Sometimes the line between creativity and distractibility gets a little blurry. I’ve talked about this before: on a good day, “hey, look, a distraction” can become “hey, look, a creative idea.”
The basic intuition here is that both creativity and distractibility involve a certain flexibility, a willingness to move on to new ideas. It’s just that in the case of creativity, those new ideas are welcome, but in the case of distractibility they’re, well, a distraction.
If that explanation sounds a little speculative, don’t worry, I’m going to call in the experts. There are people who rigorously research the connection between ADHD and creativity. One of those people is Holly White, a researcher at University of Michigan.
In a newly published study, White set out to learn more about the link between ADHD and creativity using alien fruit. If you’re thinking you’ve never encountered any extraterrestrial produce at your local supermarket, that’s exactly the point. White asked 52 college students, half of whom had ADHD, to dream up new types of fruit from a different planet and sketch them out. The drawings were then mixed together and passed along to undergraduate research assistants who rated the newly invented fruits in terms of originality.
It turns out that people give quite a range of responses on this task. Predictably, many of the fruits that people invent are uninspired – they resemble familiar earthly fruits like strawberries and oranges, with only slight modifications.
But some of the creations were truly otherworldly. And when the results came in, White found that the highly original fruits were disproportionately those created by ADHDers. In case, you’re wondering just how far out fruit can get, White cites the example of “a fruit with a tongue; not only is this bizarre, but it violates the basic assumption that the consumer of the fruit has a tongue and does the tasting – not the other way around!”
And tongued fruit isn’t the only way in which the participants with ADHD turned basic ideas about produce upside down when confronted with the “alien fruit” task. As White told me in an email:
Sometimes the creations of the ADHD participants didn’t even follow the laws of physics (e.g., ‘downloadable’ fruit or fruit growing from a cloud). Yet, in a planet that is supposed to be very different from Earth, who’s to say what the environmental constraints would be?
With Amazon taking over Whole Foods, downloadable fruit strikes me as walking the shadowy line between absurd and totally plausible. It’s the kind of thing that would get written about satirically in The Onion but that people would then mistake for genuine news.
Anyway, the point here is not just that people with ADHD have a special knack for inventing fictional fruits. Consider the second task given to participants in the study: brainstorming new product names.
In this part of the experiment, participants were asked to put themselves in the shoes of an advertising consultant and think up names for products like new kinds of painkillers and pasta. They were given examples of existing product names, but because this was a test of creativity, the goal was to come up with names that were both substantially different from the examples and appropriate for the product at hand. Once again, their responses were rated by research assistants who didn’t know which ideas came from people with ADHD.
As before, the inventions from the ADHD group were more original. Just as the ADHDers’ imaginary fruits were less constrained by norms of familiar terrestrial produce, their product label ideas were less constrained by the examples of other product labels they’d been provided with. The adults with ADHD were apparently more able to dream up inventions that transcended the conventional boundaries of what a fruit or a product name should be.
It’s possible, then, that for all the challenges that come with ADHD, people with ADHD bring certain strengths to the table. Summarizing the real-world implications of these findings, White suggests that “the innovative and original thinking style of adults with ADHD is likely to be an asset in fields such as marketing or technology, which value non-traditional innovation; or, in any endeavor wherein the goal is to create or invent something new without being overly constrained by old models or conventions.”
This doesn’t automatically undo the real struggles that come with ADHD, or the negative outcomes that have been linked to the disorder. Rather, there’s a more subtle point here: the effect that ADHD symptoms have depends on the environment that the person with ADHD is in. To quote White:
Individuals with ADHD think differently from people without ADHD in general – this applies to creative as well as non-creative things. A cognitive difference may be an impairment or an edge, depending on the situation and task at hand.
For example, poor impulse control may lead to reckless behavior (a negative) as well as creative, spontaneous, and entrepreneurial behavior (a positive). Similarly, distractibility makes it difficult to stay on task, yet the collision of multiple diverse ideas may generate creative ideas, insights, and spontaneous connections between (seemingly) unrelated topics.
Now, I’m a blogger, so when I hear someone share their thoughts on a topic, I can’t help but share my own.
Personally, I think the fact that ADHD symptoms manifest themselves differently depending on context is vital to understand in coping with ADHD. A lot of learning to live with ADHD is about figuring out how to put yourself in environments that play to your strengths. Of course, finding those environments isn’t always an easy process. Sometimes you have to get fired from your job as an accountant before you discover that inventing alien fruit in a lab at Amazon’s top-secret “Future of Whole Foods” research facility is where you’re really in your element.
To put it another way, you have to find an environment that fits your brain. And people with ADHD have brains that work differently. They don’t necessarily have “less” attention, but they have a different way of allocating it.
The question of why people with ADHD tend to do better than average on tasks that involve generating ideas is open for research, but White suggests that this different way of allocating attention could be part of the reason:
By default, a person with ADHD has a very wide attentional focus, meaning that many things enter awareness – including irrelevant stuff (e.g., clock ticking). As a result, people with ADHD may dislike details but tend to be very good at seeing the big picture. A wide scope of attention gives people with ADHD a wide frame of reference, which facilitates pattern detection and allows people with ADHD to make connections that others may miss.
Previous studies by White are consistent with this idea. For example, a 2011 study by White and Priti Shah, a professor at University of Michigan, showed that adults with ADHD had higher levels of real-world creative achievement and had a stronger preference for generating ideas whereas people without ADHD tended to prefer elaborating on existing ideas. A 2016 study by White and Shah demonstrated that college students with ADHD gave more original responses on a cell phone feature invention task and a word association task.
Given these findings, I was curious whether White’s view of ADHD as a condition has evolved as a result of her research. She told me that her “conceptualization of ADHD has changed from accepting it as a clinical condition to thinking of it as akin to being left-handed in a right-handed world.” As she puts it:
The extent to which ADHD-related cognition and behavior is limiting versus advantageous is very context-dependent. If our schools are set up to be a perfect fit for a convergent linear thinker, it would be foolish to expect divergent chaotic thinkers to shine in such an environment.
For that reason, efforts to create flexible learning environments where students can learn in the way that works best for them have the potential to be game-changing for students with ADHD.
In the meantime, though, this remains very much a right-handed world, to use White’s framing. That fact renders the high-level message from this study somewhat ambiguous.
We can’t just take the finding that college students with ADHD are good at generating ideas and say “well, you’re creative, looks like everything is OK” to people with ADHD when everything clearly isn’t. Higher creativity as a group, on average, in a particular subset of relatively well-off people with ADHD doesn’t erase the findings that people with ADHD are more likely to drop out of school, become unemployed, and have other mental health conditions.
But it does suggest that context is a part of ADHD that we need to be talking about and studying. Knowing that ADHD symptoms express themselves differently in different environments can improve the lives of people with ADHD. For all the challenges of ADHD, this insight puts people with ADHD in a better position to take on those challenges – to stay in school, find jobs where they excel, and cope with other mental health conditions. The fact that distractibility in one situation can morph into creativity in another indicates that for ADHDers, identifying and playing to their strengths might be key to thriving with ADHD.
Image: Flickr/Pierre Willemin