What the Research Says About ADHD and Creativity
There are two schools of thought on whether ADHD is associated with greater creativity, and they’re miles apart.
The first approach to the question of ADHD and creativity argues that because people with ADHD are less inhibited, more impulsive and less controlled in the way they interact with the world around them, they tend to also be more creative on average.
According to the second school of thought, though, because ADHD is a disorder that causes serious problems in the lives of those who have it, any talk of possible “advantages” it may confer trivializes the condition.
One reason the debate on ADHD and creativity continues to flourish is that the scientific literature really is ambiguous on the topic. If you want to believe that ADHD is a “creative advantage,” there are studies consistent with this view. If you want to argue that ADHD doesn’t come with a silver lining in the form of creativity, there’s research to back up that take on things, too.
Here’s one thing that’s for sure though: any article claiming that ADHDers definitely are more creative than neurotypicals or definitely aren’t more creative than neurotypicals, end of story, isn’t giving the full picture — even if it backs up its claims with one or two references to studies.
The full picture is more like this: “ADHDers are probably more creative in some situations and less creative in others, but we don’t really know because honestly, we don’t even know what creativity is to begin with. Sorry.” Of course, you probably aren’t going to see that story in big magazines because it’s not a very sexy story.
Which is why I decided to write it. ADaptHD exists for nothing if not to tell the unsexy truth. I decided to go through the literature, find some of the main studies done on ADHD and creativity and then report back. Here’s what I found.
Why ADHD and Creativity Is so Hard to Pin Down
There are a few reasons the question of whether having ADHD predisposes people to greater creativity is hard to answer.
First, creativity is a rather intangible, abstract, hand-wavy thing. Really, we have no idea what the hell creativity actually is or if it even exists.
The closest scientists can get to measuring creativity is to measure how people do on very specific tasks that seem to correlate to some extent with certain aspects of creativity.
For instance, to measure something called “divergent thinking,” researchers might ask people to think of as many different uses for a common object like a brick as possible. People who score higher on divergent thinking tasks are more “creative,” at least in this narrow sense, but the jury’s still out on the extent to which scoring high on a divergent thinking test translates into actual real-life creativity.
Similarly, researchers can administer “convergent thinking” tests to look at another facet of creativity, how good people are at using insight to synthesize different types of information and arrive at a predetermined answer, but how exactly convergent thinking relates to creativity is still unclear. People can do well on some creative thinking tasks, like tests of convergent thinking, and do poorly on others, like tests of divergent thinking.
Another problem with studying ADHD and creativity has to do with selecting a specific population of ADHDers to study. Imagine a hypothetical experiment conducted on college students showing that ADHDers score higher on tests of creative ability.
The limitation of this hypothetical experiment is that it only shows ADHD college students are more creative than non-ADHD college students on average. It’s hard to say whether the results would apply to other ADHD populations — for instance, ADHDers who were high-school dropouts. It could be that ADHD college students — who differ from other ADHDers in that for whatever reason they beat the odds, overcame the disadvantages associated with ADHD, and made it to college — are more likely to be creative while ADHDers as a whole are not more creative on average.
Or maybe the hypothetical experiment shows that ADHD undergrads aren’t more likely to be creative. That result isn’t conclusive either, though, since it’s possible that college-bound ADHDers represent an especially uncreative segment of an ADHD population that overall is more creative than average.
All this is not to pick nits but just to say that even when a given study on ADHD and creativity shows a certain result, it’s hard to say what that result means in the grand scheme of things.
What the Research Says on ADHD and Creativity
Here’s the short version of what the research says on ADHD and creativity: “the hell if I know!”
Now here’s the slightly longer version. I went through the published, peer-reviewed work out there on this topic and found some of the most compelling results. Here they are in chronological order.
- A 1993 study titled “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Creativity, and the Effects of Methylphenidate” looked at how 19 boys with ADHD and 21 without it performed on a test of nonverbal creativity. The boys with ADHD actually did slightly, but not significantly, worse. As for the effects of methylphenidate on the creativity task: nothing to write home about.
- A 2005 study called “An Exploration Into the Creative Abilities of Children With ADHD” looked at how 67 children, 33 of whom had ADHD, did on test of verbal and nonverbal creativity. There was no significant difference between the ADHDers and non-ADHDers.
- The 2006 study “Uninhibited Imaginations: Creativity in Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” gave tests of divergent and convergent thinking to 90 undergraduates, half with ADHD and half without. The ADHD group did better on tests of divergent thinking but worse on the convergent thinking tasks.
- A 2006 study of adolescents, “Creative Thinking in Adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,” found that ADHDers did better at “thinking outside the box” to overcome “the constraining influence of examples” but worse at using imagery to generate working inventions.
- A 2011 study, “Creative Style and Achievement in Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” found that compared to those without it, adults with ADHD scored higher on a test of verbal originality, reported higher levels of actual real-world creative achievement and showed a stronger preference for generating new ideas rather than clarifying existing ideas.
- Finally, a 2013 study titled “Creativity and Working Memory in Gifted Students With and Without Characteristics of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” looked at 17 gifted students with characteristics of ADHD and 20 without ADHD characteristics. The students with symptoms of ADHD had poorer working memory but also scored higher on a test of visual creativity.
Takeaways from the Research on Creativity and ADHD
Although the existing research doesn’t allow for us to answer the question of ADHD and creativity with a firm yes or no, and the question may be too complex to ever have such a simple answer, there are a couple educated guesses we can make on the topic based on what has been done:
1. ADHDers probably do better on some tests of creativity…
Several of the studies showed an association between ADHD symptomatology and scores on creative thinking tests, especially divergent thinking tests.
2. …but worse on others
Some of the studies also had ADHDers underperforming on tests of creativity, especially convergent thinking tests. Even if ADHD and creativity go together in some situations, they may work against each other in others.
3. ADHD may be correlated with actual creative achievement
Nonetheless, one study demonstrated a link between ADHD and real-world creative accomplishments, suggesting that the aspects of creativity ADHDers test well on really might contribute to actual creative success.
4. The question of creative ability vs. creative preference remains open
The research on creativity and ADHD is still probably too preliminary to even begin hypothesizing cause-and-effect. But one study did show a greater preference for idea generation over idea clarification among ADHDers, raising the possibility that if people with ADHD really do show greater real-world creative achievement, this could be the result of a preference for creative endeavors rather than an inherent advantage in terms of creative abilities.
5. Deficits in one situation really can be strengths in another
The 2013 study on gifted students with ADHD symptoms is far too specific in the population it used to give much of an answer on the question of ADHD and creativity overall, but it does give us a clue on one important point. The fact students with poorer working memories actually showed more creativity suggests that traits like bad working memory that are definite disadvantages in some contexts can actually be beneficial in other contexts.
6. We’ve got a lot to learn about ADHD
There are no quick answers to the question of ADHD and creativity. Even the six studies presented here paint a nuanced and sometimes contradictory picture of how ADHD and creativity relate to each other.
There does seem to be something going on between the two, but we’re probably not even close to being able to say for sure what exactly this something is. What we can say based on the research that’s been done, however, is that the evidence isn’t there either to dismiss the idea of ADHD conferring some specific advantages out of hand or to claim that ADHD is unequivocally correlated with creative ability.