The creative brain: ADHD and creativity
The conventional belief is that freedom fuels creativity, however, there is also a less well-known theory that mind wandering (the inattentive part of ADHD) and impulsivity can enable those with ADHD to think more creatively. One study highlighted that children with ADHD, for example, can develop more original and diverse ideas in creative tasks than control groups (Abram et al. 2007). Today, we are sharing some great examples of how ADHD can fuel the creative genius in people.
ADHD and divergent thinking
Holly White, from the Scientific American, wrote in her article on the Creativity of ADHD that: “ADHD may also bring with it an advantage: the ability to think more creatively. Three aspects of creative cognition are divergent thinking, conceptual expansion and overcoming knowledge constraints. Divergent thinking, or the ability to think of many ideas from a single starting point, is a critical part of creative thinking. Previous research has established that individuals with ADHD are exceptionally good at divergent thinking tasks, such as inventing creative new uses for everyday objects, and brainstorming new features for an innovative cell phone device”.
And it isn’t just research highlighting these strengths – Rory Bremner, comedian and patron of the ADHD Foundation openly talked about his experiences with ADHD and his creativity in the documentary ADHD and Me:
“It frustrates me when I can’t concentrate. It frustrates me when my mind wanders or I’m not able to read because I’m reading the same word again and again and again. So there’s a weakness in that respect but it’s a strength in another respect in that it makes it easier for me to spot analogies, to make logic jumps, to think in terms of comparisons and to think laterally, I suppose but in a comedic sense. But I have absolutely no common sense whatsoever.”
From what he says, Rory seems to be a divergent thinker: he can generate a breadth of new ideas from one single idea. And while not all of us are destined to be successful comedians, Rory does demonstrate a way of thinking that offers real value to organisations.
ADHD and innovation
Different minds and different ways of thinking are essential for the growth and development of organizations. Author Matthew Syed argues in his latest book, Rebel Ideas, that “Success is no longer just about talent, or knowledge or skill. Today, it is also about freeing ourselves from the blinkers and blind spots that beset us all and harnessing a critical new ingredient: cognitive diversity”. People who think the same way, often end up with the same or similar ideas – leading to a stagnation of genuinely innovative ideas. And this is where an “ADHD brain” can contribute to innovation.
Organizational Development Consultant, Rebecca Hession, lives with her partner and son who both have ADHD. She recognizes the potential for their minds to see new perspectives to problem solving. In her Tedx talk titled “Not wrong, just different: ADHD as innovators” she provides some insights to the ADHD brain:
“On the one side of the ADHD brain is this hurricane of information. There are so many ideas and there are so many thoughts that they can’t all possibly stick…On the other side of ADHD, as that mind is spinning and things are going so fast and so quickly, often they will come across a topic or two that is so exciting and so important that it takes them down into this deep dive…where they can’t think about anything else. And everything else gets quiet around them and they want to explore it and take it to wherever they can go.”
She goes on to say that many with ADHD should live in the research and development world – and not the ‘production line’ – because their minds think differently. Research backs up Hession’s anecdote: Dimic’s study (2015) for example suggested that ADHD sufferers have a significantly higher marginal probability of being entrepreneurs. And in the real world, there are various high-profile examples of well-known creatives who have ADHD, including the founder of Virgin Richard Branson or famous chef Jamie Oliver. Both have a remarkable energy about them, they act on new ideas and they are decisive about them. Both are also unafraid to try new things, something we referred to as a helpful characteristic for those with ADHD in the workplace.
It is comforting to know that people are advocating that we re-think the ways in which people with ADHD contribute within organizations and that their ADHD should be viewed as an opportunity instead of a limitation. People with ADHD can exhibit great creativity and, as we have discussed, this can be a great benefit to innovation. We shouldn’t suddenly expect everyone with ADHD to be creative geniuses – we are after all our own unique selves. We should, however, be mindful to give them the freedom to express their thinking; they might have something new to bring to the table.