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Adderall vs. Creativity May 15, 2009

Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
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Adderall, a drug prescribed to treat ADHD, is increasingly being used as a “cognitive enhancer” by high school and college students.  (Anyone with a child in high school has heard the stories.)  Several teachers I know have told me that, in their experience, drugs that enhance a person’s ability to focus–like Adderall and Ritalin–have the downside that they reduce creativity.

In the New Yorker Magazine of April 27, 2009, Margaret Talbot has an extensive article on the widespread use of these “neuroenhancing” drugs.  She quotes two experts as having the same concern–that “drugs that heighten users’ focus might dampen their creativity.”  One expert, Martha Farah, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, says “Cognitive psychologists have found that there is a trade-off between attentional focus and creativity. And there is some evidence that suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative.”  She goes on to say “I’m a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focused accountants.”  (p. 40)

This makes sense to me.  But I think something more complex is going on; after all, the most creative people get their best ideas when they are in the “flow” state of heightened experience, and one of the characteristics of this state is complete concentration and focus.  Intense focus often leads to creative insight.  But you can’t be focused all of the time; you need to leave the task, to allow your mind to wander off-task, for maximum creativity.  So what might be occurring with these brain enhancers is that they prevent the user from taking time off, from those relaxed moments that allow unexpected combinations to occur in the brain.

Comments»

1. Amit Gal - May 16, 2009

While taking a break is very important to creativity (unfortunately for me my own breaks last longer than my actual work), I think that the story is not in the break but in the focus.

I believe there are two distinct type of “being in focus”. They both look the same, but they come from different psychological mechanisms. The first type of focus is the concept of “flow”, in which focus comes from being engrossed and agaged in the task. I think there is also a timing issue in this type of focus, in which all the parts of the task environmental stimuli and cognitive process are all synchronized. This certainly allows creativity

The second type of focus comes from self regulation (see for example Baumeister’s extensive studies on this concept). In this case, focus comes from controlling your cognitive resources and attention, making them work faster or slower so to meet the task requirements. This process is depleting, it works like a muscle – which gets tired after extensive use. The result is of course, focus – the ability to concentrate for long time on even the dullest task, but it is psychologically very different from the cognitive engagement of flow.

So these drugs probably enhance self regulation (like some steroids enhance muscles). Indeed, self regulation has been found to correlate to a lot of “good things” in life (higher grades, better social relationships etc.) but I don’t know if there is any research on self regulation and creativity, and my intuition tells me that self-regulation and creativity don’t work well together.

2. keithsawyer - May 18, 2009

I think you’re right about there being two different types of focus: flow and self-regulation. And regarding self-regulation, no question that the research shows that’s mostly a good thing in terms of various measures of success and subjective well being.

In fact, I suspect that most highly creative people are more highly self regulated than our cultural stereotypes would have us believe. Whereas our cultural myths would say that the creator is a loose cannon, unpredictable, wild and crazy, the truth is that most successful creators are quite focused and consciously aware of exactly what they are doing.

3. Cherry Woodburn - June 1, 2009

I think there’s a valid discussion to be had about the balance between creativity and razor-like focus but, to me, it doesn’t come on the heels of young people taking amphetamines in the form of Adderall. My experience is they use it for many reasons – it can be a nice high, your mind feels sharp, clear (at least for awhile). It speeds you up, you eat less, sleep less so you believe, both correctly and incorrectly, that you can get more done. (Too often lots of busywork projects are undertaken). And, of course, they’re kids.
Apparently I needed Adderall today because I was too impatient to read all 10 pages of M. Talbot’s article. But my catch-22 is that my mind’s racing too much to be creative so I guess I better not take that Adderall.
I’m simply sick of all the pharmaceutical’s creativity in developing and marketing drugs to address a malady that they also ‘maunfacture.’

4. Lauren - June 1, 2009

Unfortunately, most workplaces don’t value creativity. I was on Adderall through most of my high school years, and I liked it because it made my classes bearable. When I got into college, I slowly eased off of it because most of my classes were interesting enough (with long enough breaks in between!) that I didn’t need the Adderall. I might take a little to crank out a paper, but for once in my life I was engaged enough to not need the medication.

