Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.

ADHD Brains Are the Most Creative: Why Do We Treat It Like a Disability?

In his 2004 book Creativity is Forever, Gary Davis reviewed the creativity literature from 1961 to 2003 and identified 22 reoccurring personality traits of creative people. This included 16 “positive” traits (e.g., independent, risk-taking, high energy, curiosity, humor, artistic, emotional) and 6 “negative” traits (e.g., impulsive, hyperactive, argumentative). In her own review of the creativity literature, Bonnie Cramond found that many of these same traits overlap to a substantial degree with behavioral descriptions of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)– including higher levels of spontaneous idea generation, mind wandering, daydreaming, sensation seeking, energy, and impulsivity.

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The Amazing Benefits of Daydreaming on the Mind

As a young kid, I was asked by a psychologist, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Without skipping a beat, I replied, "I have this reoccurring dream of one day being a psychologist and giving lots of talks."

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New Sensitivity Gene Discovered

In Psychiatry, there has been a great mystery. We know that virtually every single mental disorder identified thus far has a heritable basis. So we know that many genes are involved. At the same time, whenever we go fishing for the specific genes that are associated with any disorder, we end up with an awful lot of seaweed. Each gene explains only a fraction of the outcome, and very few genes actually replicate. This doesn't mean genes don't contribute to the manifestation of psychological traits and disorders, but it does mean we'll have to look beyond the genetic level if we want a fuller understanding of how we become who we are.

In recent years, studies keep accumulating that show the importance of gene by environment interactions. But researchers aren't just finding that the environment matters in determining whether mental illness exists. What is being discovered is far more interesting and nuanced: Some of the very same genes that under certain environmental conditions are associated with some of the lowest lows of humanity, under supportive conditions are associated with the highest highs of human flourishing.

Referred to by some scientists as the "differential susceptibility hypothesis" or journalist David Dobbs as "The Orchid Hypothesis", these findings shouldn't be understated. They are revolutionary, and suggest a serious rethinking of the role of genes in the manifestation of our psychological traits and mental "illness". Instead of all of our genes coding for particular psychological traits, it appears we have a variety of genetic mutations that are associated with sensitivity to the environment-- for better and worse.

Only a few genetic mutations have been discovered so far that demonstrate differential susceptibility effects. Most of the genes that have been discovered contribute to the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Both of these biological systems contribute heavily to many aspects of humanity, including our cognitive exploration, engagement with the world, positive emotions, anxiety, depression, and mood fluctuations. So far, the evidence suggests (but is still tentative) that certain genetic variants under harsh and abusive conditions are associated with anxiety and depression, but that the very same genetic variants are associated with the lowest levels of anxiety, depression, and fear under supportive, nurturing conditions. There hasn't been too much research looking at differential susceptibility effects on other systems that involve learning and exploration, however. Enter a brand new study.

Rising superstar Rachael Grazioplene and colleagues focused on the cholinergic system-- a biological system crucially involved in neural plasticity and learning. Situations that activate the cholinergic system involve "expected uncertainty" such as going to a new country you've never been before and knowing that you're going to face things you've never faced before. This stands in contrast to "unexpected uncertainty", which occurs when your expectations are violated, such as thinking you're going to a Las Vegas family friendly Cirque Di Soleil only to realize you've actually gotten a ticket to an all-male dance revue called "Thunder from Down Under" (I have no idea where that example came from). Those sorts of experiences are more strongly related to the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

Since the cholinergic system is most active in situations when a person can predict that learning is possible, this makes the system a prime candidate for the differential susceptibility effect. As the researchers note, unpredictable and novel environments could function as either threats or incentive rewards. When the significance of the environment is uncertain, both caution and exploration are adaptive. Therefore, traits relating to anxiety or curiosity should be influenced by cholinergic genetic variants, with developmental experiences determining whether individuals find expected uncertainty either more threatening or more promising.

