Mind & Body

ADHD Could Make You More Creative

Do you get distracted easily? Do you find that you have a hard time focusing your attention on something you aren't interested in? Ever get the feeling that your brain is like a bird flitting from branch to branch and never staying in the same place long enough to build a nest? You might have some form of ADHD. The good news? It could make you more creative than somebody without it.

Related: How Do ADHD Medications Work?

It All ADDs Up

Let's get something straight: Being diagnosed with ADD or ADHD doesn't necessarily mean you can't focus on anything. Actually, one of the symptoms of the disorders is something called hyperfocus, meaning a person becomes intensely focused on a topic that interests them — so much so that they might actually have a problem tearing their attention away. That's why it's maybe not so surprising that so many artists (including Solange Knowles and Emma Watson) have been diagnosed with the disorder. Perfecting your craft takes undivided attention, and somewhat surprisingly, people with ADD and ADHD can supply that in spades.

But according to a new study, artists living with an attention deficit disorder may have another advantage over neurotypical people. They might be better at coming up with unconventional ideas. To test this hypothesis, University of Michigan psychology researcher Holly White recruited 52 college students, 26 who had been diagnosed with high-functioning ADHD and 26 who hadn't. She then devised two tests to challenge their abilities to flex their creative muscles.

Original Thoughts, Neurodivergent Minds

The study came in two parts. In the first part, participants were asked to sketch a piece of fruit from an alien planet and were specifically asked not to intentionally duplicate any (presumably Earth-bound) fruit that they were already aware of. They were also asked to include descriptions of such a fruit, including its flavor, its parts, and anything else they might be inspired to go into more detail about. Then, two research assistants — who were not only kept in the dark about the students' ADHD status, but also that the test was centered on the condition — were asked to grade the sketches and descriptions by the atypicality of their appearance (with Earth fruit as the standard), as well as the atypicality of their description. For example, an alien fruit with a stem and seeds that tastes juicy and sweet might look different, but it still ranks pretty high on the typicality of its features. The fruit created by the ADHD set, however, displayed properties like straws, eyeballs, or a tendency to explode.

In the second part of the experiment, White wanted to see how well the students could be both creative and work within a certain set of rules. This was the product brainstorming session. Each group was given six examples in three different categories: types of pasta, nuclear elements, and pain medication. They were then asked to invent a few of their own entries in each category. However, there was one catch that none of the participants were explicitly told about. Each of the examples that they saw ahead of time followed a particular pattern: the pain medication all ended in "-in" or "-ol" (like "Aspirin" or "Tylenol"), the types of pasta all ended in "i" or "a" (like "spaghetti" or "lasagna"), and the elements all ended in "-on" or "-ium" ("carbon" and "helium").

The test was to find out how easily the students came up with made-up items that both didn't follow the patterns set out in the examples and were recognizable as examples of their respective categories (for example, "Pastanoodlini" is more recognizable as pasta than "Ziggahullabaloo"). Again, they were graded on this by research assistants who had not been clued in on the nature of the tests or the conditions of the participants. As it turned out, the ADD and ADHD set outperformed the neurotypical set once again at breaking the mold suggested by the examples given. Even more impressively, they did so with no significant difference in the recognizability of their answers.

The takeaway? ADD and ADHD can pose significant challenges to those that live with the conditions. But they can also give you an edge — if you're willing to think outside the box.

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Whether you've got an ADHD diagnosis or not, you could stand to ponder the pace of your brain. Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" shows the benefits of both strategies. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 14, 2018

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