions to problems is up for debate. The cause of ADHD itself is, after all, unknown. In an age when technology companies actively hack our dopamine release, contributing to the reduction in the average attention span, the term gets thrown around a lot – three self-confessed chronic procrastinators I met at a house party last weekend became convinced they have it after seeing one ADHD TikTok. And, they might do, due to misconceptions about the presentation of the condition, ADHD is chronically under-diagnosed, especially in women and people of colour. Self-diagnosis as a result of in-depth personal research is, in my opinion, valid to a large extent (especially due to the astronomical NHS waiting times for an ADHD diagnosis). Just keep in mind that it’s a diagnostic requirement that ADHD symptoms be pervasive since childhood.
Research suggests that the condition may be due to an imbalance, or dysregulated release, of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, the chemical responsible for pleasure and motivation. As a result, people with ADHD commonly report feeling chronically under-stimulated – by which I mean the opposite of engaged, interested or present. I have often felt zoned out and bored to an extent that is physically uncomfortable, as if I have an itch inside my brain that I cannot scratch. Interestingly, the resulting impulsive and hyperactive behaviours common to ADHD are identical to the personality traits researchers have linked to heightened creativity. These include being sensation-seeking (ADHD-ers seek out more stimulating behaviours, which to others may appear risky or extreme, in order to feel the same level of stimulation a neurotypical person naturally enjoys – think starting arguments with loved ones, drinks, drugs, shopping sprees, binge-eating, smoking, impulsive trips…) as well as the moderately non-conforming and rebellious (ADHD shares a comorbidity with Oppositional Defiant Disorder). Interestingly, ADHD is also highly comorbid with dyslexia – a condition more prevalent among art students than students in any other area. In fact, art students with dyslexia have been shown to enjoy superior mental imagery and 3D mental visualisation of objects compared to those without it.
Meanwhile, physician and ADHD-er himself Gabor Maté argues that any correlation between ADHD and creativity can be put down to the heightened sensitivity of those with ADHD. Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD), an intense emotional sensitivity prompted by perceived or real rejection or criticism, is common in those with ADHD, while those of us with the condition have also be found to be “more attuned to sensory input such as sound, colour or musical tone”. Trust me when I say neurodivergent people keep the noise cancelling headphones industry afloat.
Researchers have also found that highly creative individuals struggle to filter out both internal and external stimuli – something most ADHD-ers can relate to. At times, the inside of my brain can feel like a laptop with 15 tabs open; my focus zips around as I make connections between them while simultaneously trying to listen to a conversation with people over lunch. It makes sense, however, that this optimises creativity, since my inability to tune anything out, or produce any kind of boundary whatsoever, makes me far more open, or one could say vulnerable, to a broader range of sensory information. As a result of this conceptual expansion, ADHD-ers are statistically more likely to come up with a unique combination of information – what academics call “imaginative divergence” – and, therefore, unique creative output.
“ADHD-ers are statistically more likely to come up with a unique combination of information – what academics call ‘imaginative divergence’ – and, therefore, unique creative output.”Eleanor Turner
One ADHD-er Tony Lloyd, chair of the ADHD Foundation, was once told that “having ADHD is like looking through a kaleidoscope rather than binoculars”. Essentially, we are walking, talking, random number generators except, rather than numbers, we’re making stuff (just check out my drawers of unfinished crochet, jewellery and clay projects). As Pina, the illustrator behind the iconic The ADHD Alien shared with me: “I often come up with the wildest connections between things within the shortest amount of time. I can brainstorm so many different areas at once and create connections between them, that I’m always sure that I can come up with something fresh and unique to me.” Other people, she explains, often see this as randomness, “but it’s actually a very structured chaos in my head”. Any ADHD-er will tell you the great irony of the name Attention “Deficit” Hyperactivity Disorder when, in fact, the condition is experienced as a surplus of attention for… everything at once!
However, when it comes to creating something useful, as the popular, modern definition of creativity includes, those with ADHD appear to be less successful. In one study, though children with ADHD invented more original objects, their creations were far less functional, practical or usable compared to the control group. Similarly, a recent article in Brain, which argued the case that the great polymath Leonardo Da Vinci had ADHD, noted that “many of his architectural and engineering ideas were disregarded for being too unrealistic and impractical”. Like Icarus, some of us with ADHD may have a creative imagination as bright and powerful as the sun, but produce alien fruits as functional as wax wings (or, as one of my favourite sayings goes, as useful as a chocolate teapot). That being said, some of the most original, non-conforming and trail-blazing inventors of all time have, or are suspected to have had, ADHD: Steve Jobs (inventor of the very useful touch screen), Thomas Edison (first to patent the lightbulb – where would I be without my SAD lamp) and Alexander Graham Bell (first to patent the telephone – I prefer to text, but yeah).