To test their hypothesis, they focused on a polymorphism in the CHRNA4 gene, which builds a certain kind of neural receptor that the neurotransmitter binds to. These acetylcholine receptors are distributed throughout the brain, and are especially involved in the functioning of dopamine in the striatum. Genetic differences in the CHRNA4 gene seem to change the sensitivity of the brain's acetylcholine system because small structural changes in these receptors make acetylcholine binding more or less likely. Previous studies have shown associations between variation in the CHRNA4 gene and neuroticism as well as laboratory tests of attention and working memory.

The researchers looked at the functioning of this gene among a group of 614 children aged 8-13 enrolled in a week-long day camp. Half of the children in the day camp were selected because they had been maltreated (sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, emotional maltreatment), whereas the other half was carefully selected to come from the same socioeconomic status but not have experienced any maltreatment. This study provides the ideal experimental design and environmental conditions to test the differential susceptibility effect. Not only were the backgrounds of the children clearly defined, but also dramatically different from each other. Additionally, all children engaged in the same novel learning environment--an environment well suited for cholinergic functioning. What did they find?

Individuals with the T/T variation of the CHRNA4 gene who were maltreated showed higher levels of anxiety (Neuroticism) compared to those with the C allele of this gene. They appeared to be more likely to learn anxious and fearful responses to situations with higher levels of uncertainty. In contrast, those with the T/T allele who were not maltreated were low in anxiety (Neuroticism) and high in curiosity (Openness to Experience). What's more, this effect was independent of age, race, and sex. These results suggest that under normal parenting environments, the T/T allele (which is much rarer in the general population than the C allele) may be beneficial, bringing out lower levels of anxiety and increased curiosity in response to situations containing expected uncertainty.

These results are certainly exciting, but a few important caveats are in order. For one thing, the T/T genotype is very rare in the general population, which makes it all the more important for future studies to attempt to replicate these findings. Also, we're talking vanishingly small effects here. The CHRNA4 variant only explained at most 1% of the variation in neuroticism and openness to experience. So we shouldn't go around trying to predict individual people's futures based on knowledge of a single gene and a single environment.

Scientifically speaking though, this level of prediction is expected based on the fact that all of our psychological dispositions are massively polymorphic (consists of many interacting genes). Both gene-gene and gene-environment interactions must be taken into account. Indeed, recent research found that the more sensitivity ("plasticity") genes relating to the dopamine and serotonin systems adolescent males carried, the less self-regulation they displayed under unsupportive parenting conditions. In line with the differential susceptibility effect, the reverse was also found: higher levels of self-regulation were displayed by the adolescent males carrying more senstivity genes when they were reared under supportive parenting conditions.

The findings by Grazioplene and colleagues add to a growing literature on acetylcholine's role in the emergence of schizophrenia and mood disorders. As the researcher's note, these findings, while small in effect, may have clinical implications considering childhood maltreatment is a known risk factor for many psychiatric disorders. Children with the T/T genotype of CHRNA4 rs1044396 may be more likely to learn fearful responses in harsh and abusive environments, but children with the very same genotype may be more likely to display curiosity and engagement in response to uncertainty under normal or supportive conditions.

While it's profoundly difficult predicting the developmental trajectory of any single individual, this research suggests we can influence the odds that people will retreat within themselves or unleash the fundamentally human drive to explore and create.

Can 'Genius' Really Be Detected in Infancy?

Four-year-old Heidi Hankins was all over the news earlier this year. According to the Daily Mail, she "has an IQ of 159 -- only one point below Albert Einstein's -- and has become one of the youngest members of Mensa." As her father has pointed out, she has always shown an intense need for intellectual stimulation, bursting at the mouth to speak at birth, acquiring vocabulary by the age of 1, and voraciously reading through all 30 books in the Oxford Reading Tree set in an hour by the age of 2. 

We don't know just how much of this is true, but assuming it is, Heidi's case raises an intriguing question: can high intelligence accurately be detected this young? 

