Following a hunch based on my own quirky little family—among myself, my husband, my 16-year-old son, and my 22 year-old-daughter, we have a wide range of neurodivergent conditions—I recently began researching the connection between neurodivergence and creativity. My son and daughter are both neurodivergent and among the most creative kids I know, my husband has a beautiful and expansive mind, and I have recently come into my own as an artist and creative entrepreneur—after decades of trying to live a neurotypical life I was wildly unsuited for. So I was not surprised to learn that there is a growing body of evidence connecting neurodivergence and creativity.
According to a recent article in Scientific American, for example:
ADHD “is typically described by the problems it presents. . . . But ADHD may also bring with it an advantage: the ability to think more creatively.” Likewise, recent research, as reported in Psychology Today, links autism and creativity, as well.”
If you are neurodivergent, or love someone who is, this is likely no big surprise to you. What might be far more surprising—it certainly was for me—is that another body of research suggests the link between neurodivergence and creativity is not in spite of our oft-cited executive dysfunction, but because of it.
“Yes, you read that right: recent research suggests that high executive functioning skills actually inhibit creativity.”
Of course, this may or may not be good news, depending on the importance you place on getting along in the world in a neat, tidy, and coherent way. Certainly many of us neurodivergent folks diagnosed later in life—I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 51—look back on the messes and the overwhelm and the academic and professional failures and we can point directly at executive dysfunction as the main culprit.
Executive Function: The Secretary in Your Brain
When I first learned about the concept of executive function, in fact, I was astonished and, to be honest, angry. “You mean,” I said to my psychologist, “some people have a secretary in their brains? A secretary who takes care of all that scheduling, and staying on top of deadlines, and keeping track of paperwork? You mean, it’s not that I’m just lazy and other people are willing to work harder than me? They actually have a secretary in their brain that I am missing?”
I felt frustrated and angry about the years of shame and of feeling incompetent that I had, it seemed, unnecessarily endured. But I also felt hopeful: maybe I could get one of those secretaries—maybe medication and coaching and strategies and life hacks could add up to the secretary I was missing, and I could finally be “normal.”
“This certainly seems to be the single-minded focus—one could almost say hyper-focus—of a vast mental health and educational industry aimed at neurodivergent folks: to teach us executive functioning skills and make us normal!”
Which, on the surface, seems great, right? Who wants messes, and lost keys, and missed deadlines, when being a normal, competent, high-functioning adult is within grasp? Treating executive dysfunction, on the face of it, seems like an unmitigated good . . . but, I am coming to wonder, at what cost to our creative lives?
According to Janice Rodden in an article in Additude Magazine, executive function refers to “the cognitive or mental abilities that people need to actively pursue goals.” Executive functions, according to Rodden, allow people to:
Analyze a task
Plan how to address the task
Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
Develop timelines for completing the task
Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
Complete the task in a timely way.
Executive dysfunction—a condition widely associated with many neurodivergent conditions, including bipolar, ADHD, and autism—is typically understood to include a range of behaviors and traits such as impulsivity, problems prioritizing, disorganization, poor time management and difficulty focusing that make this linear progression from task analysis to task completion difficult.
Default Mode Network: The Bohemian Artist in Your Brain
But, as Dr. Richard Silberstein, Professor Emeritus-Neuroscience at Swineburne University Australia points out, focusing so exclusively on linear progressions and task completion may explain in part why we have so profoundly missed the creative potential of the neurodivergent brain. On the Thom Hartmann Program Podcast, Dr. Silberstein explains that there is a part of the brain that lights up when we are not doing anything in particular—when we are snoozing, or daydreaming, when our mind is “wandering”—in other words, when we are not being task-oriented. And this part of the brain, called the default mode network, is the part of the brain, it turns out, that is involved in creativity (it is also, interestingly but not surprisingly, associated with empathy.) This creativity network, if you will, is actually suppressed when we are focused on tasks—in other words, when our executive functioning is in high gear.
Flow: The Best Place To Be In Your Brain
This finding appears to be supported by recent research into the phenomenon known in creativity circles as “flow”—in the world of neurodivergence, this phenomenon is sometimes disparagingly referred to as “hyper-focus,” but I am convinced that the two terms describe the same experience. Certainly most of us with neurodivergent brains understand this experience of being deeply engrossed in a creative project, so much so that we lose track of time and place, the world around us melts away, and we pursue our project passionately and productively and with a single-minded focus.
“It turns out that this sort of “flow” is considered by many to be one of the keys to happiness, a state necessary to human well-being.”
Not surprisingly, researchers have begun investigating this state of being—what it is and how to get it—and what do you suppose is the condition they have discovered necessary to get into a state of flow?
Temporary hypo-prefrontality, or, a temporary lowering of the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, precisely where executive functioning happens in our brains. In other words, suppressing executive functioning is required for our brains to get into that much sought-after, blissful, creative flow state.
Executive Function Redux: Is EF Really Everything It’s Cracked Up To Be?
Does this mean that we should just dismiss executive functioning as an important set of skills in our lives? Well, no, not exactly. But as Dr. Miriam Cherkes-Julkowski argues in The DYSfunctionality of Executive Function,
“it is possible we have become entirely too focused on executive functioning as an end in itself, rather than as a sometimes-useful means to an end.”
As Dr. Cherkes-Julkowski bluntly puts it, “In recognizing that Executive Function requires the inhibition of basic urgencies, those who accept the idea are willing to barter the drive toward meaning in exchange for self-control applied toward meaningless tasks.”
I have lately begun examining in my own life the ways that many of downsides of executive dysfunction are actually socially constructed—for example, do I really have trouble prioritizing, or is the issue that my priorities are simply not those most-valued in society? Is it possible that the characteristic known as “impulsivity” in the ADHD community is actually simply a willingness to “start before you’re ready” as is so often urged in the creative entrepreneurial community? Are my lost keys and missed deadlines and unreturned phone calls really more important than my art and the big ideas whirling around in my brain? And is it possible that my trouble following through on the creative projects I care about is due at least in part to shame that has been imposed on me from an early age, and not a trait that is actually intrinsic to my brain?
The Bright Side of Our Brains
The answers to these questions, like much that goes on in my brain, are not simple and straight-foward, and finding a balance between my need for a secretary (something that could maybe be outsourced?) to keep things on track, and my need for creative space and flow—well, that is likely the ongoing balancing work of a lifetime.
But the bright side in all of this is that whatever else we can say about our sometimes messy, forgetful, quirky brains—they are definitely wired for creativity!
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