“Having ADHD does not mean the creative process is all smooth sailing. In fact, it can actually mean creating is impossible at times.”Eleanor Turner
Some studies do, however, offer evidence to dispute claims of a link between ADHD and creativity. As Tony Doyle of the ADHD Foundation told me, “there is a correlation, but no proven link”. He suggests that the volume of neurodiverse creatives may be due to failings in education to support neurodiverse brains, causing people with ADHD to possibly struggle with more traditional academic subjects and to thrive in less structured, more fluid and creative subjects such as music, drama and art. He also noted that participating in the creative arts releases dopamine, something ADHD brains are thought to lack. People with ADHD commonly report that colours and music stimulate their brains, which is why we often love having the TV on in the background while we work, and I myself am a huge fan of dopamine dressing (dressing with the intention of boosting your mood) as a way to wake up my fuzzy brain.
Whether we can prove a link or not, having ADHD does not mean the creative process is all smooth sailing. In fact, it can actually mean creating is impossible at times. Da Vinci became infamous for his unreliability, repeatedly failing to finish projects or deliver commissions. Jumping between projects, not seeing things through, getting sidelined, being bad at prioritising – these are all things I relate to. When a piece of work is imminently due, that’s the moment that I feel it is absolutely necessary to rearrange the furniture in my room and deep clean the sink. You see, people with ADHD struggle with prioritising tasks and can only activate when it’s an emergency i.e. just before the deadline. The inattentive aspect of ADHD can be exhausting, something that Pina, The ADHD Alien, relates to: “Before getting diagnosed and taking medication, I actually had the worst time seeing progress in my art skill,” she says. “I was drawing for hours every day but kept making the same mistakes over and over, even years later. It wasn’t until I started taking medication and learnt about how ADHD means you miss a self-directed, internal voice that I started to understand how to study.”
The internal voice she speaks about that ADHD-ers lack can also be described as your inner personal assistant and internal calendar – the voice that reminds you what you need to do and when. One of the biggest struggles of having ADHD is the way in which it interferes with executive functioning, making it more difficult to activate yourself to work, sustain focus, regulate emotions, utilise working memory and monitor impulsiveness. Meanwhile, the hyperfocusing aspect of ADHD, often called the ADHD superpower, is the pay-off for the inattention. “I do feel most alive when I can hyperfocus on solving visual problems or trying out a new style,” Pina says. “I love how hyperfocus helps me create my best work, but it’s also hard to navigate life when my need to keep working on something creative overtakes everyday obligations and things that would just be good for me, like showering or doing laundry.”
ADHD medication works to offset this by encouraging the release of dopamine and other chemicals in the brain. When it comes to creation, medication can therefore ironically hinder the creative connections discussed earlier, as it simultaneously improves executive functioning, such as the ability to tune out distractions. As Pina put it: “There was also a time right after starting medication that I felt like I couldn’t be creative while medicated. All the random thoughts and images I usually had flashing through my mind that I was relying on in order to be creative were gone the moment the medication started working.” Her art professor in Berlin helped her to see that there are many ways to find a creative workflow, and many tools that can help. On medication, her creative experience is largely positive: “Creativity doesn’t feel like this fleeting, magical thing that pops in and out of my life anymore,” she told me. “When I am stuck and out of ideas, rather than hoping that my ADHD will save me, I create visual brainstorming lists, reference collections or other tools to get back on the divergent thinking that’s so inspiring.”
Just as neurotypical strategies don’t work for neurodiverse brains, accommodations must suit the individual ADHD-ers themselves. As Sarah Gise, host of the Artists with ADHD podcast, told me: “Something that can help with staying on task is gentle reminders and prompts.” Pina echoes this. “I like to have more frequent deadlines set by my employers, as well as visual examples of what it is they’re asking for,” she explains. “I have also noticed that I get completely stuck if I get a set of tasks without a priority list. Just trying to figure out by myself what I should be doing in what order often overwhelms me and gets me stuck.” She says she used to be too afraid to ask for accommodations like that, but now says, “I hope that businesses and potential employers can signal openness and understanding for these little workflow adaptations.”
“I do feel most alive when I can hyperfocus on solving visual problems or trying out a new style”Pina, The ADHD Alien
Being afraid to ask for accommodations is common, especially where misconceptions surrounding ADHD make disclosing to an employer nerve-wracking. So, businesses need to be clearer that they are willing to help. For example, in January 2020, Universal Music UK, home to artists including Florence + The Machine and The Rolling Stones, published its first handbook on embracing neurodiversity in the creative industries. It suggests a wide range of neurodiverse-friendly practical solutions, such as neurodiversity awareness education for all employees, flexibility around the job application process and a buddy system to help new recruits better understand unwritten social rules. As Tony Lloyd put it to me: “Companies are increasingly recognising that such accommodations are in their interest – as a neurodivergent workforce brings many benefits, benefits that are optimised when said workforce is best supported.”
So, the jury is out on whether there is a direct link, or simply a correlation, between ADHD and creativity. ADHD is a condition that is both expansive and limiting, and frustratingly, you cannot control when it is the former or latter. One thing you can do is channel that energy into creating – whether to connect to your higher power or design a saddle for dogs. ADHD or not, as the great Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about.”
Copyright © Harvey Wise, 2022