Disney's Imagination Park

Disney's Imagination Park celebrates creativity. New research says maybe we should all be more interested in imagination.

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Joe Penniston/Flickr

People who live with ADHD often struggle in the classroom or in the workplace — their brains not always fitting with the rigid structures those environments can impose. 

But Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist and scientific director at the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says people diagnosed with ADHD and people who we consider to be creative thinkers are extremely similar.

The brain’s default mode network, which controls cognitive processes like perspective taking, daydreaming and mind wandering, is most active when our mind is resting. And when examining fMRI studies, Kaufman says that this part of the brain is more active in people diagnosed with ADHD.

“I refer to it as the imagination brain network because I think that’s what it really is,” he says. “The latest research shows that the imagination brain network is highly conducive to creativity and creative thought. And those who are diagnosed with ADHD seem to have greater difficulty than those who are not diagnosed with ADHD in suppressing activity in this imagination brain network. In a way, you can actually conceptualize that people with ADHD have an overactive imagination as opposed to a learning disability.”

Kaufman argues that, in some ways, the presence of ADHD may also be symbolic of the evolutionary process.

“About 50,000 years ago when a band of us left Africa, went to Europe, and eventually conquered the world, in order to travel and go such distances it was found that there was a genetic mutation,” he says. “This particular genetic mutation is associated with dopamine and has also been associated with ADHD. Without these characteristics, we may not have become Homo sapiens.”

Based on the research available, Kaufman says the way our educational and psychiatric systems view ADHD may be seriously flawed.

“What I like to do is look at the different characteristics that are associated with the [ADHD] label,” he says. “It is a label at the end of the day, and it’s something that we put on people — especially in an educational context.”

According to Kaufman, people who have been diagnosed with ADHD appear to have more active imaginations. But the ADHD label can be profoundly determinative — the diagnosis can even channel kids into special programs, and sometimes narrow their options in high school and college. Kaufman says parents need to work with schools to identify learning formats that don’t stifle creative thinking.

“This is a broader issue, and I think all students should get the opportunity to be active learners,” he says. “Give them an opportunity to actually take control of the learning process and be driven by their interior monologues, their interior fantasies, and their interior daydreams. Allow the student to have some autonomy in that process and you can see them flourish.”

Teachers seem to be impatient when it comes to creativity. According to Kaufman, recent studies show that the behavior educators identify as “disruptive” and “creative” often overlap.

“Quite simply, we don’t value creativity, and we don’t value imagination either,” he says. “Imagination is a necessary part of creativity. Every time that we force a student to passively listen to a lecture or something that a student isn’t personally interested in or doesn’t see the relevance to their future life, we’re robbing them of an opportunity to imagine their own personal futures, and a new curriculum that might not even exist yet.”

Kaufman says that, in many ways, students with ADHD are much more like our ancestors of 50,000 years ago.

“You could conceptualize people with the ADHD label as explorers — imagine being an explorer trapped in an educational classroom where the teacher is saying, ‘Pay attention to me and don’t explore,’” he says. “It drives them nuts.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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