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Are People with ADHD Divergent Thinkers?

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

The brainstorming phase of a project is often your favourite, as you find it easy to let your mind wander and come up with new ideas. At the conclusion and implementation stage, however, you have difficulty focusing on getting the final touches right, with strict control necessary to prevent your mind jumping to other topics.


If you relate to this example, you may be high in divergent thinking and low in convergent thinking, as is common among people with ADHD.


What are divergent and convergent thinking?


Convergent thinking and divergent thinking describe types of problem solving. Convergent thinking is defined as “the ability to form associations between disparate concepts” [8, p.1]. In other words, convergent thinking is being able to evaluate separate pieces of evidence in order to find the best solution to a problem.

  • An everyday example of a task requiring convergent thinking would be a mathematical problem in which logical deduction is used to find the correct solution. In psychology, convergent thinking is often tested using the Remote Association Task, in which respondents must find the common element among three words (e.g. ‘rocking / wheel / high’ are all types of chair).


Divergent thinking is defined as “the ability to generate multiple ideas or solutions to a problem”. This type of thinking is similar to creativity, with both creativity and divergent thinking characterised by the ability to produce of a breadth of information from a simple prompt.

  • An everyday example of divergent thinking would be thinking of a clever message to put on a birthday card. In psychology, divergent thinking is often tested with the Unusual Uses Test, in which respondents are asked to come up with as many uses as possible for a single object (e.g. a shoe – wear it on your feet, plant something in it, build a fort out of them, make shoe stew).


3 reasons why ADHD is connected with divergent thinking


A recent review found that ADHD tends to be associated with worse convergent thinking ability and better divergent thinking ability [1]. Here are a few reasons why it is accurate to say people with ADHD are better at divergent thinking:


  1. Divergent thinking increases as inhibition decreases

ADHD is associated with divergent thinking through their shared relationship with low inhibition [2]. Latent inhibition is the ability to automatically ‘screen out’ irrelevant stimuli. Divergent thinking and low inhibition are related because the ability to generate a variety of ideas is hampered by inhibitive processes which aim to suppress irrelevant ideas [8].


2. People with ADHD take in more sensory information


People with ADHD exhibit above-average levels of resting-state brain activity, particularly in sensory cortices [7]. This suggests that people with ADHD are taking in a greater volume of sensory information when compared to neurotypical individuals, and explains the tendency for people with ADHD to feel overwhelmed by sights and sounds that others find almost unnoticeable. Increased sensitivity to sensory information has been associated with greater imagination, creativity, and inventiveness [6], which likely entails increased divergent thinking ability.


3. Divergent thinking is closely linked with creativity and dopamine


Those of us with ADHD will recognise dopamine for its important role in motivation, but this neurotransmitter also affects creativity. The creative advantage conferred by ADHD is well established [1], and findings of a recent study linked dysfunctional dopamine levels with improved convergent thinking ability and also with reduced convergent thinking ability [3].


What does this mean for everyday problem solving with ADHD?


Here are some takeaways related to ADHD and divergent thinking:

  • The same symptoms that can often seem obstructive to your performance can have a positive effect on performance at less conventional tasks. If you are having trouble seeing the bright side of ADHD, consider connecting with our Facebook group, which is if full of professionals with complex jobs working on managing their symptoms.

  • Your dopamine system is part of a creative machine. A dopamenu is an excellent way to get started exercising control over your dopamine levels.

  • The value of convergent thinking should not be overlooked, as this type of problem solving is crucial to implementing the ideas your divergent thinking generated. A common symptom of ADHD is being enthusiastic to begin tasks and projects, and then unable to finish them. It is likely that a wealth of divergent thinking capacity and a deficit in convergent thinking capacity contributes to this problem.

  • It is always worthwhile to play to your strengths. If that happens to be divergent thinking, focusing more on creative tasks may improve both your performance and your confidence.


Hopefully this article brought up some of your own memories of engaging in divergent or convergent thinking tasks. In writing this article, I found testing myself on the Unusual Uses Test fun, whereas attempting the Remote Association Task was frustratingly difficult.

Convergent and divergent thinking types are useful as subjects of cognitive science, but they are also helpful in reminding us that you can be not so good at solving one type of problem and excellent at another. Self-efficacy – feeling that you are good at something – is consistently associated with better performance on a huge variety of tasks, so it is both mentally healthy and productive to focus on the kind of problem solving that works for you.


ADHD can have a huge effect on productivity. But it doesn’t have to. If you’re looking for neurodiverse-friendly strategies you can use immediately, then book a free consultation with one of our ADHD Coaches.


They will help you understand your executive functioning struggles and learn how Unconventional Organisation can help you. Plus, they also have ADHD!


Click here to book a free consultation.


Have a great week,

Meriel


Author:

Meriel Burnett is director of research at Unconventional Organisation. She has a background in psychology and is currently working as a research assistant at Queens University Belfast. For more research-based ADHD help, you can read more of Meriel’s articles, join our online courses, or connect with our coaches.



References

1. Boot, N., Nevicka, B., & Baas, M. (2017). Subclinical symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are associated with specific creative processes. Personality and Individual Differences, 114, 73–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.03.050


2. Carson, S. H., Peterson, J. B., & Higgins, D. M. (2003). Decreased Latent Inhibition Is Associated With Increased Creative Achievement in High-Functioning Individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 499–506. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.499

3. Chermahini, S. A., & Hommel, B. (2010). The (b)link between creativity and dopamine: Spontaneous eye blink rates predict and dissociate divergent and convergent thinking. Cognition, 115(3), 458–465. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.03.007

4. de Vries, H. B., & Lubart, T. I. (2017). Scientific Creativity: Divergent and Convergent Thinking and the Impact of Culture. The Journal of Creative Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocb.184

5. Lubow, R. E., Braunstein-Bercovitz, H., Blumenthal, O., Kaplan, O., & Toren, P. (2005). Latent Inhibition and Asymmetrical Visual-Spatial Attention in Children with ADHD. Child Neuropsychology, 11(5), 445–457. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297040590951578


6. Rizzo-Sierra, C. V., Leon-S, M. E., & Leon-Sarmiento, F. E. (2012). Higher sensory processing sensitivity, introversion and ectomorphism: New biomarkers for human creativity in developing rural areas. Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice, 03(02), 159–162. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-3147.98314

7. Tian, L., Jiang, T., Liang, M., Zang, Y., He, Y., Sui, M., & Wang, Y. (2008). Enhanced resting-state brain activities in ADHD patients: A fMRI study. Brain and Development, 30(5), 342–348. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.braindev.2007.10.005

8. White, H. A., & Shah, P. (2006). Uninhibited imaginations: Creativity in adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(6), 1121–1131. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2005.11.007



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