However, now, because the labor market’s so dismal and I’m just out of college, I have to work a very boring job to make ends meet until I go to graduate school. I am back on the Adderall; without it I really could not focus to do this very methodical work and hold down this job. Frankly I am not suited to this work, but I am lucky just to have a job at all right now. I am glad to have not been on the drug for so many years, though, because I can remember what I am like as a whole person, and don’t feel, as I did in high school, that I could not function in ANY environment without Adderall.

keithsawyer - June 2, 2009

That’s an interesting thought: In a job that requires boring repetitive work, and no creativity, maybe something like Adderall helps a person to get through it. Lauren, I know this isn’t your situation–but if I were an insurance company, I’m not sure I’d want to reimburse prescriptions for anyone who has a tedious, boring job…That reminds me of a novel I read back in the 1970s called THIS PERFECT DAY where a computer runs the planet, and keeps everyone in line by giving them a daily injection of a cocktail of drugs that makes them happy and content.

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7. Guy Who Shouldn't Have Flunked Everything - December 5, 2009

I am a composer/producer (computer musician) and adult diagnosed with ADHD. It seems to me that Adderall tends to intensify my tendency to become emersed in the experience of creative flow (almost to my detriment). I have to work hard to keep some connection to my sense of intention, passing time, and regard for impending deadlines. In other words, self-regulation is still an immense challenge for me, even with stimulant medication. I have thousands of hours of playfull creative meandering to show for it. My point is that Adderall does some very specific things to the brain in a physiological sense, which would probably lead to somewhat unpredictable outcomes within the disparate psychological (and, ultimately, neurological) context from person to person. In response to the gentleman who stated that most creative individuals are more self-regulated than cultural stereotypes would have us believe, I would suggest that his assertion is a difficult one to hash out. Creativity as defined as novel innovation is present in every part of human life. All types of individuals, from geneticists to graffiti-artists are engaged in novel innovation, and history provides innumerable examples of creative innovators who do not fit the description of highly self-regulated. Jackson Pollack, Voltaire, Richard D. James (who in his own words suggests his creative process includes the minimization of self-regulation and the maximization of creative flow) are just a few examples of immenent creators for whom “highly self-regulated” is, perhaps, not an apt description.

keithsawyer - December 7, 2009

I agree it’s incorrect to say creators are “highly self regulated”. What I meant by “more highly” was rather that they are more self regulated than our stereotypes. Jackson Pollack is a good example of a painter for whom the myth is more romanticist than the reality of his work process, which was quite calculated and technically sophisticated. Mike Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” does not imply a reduction of self regulation; he found that while in that state of peak performance, people feel a sense of being in greater control, a heightened awareness of what they’re doing. I prefer not to use the term “self regulated” in any case, it has too many unfortunate connotations.

8. John MicJoy - January 21, 2010

i take adderall without a prescription regularly and i find that it not only allows me to focus on work when it needs to be done but music and drawing are more fun and of more interest to me

9. Laura - March 23, 2011

I took adderall for many years. It was a lifesaver. Until I was diagnosed and treated, I had been unable to hold a job for more than a year, or sustain a relationship. Once I started taking adderall, I went back to school, have held a job for 6 years, and am working on my phD. I’m also getting married. I did find that its use came with a cost: usually articulate, I couldn’t find the right words easily any more. I could do complex math problems in my head, something I’d never been able to do before. And my chess game got really good. After a few years, I stopped taking it. Things got harder, but by then I’d had enough self regulating structures in place that I was able to sustain my progress. Adderall is one of many tools for treating ADHD–nothing more, nothing less. It has risks and benefits, which have to be weighed on an individual basis.

10. Nobilis Reed - April 13, 2011

Too much anecdote, not enough evidence.

This needs scientific study, not rumor-mongering.

Ken Robert - January 27, 2014

You’re right. This needs scientific study, but there’s also a time and a place for people sharing their individual experiences with one another. Those experiences shouldn’t dictate what course one takes, but they can inform and direct the focus of future studies. It’s not rumor mongering to describe your experience when taking a medication.

