ADHD: Superpower or Supervillain? Part 2
Enhanced creativity is at or near the top of the list in many of the posts discussing “ADHD Superpowers.” One post describes this “superpower” as “divergent, non-linear thinking which synthesizes two or more otherwise-disparate concepts.” There is a clear implication in many of these posts that those with ADHD are better at such thinking than are “neurotypicals.”
The scientific evidence for this idea has been exhaustively reviewed in a 2020 article by Hoogman and colleagues. The bulk of the research uses the “dual pathway to creativity model.” This posits that the process of creativity involves both “cognitive persistence” and “cognitive flexibility.” Cognitive flexibility enables alternative solutions to open-ended problems using the divergent thinking referred mentioned above.
Even with this flexibility, the creative process is not optimized without the “cognitive persistence pathway,” which enables “convergent thinking.” This consists of sustained and task-directed cognitive effort which eventually leads to original ideas and creations that are not immediately obvious.
There are standardized tests which measure both of these types of creative thinking and are used in research to determine if people with either ADHD symptoms or the full fledged disorder are different from control subjects in these modes of creativity. The often-heard complaint that stimulant medication for ADHD suppresses creativity has also been investigated using the same measurement techniques.
Before turning to the results of these studies, it is important to reiterate that the different research projects investigating ADHD and creativity in some cases studied people with the clinical disorder and in other cases simply those with symptoms of ADHD that were not severe or numerous enough to “qualify” them for the full-fledged disorder. In the studies of those with ADHD symptoms rather than the actual disorder, the subjects in the “ADHD group” had not received diagnostic testing by mental health professionals. Instead, they were assigned to that group based on self reports, or, in the case of children, teacher assessment. This could be seen as invalidating the applicability of the results to actual attention deficit disorder. Reassuringly, Hoogman and colleagues say that there are indications that those self-reporting ADHD symptoms are representatives of the same group as those actually diagnosed with the disorder, but merely with a less severe presentation.
For convergent thinking, the studies showed either no difference between those with ADHD symptoms and controls or that those with ADHD symptoms were less proficient at convergent thinking than those without such symptoms.
For divergent thinking, the results of the research were less clear cut. In research where subjects with the actual disorder were compared to matched control cases, seven out of nine studies showed either no enhanced divergent thinking in those with ADHD or actual deficits in divergent thinking in those with ADHD. However, when subjects with ADHD symptoms but without the full fledged disorder were studied, those with more ADHD symptoms performed better than those with fewer symptoms on divergent thinking tasks.
What practical “take away lesson” can be gleaned from this rather complex picture?
- If ADHD has been rigorously diagnosed by a professional as meeting the criteria for the true disorder (rather than simply having some of the symptoms,) it is not an advantage for creativity.
- Since no study has shown a negative effect on creativity from stimulant medication and an “optimally designed” study showed an actual enhancement of divergent thinking with methylphenidate treatment, the evidence is good that stimulant treatment of clinically diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder enhances creativity.
- There is evidence that when creative advantages are found in those with ADHD symptoms, these subjects who exhibit the advantages are of higher intelligence than those not showing those advantages. This was noted in research involving children, but may have important implications for all ages. The review article on ADHD and creativity summarizes this situation in a manner highlighting its practical relevance:
“This underpins the idea that creativity might indeed be associated with ADHD (symptoms), but not in people diagnosed with the disorder, as these people might be too constrained by additional cognitive deficits; though it should probably be formulated in reverse: only people with high intelligence show extra creativity because of their additional cognitive strengths.”
To summarize, if someone’s symptoms are not severe enough to merit an actual ADHD diagnosis, there may be some benefit to creativity, but perhaps only if the person has an adequate level of intelligence so that the “edge” in creativity is not constrained by the negative aspects of the ADHD symptoms. From the little research that has been done, it has been estimated that an IQ above 115 is necessary to compensate for those deficits.
If symptoms are severe enough to merit an actual diagnosis of ADHD according to the standard psychiatric criteria, no advantage in creativity was found. Of equal importance, there is no evidence for reduction of creativity by stimulant treatment of ADHD.
Summary and Conclusions
Creativity, entrepreneurship, risk- taking and multitasking are among the numerous qualities that the lay media have glorified, using the attention-grabbing moniker “ADHD superpowers.” The spoilsports who perform sober scientific research have shown the reality of the “superpower” quartet mentioned above to be considerably more nuanced.
Multitasking is the easiest case to summarize, for while it may well be that people with either ADHD symptoms or the full fledged disorder are more at home with or attracted to multi tasking, there is no evidence that they are “better” at it, and there is good evidence that multi-tasking itself has an adverse effect on learning, critical thinking and work efficiency.
There is no evidence that people with severe enough symptoms to qualify for the actual diagnosis of ADHD have an advantage in creativity. For those with ADHD symptoms rather than the full fledged disorder, there may be an advantage in one aspect of creativity, divergent thinking, but there is no advantage or possibly a disadvantage in convergent thinking. It is critical to note that the advantages for divergent thinking may only appear in subjects with intelligence well above average. It is equally crucial that research has found no diminution of creativity of any type from stimulant treatment of ADHD.
It seems clear that people with attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms are more likely to engage in entrepreneurship. Whether this means they are better suited to such careers is a different question. Propensity for risk taking has been singled out as underlying the connection between attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms and entrepreneurship. It stands to reason that in some cases more willingness to risk would translate into more entrepreneurial success, although I know of no studies demonstrating that. However, the full disorder, rather than mere symptoms, is deleterious for jobs or career if untreated.
In conclusion, ADHD symptoms may result in some advantage in certain types of creativity and in entrepreneurship. However, for those who have been diagnosed as having the true disorder, there is no clear evidence of advantages and very clear evidence of impairment of many crucial life activities. Fortunately, it is also clear that medication treatment of the disorder can result in major improvement.