Those affected by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are clinically thought of as inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive. However, people with ADHD are also perceived as being very spontaneous, curious, inquisitive, enthusiastic, lively and witty, a perception that creates an impression they are more creative than those without ADHD. But is there truth to this idea?

Creativity is generally the ability to generate something original and unprecedented. The ideas must not only be new and surprising, but also useful and relevant. Among other things, creativity comes through intensive knowledge and great motivation in a particular field, be it painting, music or mathematics.

For years, both laypersons and scientists have been fascinated by the proverbial proximity of genius and madness. According to psychologist Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, Davis, unusual and unexpected experiences, such as psychological difficulties and psychiatric stays, are an important characteristic of people who create masterpieces.

Two core symptoms, inattention and impulsiveness, suggest a connection between creativity and ADHD. Inattention, which occurs more frequently in those affected with the disorder, likely leads to mind wandering, or the drifting of thoughts from an activity or environment. Such drifting can lead to new, useful and creative ideas.  

In a study, detailed in the Journal of Creative Behavior, researchers asked 26 college students with ADHD and 26 without ADHD to perform two creativity tests. The first involved inventing and drawing alien fruit without copying those on Earth. Students with ADHD were able to create more unique fruit. Similarly, when asked to invent product labels, those with ADHD were able to come up with less conventional names.

People with ADHD are also more impulsive and therefore more willing to take risks: they dare to approach new things and situations without fear of contact. In a 2011 study, 203 five- to 10-year-old children participated in a Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) experiment. BART is a computerized test where participants can blow up balloons one click at a time. Each time a balloon is inflated, participants earn money. If, however, the balloon pops, participants lose their earnings. Researchers found that those with ADHD pumped more than the control group—meaning they took greater risks than those without ADHD. Those with both ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), children with defiance toward authority figures, pumped the most of all groups. Even at primary school age, teachers perceive more impulsive children as more curious. This is likely to create more learning opportunities for these students, which, in turn, could enhance their creativity.

ADHD is, however, a highly heterogeneous disorder. Not only are there large differences between affected individuals, but the symptoms are also not always the same in patients. In addition, cognitive performance fluctuates from person to person. For example, for some with ADHD, the disease has a flip side in that they possess the ability to focus intensely on one single thing, when interested. A 2018 study showed that adults with ADHD had higher, and more frequent episodes of, hyperfocus when it came to hobbies, school and screen time. Similar to mind wandering, this ability is also extremely beneficial for creative or artistic tasks.

Nonetheless, research into the relationship between ADHD and creativity to date has painted an inconsistent picture, partly due to the fact that it is more difficult to understand creativity using psychological tests than it is to comprehend, say, intelligence. So far, though, studies that are of higher quality and involve sufficient test subjects do not provide clear evidence that people with ADHD are actually the better lateral thinkers.