11. Rachel - December 10, 2011

I am now 21 years old and I have been taking adderall since I was ten years old when I was diagnosed with text book ADHD. I have tried many different forms in types of adderall but for the longest time now i have take 30 mg XR pills, daily. I am a junior in College now, at Art Academy actually. My concentration is in oil painting. There is no way I would survive with out creativity. I am actually less of an analytical artist. I have never felt that adderall makes me less creative. It actually slows my brain down so I have time to actually process all the thoughts running through my head. When I forget to take my meds for a day or two I have a hard time sitting still… I would really rather be climbing things or outside running around. Now more then ever I have noticed that Adderall makes me more critical of my work. I think every painting I paint sucks. Sometimes it is so bad I have to take pictures of my own work and look at them so I get a different perspective of what it looks like. Even though every ones says it looks amazing. This does not stop me from painting though it only fuels my desire to become better. As for finishing work…. I have always been horrible at finishing things. when it comes to art work I loose focus on a piece after a while. This is due to frustration because I am such a young painter still and skill takes time and the second reason is the content of the painting was not my idea to begin with it was the teachers. I am way more focused when it is my idea I am painting. Also since I was little always written stories which tended to always be formatting like a film script. I have rarely ever finished a story because I have to many ideas floating around in my head. I have started so many film script and book ideas it’s not even funny. I would make a great think tank person…. my creativity doesn’t lack due to my meds.

keithsawyer - December 12, 2011

Thank you for sharing your story! Your story supports the idea that art making requires focus and concentration, sustained work over time. I hope you stick with your creativity!

12. Eugenia - January 28, 2012

Adderall has great benefits but the main reason that I dislike it is it’s affect on creativity.
The reason I tried it is because of my inability to hold down a job out of boredom since graduate school. I have almost given up on holding a job for more than a year. I’ve come to accept that I am an artist and it absolutely pains me to be forced into any other type of “work.” I’m able to sell my work but I still must work jobs in my field in order to make ends meet. The longest I can handle is about 3 months, at which time i want so badly to rip my hair from my head. However, adderall was the most amazing drug to help with my jobbie job. I only tried it for a week. What I did notice is that when I took it I was chipper but neglected my sketchbook which I draw in every night out of sheer delight in the activity. There were just a more limited selection of artistic ideas flowing on my “test” week. This may seem minor to some but there is no telling when an idea will come that is so bright towards my artistic goals that I can depend on it financially.
Just another insight and experience, I am ultimately undecided if adults whom are creative should use this drug.

keithsawyer - January 29, 2012

Thank you for telling your story!

13. Knightmare (@Knightmarekod) - March 20, 2012

hi i just got prescribed adderall but taking 2 weeks for my prescription to get filled but i ve been on different types of anxiety and always had trouble focusing I’m a musician i played guitar since i was 15 and started rappin and producing when i was 19 but always had hard time focusing and finishing songs i always get distracted and go on the internet or check my Facebook but i noticed when i actually did focus id complete songs I’m hoping it will help me focus more and same for jobs i could never keep jobs id get bored or overwhelmed I’m hoping it will help I’m 23 even when i went to college i would proscratinate coin homework or skip classes

keithsawyer - March 20, 2012

Maybe once you start the adderall you will start using punctuation! Just kidding…but, seriously I wonder if in general ADHD makes a person want to type so fast that you leave out the punctuation?
In general, there is no evidence that people with ADHD are any more or less creative than the general population. But these are studies of averages; probably there are some that are more, and some that are less–as you are describing yourself less creative because you are not able to finish.

14. 100percentginger - May 22, 2012

I truly, with as much certainty as I can muster, disagree with this. For me, an already creative 17-year old female with no major mental disorders other than chronic depression, it gives both my creativity and my focus a boost. I feel like a lot of the art and lyrics I have created on adderall are as close to “brilliant” as I can be. But let me give you a bit of background about my adderall habits before you decide whether I’m a rare case or whatever:
I sarted doing adderall when I was 14, at my best friend at the time’s house. She offered me one and, being in the self-destructive angsty teenage mindset that I was, gladly accepted any drug put in front of me. I instantly liked it and stayed up the entire night writing lyrics. From then on she would bring me adderall at school a couple times a week andmy creativity would continue to run wild in poetry and lyrics. For a while I thought I mightve been addicted so I took a break from it.
I started using it again the following spring, and once again my notebook at school would fill with drawings and lyrics. From that spring ,(that was freshman year of high school and I’m currently a junior) I decided that adderall helped me shake off the winter blues, lose my winter weight, refresh my mind (therefore refreshing my grades) and boost my creativity. So now, every year around April, I begin a regimine I call the Spring Binge, where a couple times a week for about a month I get my hands on some adderall and reopen my mind.

