ADHD or ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’, is a mental health disorder characterized by shortened attention span, impulsive behavior, hyperactivity and general lack of focus. The symptoms tend to occur around the ages of 6-12 and can be maladaptive in a learning environment – causing those afflicted to struggle to pay attention in class and to potentially engage in disruptive behaviors. Sometimes the condition will disappear as the individual grows older, or they might develop ‘coping mechanisms’ that they can use to get them under control.
Because of the difficulty it creates for learning, ADHD has been labelled as a mental health disorder and disability and is generally believed to have largely negative connotations.
However, there are those who believe that ADHD may not be an entirely negative condition. In fact, it appears that there are numerous considerable advantages to ADHD that could actually give those with the condition an advantage over their peers; in some cases at least. In fact, the very fact that ADHD is so common, might suggest that it offers some survival value (1).
Read on and we’ll look at why this might be the case.
What Causes ADHD?
While the precise cause of ADHD is often unknown, there are a number of genetic and environmental factors that are thought to play a role. Generally, it is thought that the main physical differences in the brain are related to dopamine transmission. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter that is responsible for motivation and drive. It is often incorrectly described as the ‘reward’ hormone, when in fact it isn’t responsible for our feeling of reward so much as our drive toward reward. Dopamine is what tells us what is important, what to focus on and how to work. It is telling that one of the main changes brought on by ingesting caffeine is an increase in dopamine. Specifically, those with ADHD often appear to have an increased number of dopamine transporters – which are the mechanisms for ‘clearing away’ dopamine in the brain. In other words then, those who suffer with the condition are likely to have lower amounts of dopamine that those who do not. Differences in the mesocortical pathway also might reduce the amount of dopamine transported to the frontal cortex – where our higher order reasoning occurs.
There do however appear to be some structural differences in the brain too. For instance, there is a decrease in volume in structures such as the prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex – possibly as a result of differing amounts of dopamine during development.
Ultimately all of this results in a difficulty with what are known as ‘executive functions’ – those functions associated with the regulation and management of mental processes.
How ADHD Can Have Benefits
So how can ADHD be potentially beneficial for sufferers? Here are some potentially adaptive features and traits of the condition.
Well for one, some argue that ADHD may lead to increased creativity (2). Because of a decrease in dopamine in certain key areas of the brain, the ADHD patient might experience less of a ‘laser focus’ when considering certain ideas or subjects.
In other words, someone with ADHD is more able to let their mind ‘wander’ and explore interrelated concepts and ideas. This is often believed to be the secret to successful creative thought, as it means you are better able to ‘recombine’ different ideas in order to form new ones. Someone with ADHD might also be less susceptible to cognitive biases that are the result of rigid thinking – such as ‘functional fixedness’.
Also key to note is that ADHD isn’t so much an inability to concentrate on things, so much as the inability to concentrate on the ‘right things’. In other words, those with ADHD may find that they are distracted by creative pursuits instead of the mundane aspects of life. Which could result in creativity.
Often those with ADHD will feel hyperactive, unable to sit still. This leads to fidgeting, impatience and constant activity. While this could be seen as a bad thing in some settings, it can also be seen as a good thing when it comes to the evening when we’re all-too likely to crash on the couch and not do anything. Someone with ADHD is much more likely to find themselves working out, following other creative pursuits or tidying the house. It’s perhaps no coincidence that many famous athletes are also known to have ADHD.
The modern world is more and more becoming a place that is highly suited for those with ADHD. In fact, there is speculation that the internet is actually causing all of us to have shorter attention spans.
On the web, we are all constantly jumping from page to page, quickly scanning for information and then moving onto the next task. True multitasking isn’t really possible for the human brain but what we’re doing instead is rapidly switching between tasks in order to get the most done – often having multiple windows open at once with different things on them.
Someone with ADHD will potentially have more success changing their attention rapidly between different tasks, extracting key points quickly and continuing a rapid pace. For all kinds of IT related jobs, this could be a real asset.
It is also sometimes speculated that ADHD might lead to a deeper experience of emotion (though it has also been suggested that those with ADHD might have a lower emotional intelligence). Either way, some people who struggle with ADHD believe that they are more in-tune with the feelings of others, which could certainly be considered a gift.
Common symptoms of ADHD include fidgeting, looking around a lot and being easily distracted by noises and things going on in the world. This can sometimes lead to poor concentration and might mean that important things get forgotten. At the same time though, it’s also true that those with ADHD will thus be more likely to notice little details, to react quickly to events and to generally be more aware and in-tune with their surroundings.
Successful Individuals With ADHD
To demonstrate the potential benefits of a ‘scatterbrained’ mind, let’s take a look at some of the most successful people with ADHD. All these figures have turned the condition to their advantage and have managed to leverage their increased creativity and ability to switch between tasks to great effect.
- Richard Branson – CEO and founder of Virgin Group, which consists of 400 companies. Branson is well known for having difficulty at school, but today he owns his own island and is attempting to privatize space travel
- Dean Kamen – A prolific inventor who was diagnosed with both ADHD and dyslexia and who was ‘obstinate in following his own path’. He was known by one of his teachers as ‘Dino the Relentless’
- Elliott Hulse – A YouTube strongman/fitness instructor and also a highly successful entrepreneur
- Michael Phelps – Only the most decorated Olympian of all time
- Justin Timberlake – Timberlake is a successful singer, actor, producer and businessman
- Will Smith – Not just a very charismatic actor, but also a great writer, rapper and entrepreneur. He describes himself as once struggling to read movie scripts
- Walt Disney – ‘Nuff said
- Albert Einstein – Many speculate that Albert Einstein had ADHD and was in many ways the prototypical ‘absent minded professor’
In short, ADHD might be a potential challenge for those in the school system, or even in many careers; but it is not purely a disadvantage. In many ways, the traits associated with ADHD can be considered assets and may have helped some of our most creative and intelligent thinkers with breakthroughs that ended up shaping the world as we know it today. Going forward, we might be entering an era that plays to the strengths of those with ADHD even more.
As Hartmann put it in his book ‘The Edison Gene: ADHD and the Gift of the Hunter Child’:
“People with ADHD may instead be our most creative individuals, our most extraordinary thinkers, our most brilliant inventors and pioneers.”