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.