I guess I’m a rare case, but I just thought you guys would appreciate a fresh opinion from the voice of experience.:)

keithsawyer - May 23, 2012

I’m glad to hear it is working for you! For many people, these medications increase energy and productivity and focus.

I like your concept of the “Spring Binge” it’s very creative! I also approve of going off it most of the time to avoid addiction. I am uncomfortable about people taking these drugs without a prescription, but I realize it’s very common for friends to trade and/or sell to others. My (now grown) children and neices and nephews have often said that they feel like they’re at an unfair disadvantage in school, when so many of their classmates are taking these drugs to enhance their exam performance.

For everyone reading this: Why not try a “Spring Binge” without any drugs? A month devoted to mental cleansing and openness and creativity?

15. lowestofthekeys - June 19, 2012

I just started using adderall last week and I believe with a moderate dosage, creativity can still flow.

I know everyone’s body chemistry is different, but my experience has been that my racing mind is now going 100 mph instead of 200 mph, so the anxiety multiplied by so many thoughts has actually gone down and allowed me to focus when my mind goes into divergent thought mode.

16. Mr. Ororee - October 12, 2012

Hello, this is an interesting discussion. I came by this page as I was wondering if Ritalin actually suffocates the creativity and turns you into a focused robot.
I am an adult diagnosed ADHD and started Ritalin treatment about two weeks ago.
I am generally considered by others as a very creative person. When I talk to people they usually leave the conversation inspired having had their mind open to think of the issue discussed in many new and innovative ways. Yet when and if I manage to sit myself down to write the ideas myself I find myself consistently distracted. I check my email as if people for sure would keep emailing me every five minutes. Or check Facebook or surf the Internet or get up and do something else – anything but the task at hand.
Since I have started to take Ritalin I am able to sit myself down and focus on the task at hand for hours. While before I had great ideas but much less results to show for them, now I can actually sit down and write from start to finish and show some tangible expression to my creative mind. I am not sure yet if the ideas flow as they usually would, that’s why I got to this webpage and the discussion here. But in weighing the options of either being super creative but an underachiever or a bit less creative but having results to show for that creativity, I tend to choose the latter.
From what I learned from a medical crew, who specializes in treating ADHD, is that Ritalin is responsible in activating the frontal lobe of the brain – the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning. That is the part that knows how to translate an idea into practical operational steps of execution (of doing) in order to see the idea manifested.
It seems to me, and my doctor, that the executive part of my brain is what was lagging behind and needed a boost in order to help me experience the full creative process that starts with an idea but also finishes with its creative and tangible expression in the outer physical world.
Ritalin helps me with that. A day wasted in procrastination turns into a productive one.
I still need to use my willpower to do things, Ritalin does not give me willpower to do things as I fantasized it would before I took it. I still need to decide what I want to achieve and sit myself down to write it or whatever. Ritalin only helps me in persistently staying focused on the task at hand and not jump to another thing in about a minute! But so far when entering “the (focused) zone” not knowing what I want to achieve, or with lack of motivation to do the task, then Ritalin just helped me fall into deep sleep on the bed beside my working desk. Deep focused sleep :-)
I see Ritalin as a helper in changing habits. I am used to jump from what I am doing as I start to focus and Ritalin helps me stay focused. On Ritalin I still have the habitual inclination to distract myself from what I am doing, but it is easier for me to bring my attention back to the task and stay with it. I see this as an embodiment of a new habit, which I hope would help me in the future also without the help of Ritalin. (I am writing this response NOT on Ritalin, by the way.)
Still, since I just began the treatment I experience also some side effects, like stomach cramps, which I hope will go away.
I think it was on this page that there was a question raised regarding Einstein – would he still be as creative if he took Ritalin? (I am writing on my iPhone and so it is harder to access the web page as I am writing…). If Einstein’s experience of ADHD is similar to what i described than it makes me suspect that either Einstein did not experience ADHD in a very severe way, or that he had a very strong and FIRM containing environment, starting with his mother, which better helped him to channel his creativity into practicle and tangible expression. I suspect that otherwise all his remarkable insights would come up in his mind and at best would be expressed as an interesting idea when he would share it with friends over coffee or a drink. In a less optimistic scenario the idea would come, he would entertain it a bit in his head and then move on to the next brilliant idea.

