Does ADHD Optimize Creativity?
Meanwhile, doctor and ADHD himself, Gabor Maté, argues that any correlation between ADHD and creativity can be attributed to the heightened sensitivity of people with ADHD. Rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD), an intense emotional sensitivity brought on by perceived or actual rejection or criticism, is common in people with ADHD, while those of us who have it have also been found to be ” more sensitive to sensory input such as sound, color, or musical pitch.” Trust me when I say that neurodivergent people are keeping the noise canceling headphones industry afloat.
The researchers also found that highly creative individuals have difficulty filtering out internal and external stimuli, which is something most people with ADHD can relate to. Sometimes the inside of my brain can look like a laptop with 15 tabs open; my focus revolves around when I make connections between them while simultaneously trying to eavesdrop on a conversation with people over lunch. It makes sense, however, that this maximizes creativity, since my inability to weed out anything, or produce any sort of boundary, makes me much more open, or you might say vulnerable, to a wider range of sensory information. As a result of this conceptual expansion, people with ADHD are statistically more likely to come up with a unique combination of information – what academics call “imaginative divergence” – and, therefore, unique creative output.
As ADHDer Tony Lloyd, President of the ADHD Foundation, has said, “Having ADHD is like looking through a kaleidoscope rather than through binoculars.” Essentially we walk, talk about random number generators except, rather than numbers, we make things (just check out my drawers of unfinished crochet, jewelry, and clay projects). As Pina, the illustrator behind the iconic The ADHD Alien, told me, “I often find the craziest connections between things in the shortest possible time. I can think about so many different areas at once and create connections between them, that I’m always sure I can find something new and unique for me”. Other people, she explains, often see it as random, “but it’s actually a very structured chaos in my head.” Any ADHD will tell you the great irony of the name attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when in fact the condition is experienced as a surplus of attention for… all at once!
However, when it comes to creating something useful, as the popular, modern definition of creativity includes, people with ADHD seem to be less successful. In one study, although children with ADHD invented more original objects, their creations were significantly less functional, practical, or usable compared to the control group. Similarly, a recent article in Brain, who argued that the great mathematician Leonardo da Vinci suffered from ADHD, noted that “many of his architectural and technical ideas were ignored as too unrealistic and impractical”. Like Icarus, some of us with ADHD may have creative imaginations as bright and powerful as the sun, yet produce alien fruits as functional as wings of wax (or, as one of my favorite sayings goes, as useful as a chocolate teapot). That being said, some of the most original, nonconforming, forward-thinking inventors of all time have, or are believed to have had, ADHD: Steve Jobs (inventor of the very useful touchscreen), Thomas Edison ( first to patent the light bulb – where would I be without my SAD lamp) and Alexander Graham Bell (first to patent the telephone – I prefer texting, but yes).