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Follow the Spiral: ADHD and Creativity

It's time to get ready to leave the house! I know exactly what I want to wear...but where's the top? I swear I just put my hands on it yesterday! Wasn't it in my drawer? Ooo! I just found that headband I've been looking for for weeks! But where's the top? Do I need to come up with a backup plan? Oh, there's the top! Okay, where did I put my phone down to look for my top? Ugh, I'm so tired of looking for my phone all the time. Did I say I would put it in this basket? That's what I'll do when I get home, but where is my phone now? Oh! let me grab my purse really quick. Oh, there's my new chapstick I thought fell out of the shopping bag last week! Courtney, your phone! Where is it? Oh yeah, I have the phone finder on my Apple Watch! There it is, and now I remember when I put it down. Okay, let's go... Wait, the keys!


If you have a loved one with ADHD, or you experience it yourself, you may recognize the above scenario. I experience this almost every time I leave the house, and usually when I'm transitioning from one activity or place to another, regardless of whether or not I'm medicated. I like to call it the ADHD Spiral. It's not a spiral out of control. Rather, it is a spiral of attention. I start with the necessity of movement, I need to move from one place or activity to another. This means I have to stop what I'm doing. If I am doing something mindless, like scrolling on social media or playing a game, I'm forced to re-engage so that I can disengage. Then I attend to my body, checking to see if I need clothes, food, or a bathroom visit. Typically I go back to where I'm trying to transition from between each step, so I get dressed then stand by my phone again or take a lap around the house to remember what the next step is. This happens throughout the entire process. Then, touching the doorknob ignites reminders for shoes and keys — taking two more laps before finally getting into the car to leave. This is the spiral! Throughout the entire process, I may also start a load of laundry, gather dirty towels or dishes, or generally fuss at cluttered piles. Others may get fussed at for their piles. Others may be accused of moving or neglecting things I'm noticing during my various laps. And, sometimes, inspiration strikes and I am able to share a moment or idea with my spouse, or write it down on my tablet.


I recently listened to an episode of the Ezra Klein show that really spoke to me. In the episode entitled "Why Adults Lose the Beginner's Mind," author and professor Alison Gopnik explains that scientists have discovered humans can experience various types of consciousness based on their research on how children think. The two main consciousness categories Klein and Gopnik discuss are spotlight consciousness (or attention), and lantern consciousness. According to psychology, most neurotypical adults function inside of a spotlight consciousness, the practice of paying one's full attention to one thing at a time. This is considered the superior mind state for learning in our society. The child's mind state is lantern consciousness, diffusing their attention across their environment and learning from it collectively. Sociology has a similar concept to lantern consciousness in their practice — the beginner's mind. The beginner's mind approaches life in a way that allows the environment (whether familiar or novel) to define itself, instead of imposing its norms and beliefs onto the situation.


Though adults and children are wired to gravitate towards one type of consciousness over another, they are both available to humans regardless of age. There is also an argument that some neurodivergent adults — like those with ADHD or sensory processing issues — live with a predominance towards lantern consciousness throughout life.


I liken my ADHD Spiral to having lantern consciousness or a beginner's mind. My ability to see people and places for what they are, and to be enamored by it every single time, is something I truly love about myself. My mind is filled with questions and observations every minute of the day, even if I don't leave my house. Yes, everything takes longer with a beginner's mind (just picture walking with a toddler through your neighborhood), but what I am privileged to notice, discover, and witness in this life, and the creative connections that are made among the stacks of data accumulated, is my joy. It's why I write. It's why I love art. It's why I love stories. When I embrace the spiral instead of getting frustrated that I don't move with more regulated attentiveness, I find endless inspiration and all kinds of ordinary beauty. This is my creative gait. This is the path I've been blessed to walk. It is, without a doubt, a blessing.

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