Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a behavioral disorder that affects someone’s ability to focus on tasks and suppress impulses.
Symptoms include a short attention span, difficulty in organizing tasks, excessive talking or physical movements, acting without thinking about the consequences, interrupting, and trouble carrying out instructions.
ADHD is usually diagnosed in children aged 6-12, but in some cases it goes undetected until adulthood.
Symptoms often get better with age, but are unlikely to go away completely.
Most psychologists believe that ADHD is caused by delayed development of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that helps us regulate our behavior.
What problems do people with ADHD face?
People with ADHD often underachieve at school or in the workplace.
They may be very intelligent, but their inability to concentrate means they might have trouble planning and finishing projects.
Maintaining relationships can also be a challenge, because people with ADHD may find it hard to stop themselves talking over others or acting in a reckless, irresponsible manner.
Finally, ADHD is often accompanied by mental health problems including anxiety disorders.
Are there any potential benefits to having ADHD?
However, some psychologists believe that people with this diagnosis may be at an advantage in some domains.
For example, some research suggests that ADHD is associate with enhanced levels of creativity.
A recent study published in the Journal Of Creative Behavior showed that college students with ADHD outperform their peers on two tasks that asked them to generate new ideas.
In the first task, the participants were asked to draw images depicting fruits they might expect to find on alien planets.
The second task required them to invent new names for products.
The researchers were interested in whether the ADHD participants would devise more original ideas than those without this diagnosis.
It emerged that, compared to their non-ADHD counterparts, students with ADHD did indeed generate more creative answers in response to both tasks.
Why might people with ADHD show higher levels of creativity?
The researchers believe that, in ADHD, the same traits that cause problems in functioning may also give rise to creative advantages.
For example, people with ADHD are easily distracted, but this allows their minds to wander and consider a situation from new angles.
In the experiment outlined above, the participants had to draw on their pre-existing knowledge of “fruit” as a category in order to produce novel examples of species that could exist on other planets.
Non-ADHD students seemed to rely more heavily on conventional ideas of what a fruit is and is not, whereas participants with ADHD appeared less constrained by their existing knowledge.
The same principle can be applied in explaining their performance on the label generation tasks.
Creativity in young adolescents with ADHD
What about children and teenagers with ADHD? Do they tend to be more creative than their peers?
In a bid to answer this question, a group of German and UK researchers investigated the link between ADHD and creativity in a group of young adolescents with an average age of thirteen.
The authors note that highly creative children often show behavioral difficulties, and anticipated that they would find an association between ADHD and creativity.
The researchers asked the participants to take part in several tasks.
These included a test that asked them to come up with new ideas for a toy company.
The participants were asked to pretend that they had been recruited to design a new toy, sketching out their idea within five minutes.
Immediately prior to this task, they were shown three types of toys that all had three elements in common: the presence of an electronic component, the presence of a ball, and the presence of physical activity.
The participants’ drawings were scored on a scale of 0-3, depending on how many elements they incorporated into their own designs.
Children with ADHD outperformed the control group on this test, producing more original ideas that had little in common with the toys they had just seen.
The researchers believe the findings uphold the notion that people with ADHD are less restricted by recently activated knowledge – in this case, their knowledge of toys – when it comes to devising new ideas.
Does ADHD medication impair creativity?
Because the symptoms of ADHD can be troublesome, doctors often prescribe medications, such as methylphenidate and atomoxetine.
They do not cure ADHD, but they regulate activity in areas of the brain responsible for controlling behaviour and attention.
If you are a creative person with ADHD, you might worry that taking medication for your disorder will change your thinking style.
Those with ADHD can seek help for their condition and still retain their creative edge.
Creativity research is still a relatively new field in psychology, and more studies are needed to confirm the link between ADHD and the capacity for creative thought.
However, the evidence we have accumulated so far suggests that ADHD can offer advantages when it comes to innovation.