Adderall vs. Creativity

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.

The Problem With Groups?

Wow, two news articles in one week about how creativity and vision can be blocked by the will of the majority.

First, the technoscenti buzzed with the word that Google’s lead designer, Doug Bowman, has left the company.  On his blog, Bowman explained that the numbers-driven culture of Google made it impossible to do good design.  The famous stories are true, Bowman says: For example, that a team at Google couldn’t decide which shade of blue to use, so they made 41 different versions of their web site, each with a slightly different shade of blue, and they’re waiting to see which shade the users like best.  Another example: Bowman had a debate about whether a thin line should be 3, 4, or 5 pixels wide.  Instead of accepting his design decision, he was challenged to provide data to prove which thickness was the best.

Second, the Washington Post published a front-page essay by Hank Stuever arguing that movie producers depend too much on the fans to help them make key creative decisions.  Today’s Exhibit A is the new Star Trek: a film with a die-hard fan base, and they’ll be watching every frame to make sure that the movie conforms to their insider wisdom about what is and is not true to the spirit of Star Trek.  Stuever believes this has real potential to interfere with creative decision making: “Quibblers would have kept Star Trek more like its old self. Quibblers inhibit revolution.”  What happens is that “Quibbling produces a Watchmen movie, which tenderly reproduced the 1988 graphic novel panel-for-panel and still failed–pleasing fans, perhaps, but excluding newcomers.”

Stuever acknowledges that the “collective force of fans” might actually improve the result (although he seems skeptical).  And at Google, it might actually be the case that the users do a better job of selecting just the right shade of blue than a designer.  How to know?  Google’s engineer-dominated culture wants to see the numbers, the proof.  Artists and designers don’t think that way–they know a design that works in their gut, somehow, when they see it.  It’s a holistic phenomenon, and it emerges in some unpredictable way from hundreds of tiny design decisions about line widths and color shades.  How, they would ask, could you possibly test every single combination, every possible design?  Bowman writes “I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions.” Numbers get you focused on the trees and you forget you’re inside of a forest.

The challenge of innovation is always this tension between individual creative vision, and the collective genius of the group.  Neither path alone is assured of success; even a brilliant designer sometimes gets it wrong, and groups are often, famously, stupid.  When everything clicks, the tension is productive; it actually drives both individuals and groups to perform better.