ADHD’s Upside Is Creativity, Says New Study

Parents who’ve claimed for years that their kids with ADHD are more creative are getting some scientific backup from a new study, which found that subjects with the disorder have enhanced creative abilities.

A new study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, finds some truth in the increasingly popular theory that along with the thorns of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder comes a rose: increased creativity.

Until now the ADHD-creativity link has been an oft-repeated rumor, seen by some as something exhausted parents cling to for consolation. Dr. Holly White, then at the University of Memphis, and her colleague, Priti Shah of the University of Michigan, set out to find out how much truth there was to the supposed link, and discovered that their subjects with ADHD showed marked differences both in their creative abilities and their approaches to creative problem solving.

“Creativity” is a slippery term, of course, often falling under the category of “we know it when we see it.” That definition is not good enough for proper science, however, and in recent years, standardized tests that measure creativity have focused on “divergent” and “convergent” thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to generate spontaneous, often unexpected ideas or solutions, and test questions calculate originality, elaboration, and flexibility. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is understood as divergent thinking’s opposite: the kind of thought process that allows you to narrow down your options to one correct answer. This kind of thinking boosts your SAT score but not necessarily your prospects for a career in poetry.

In part because ADHD’s hallmark characteristics include a lack of constraint, intellectually as well as behaviorally, studies have consistently found that people with ADHD often excel at divergent thinking but struggle with convergent thinking.

These classifications, however, barely begin to capture what we mean when we talk about creativity. Divergent and convergent thinking, and the standardized tests that measure them, are well-suited to a laboratory setting; how well they translate to the real world is another matter.

White and her colleagues wanted to address exactly that in their new research: Does ADHD really have the holy grail of upsides?

For their investigation, White and her team recruited 60 undergrads at the University of Memphis, exactly half of whom had an ADHD diagnosis.

One of the tasks the subjects completed is called the Creative Achievement Questionnaire, originally developed by Shelley Carson at Harvard. In it, subjects are asked highly specific questions about their past achievements in 10 creative domains, including drama, humor, science, writing, and cooking, among others. An example of a question on the CAQ: Whether the subject’s “work has won a prize at a juried art show.” The specificity of the questions is designed to limit the vulnerability of the responses to the subjective interpretations of the people answering them.

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