In the late '80s and early '90s Joseph Fagan and his colleagues tested 61 infants between 7 and 12 months of age on their ability to selectively attend to novel pictures. First they showed the infants unseen pictures (e.g., the face of a baby) for only a few seconds. Then they kept pairing old pictures with new pictures and recorded how long the baby looked at the old pictures. The idea is that smarter infants get bored faster looking at pictures they have already seen. The researchers then followed up with this group when they reached the age of 21 and tested their IQ scores and looked at their academic achievement. How well did this simple test in infancy predict later performance?

Strikingly well. The infant attention test given during the first 6 to 12 months of life was significantly correlated with both adult IQ (.34) and academic achievement (.32). What's more, these correlations were independent of the education levels of their parents. This is rather impressive considering that this was a very brief test lasting only a few minutes, given to them when they were just infants. To put these numbers in perspective, these correlations are identical to the correlation found between SAT scores and college GPA.

They also found great consistency: IQ scores at age 3 were strongly correlated with IQ scores at age 21 (.70). What's more, both IQ assessed at age 3 and IQ assessed at age 21 were correlated with academic achievement at age 21 about just as strongly (0.60 and 0.70, respectively). This is consistent with research by Susan Rose and her collegues that found striking consistency in information processing -- including memory, processing speed, attention, and representational competence -- from infancy through the first three years of life. 

So if you strictly define intelligence by IQ scores (which I and most of my colleagues don't do, by the way), then yes, you can find reliable information processing indicators in infancy that predict later IQ scores and academic achievement. Of course, this is group-level data, and the correlations are far from perfect. So there is plenty of room for error, and it's extremely dangerous to try to predict an infant's future level of academic success based on a single, brief test of attention administered before the first year of life. But from a scientific perspective, these numbers are impressive, and they suggest that these effects are real.

But let's put all this in perspective for a moment. The title of the Daily Mail article is "Four-year-old 'genius' accepted into Mensa with an IQ almost as high as physicist Stephen Hawking." I can't tell you how angry I get when I read headlines like this. Should we really be propogating the idea that a high IQ at any age -- let alone from a 4-year-old -- is equivalent to genius? IQ is a relative ranking based on percentages within a particular age group. That's all an IQ score means. Heidi's high IQ score indicates that she is a few grades ahead of her classmates in cognitive reasoning and vocabulary knowledge. Based on her father's observations, she can read at a 7-year-old level. That's surely impressive, but do we really want to put such pressure on young Heidi to become a genius? That's a heck of a lot of pressure for a 4-year-old, high IQ or not. 

As her father points out: "She is not precocious, she is just a little girl who likes her Barbies and Lego but then you will find her sitting down and reading a book."

This is really important. Heidi displays precociousness in one particular area: speed of learning. She does appear to have been born wired to learn. Many cases like Heidi do exist all around the world, and what she's going through is a very real phenomenon, linked to her unique brain wiring. But what we must understand is that Heidi can be extremely high in this one dimension but be a normal, average young girl on many other dimensions, including social and emotional development. To become a genius takes so much more than just being high on one trait. It takes many, many factors coming together, such as drive, imagination, opportunity, perseverance, and just plain luck. 

I know the folks at the Daily Mail love their attention-grabbing headlines, but let's please keep this real: Heidi is ready to advance academically, and she, like all the other kids in her school, deserves to get the resources that are best suited to her current level of functioning. But in terms of being a "genius," only time will tell. Right now, leave her alone! Let her just be an adorable, inquisitive young girl.

Why Weird Experiences Boost Creativity

Creative people think differently. But why? There is no magic bullet or single pill. We all have the potential for creativity, but there are so many different triggers that can broaden our minds, inspire, and motivate. Of course, there are just as many triggers that can shut down our minds. Since creativity is so important for individual well-being and societal innovation, it's important that we systematically pull the right triggers.

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