keithsawyer - October 12, 2012

Thank you for sharing your interesting story. I was said to be “hyperactive” when I was in elementary school, that was back in the 1960s long before medication was available. But I don’t think I was ever ADHD because now, it is very easy for me to focus on the task at hand for long stretches of time, and I’m not easily distracted. Your comment has helped me to understand how medication can help.

17. Casey - August 30, 2013

Hi, I’m 21, I’m a musician who plays any instrument nearby, and i’ve been prescribed adderall for roughly 10 years. So i have noticed that when I’m on it, my productivity goes through the roof! I’ll finish a song on guitar, keyboard, and i’ll draw a magnificent picture, all in one day. However, no matter what “art project” i am working on, I feel like something is missing…oh yeah! Soul!!
(i am Currently studying my creative behavior on and off adderall, with recording myself and discussing with others)
Though, i may thoroughly enjoy creating technical songs, it doesn’t necessarily mean they sustain this awesome feeling of accomplishment once you show it to others.
I mean, i always draw better on adderall(because for once i have patience), but my bandmates say that I write better music when i’m off of adderall. Which, i have noticed but didn’t want to believe. They are right though, even from my fellow musicians point of view, who can actually sum up what notes im playing, still say “Yeah you flow with it so much better off addy, and we get into some wild, fun grooves.”
I’ve noticed that the simplicity of an un-amphetamated mind leaves room in your thought bubble to embrace outrageous possibilities that you wouldn’t even consider important if you were on adderall.(I’m talking about everything, but everything can always be summed up with music :] ) Like i may not be as good of a guitar player off the med, but at least then i have breathing room, a daydreaming flash of inspiration, like some moment in my life that tugged on my heart strings. Now that this random moment has re-entered my life i must now interpret that feeling into my guitar. Which leads me back to SOUL! If those random thoughts and emotions are being resisted, what does the song mean? Why is it happening? So others can watch how robotically accurate i am on guitar? No, people usually listen to music to escape the confines of reality, not to appreciate the technique of guitar.
Even if your guitar enthusiast, you’d notice it missing that essence of emotion. Sometimes i hear a guitar solo, and each lick is another sentence of a story it’s telling. Now, i’ve studied my recordings of improv/song writing on and off adderall, and asked people which one sounded better. Most of them agreed with me (after they stated their opinion of course) that the off-med songs were not only relatable and catchy, but actually SOUNDED like they were made for a reason…so yeah.
One more aspect of creativity ive noticed is my lyrics. Now lyrics to me are crucial because it can make or break the song easily for your average listener. When im on adderall im very straight to the point and like someone said up there ^ “i feel kind of emotionless talking to people” which i agree with. It doesn’t feel productive to share thoughts and emotions about life, how preposterous!Why feel unless it feels like it will benefit you? (my reasoning) And lyrics are no different than sharing thoughts and emotions. So, i’ve stopped writing lyrics on adderall, even if i actually have the motivation for once. One day i’ll quit adderall and somehow muster up the determination to finish “art projects” without it.
Art has and always will be my favorite aspiration/hobby(?). I just get tired of straining that part of my brain for hours on end, and when i take a “day of rest”, the only activities i crave to do are anything but that.
My conclusion, is that adderall does diminish creative attributes, but is good for emotionless practicing. Since i’ve been studying this in-depth about myself, i’ve learned to “Synthesize emotion” somewhat and noticed some of the the key elements of “feeling” the notes on guitar. But even IF the audience can feel the emotion, I know it’s not too legitimate of whatever emotion i tried to re-inact.

Thanks for reading all that,
Casey

keithsawyer - August 31, 2013

Cool, thanks for sharing your story.


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