ADHD advantages: delusion or logical conclusion?

Just alike as peas in a pod

There is little scientific proof of the advantages or positive traits of ADHD, as yet anyway. There are a few studies such as UCL University finding ADHD adults take in more information and at the University of Michigan, where researchers found ADHD students to be more creative, than non-ADHD students. Here’s a great post that brings some of this ADHD creativity research together.

Overwhelming anecdotal evidence?

Sadly there is little scientific investigation, despite the overwhelming anecdotal evidence. Talk to any adult with ADHD, read any book on ADHD and talk to most experienced experts and you will hear of positive traits of intuition, creativity, humour, entrepreneurship, invention, passion and big picture thinking. Does this inconsistency in perspective arise from a lack of competent research or is it a collective delusion in the ADHD community?

Delusion?

The choices are that either:

Having ADHD leads to the delusion that you have strengths
This would be a fascinating finding. Somehow having traits of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity leads to a mass delusion of personality strengths. Even more interesting is that the gifts mentioned are consistently the same. Why would most people with ADHD consistently feel for example that they are great at seeing patterns and connections rather than great at leadership skills, spatial awareness or maths? However there is no such confusion, the gifts that are listed and discussed are always exactly the same? Surely this extraordinary delusion should be researched?

The “gift idea” is subliminally implanted in our minds
So maybe we are not independently deluded but are fed this impression from reading books or the Internet. We forget what we have read, subconsciously take them on board, so that perhaps we don’t feel bad. We then discuss them as if we actually have them? Possibly, it does seem a little far-fetched especially as I, like many others, knew I had these strengths, as did my teachers and employers, decades before I had even heard of ADHD. Extraordinary subconscious suggestion indeed, but nevertheless worthy of research.

We are often gifted in these areas
I like the principle of Occam’s Razor, that the simplest, most obvious answer is usually the best. If many AHD people feel that way, then maybe it’s true. Maybe ADHD people have strengths as well as weaknesses, the less focus leads to more wide observation, weaker memory leads to more thinking. We can accept that some autistic individuals are also savants, why not accept that having an ADHD neurology leads to some valuable and useful traits too?

Why might ADHD bring advantage?

ADHD affects stimulation and access to executive functions. Dopamine absorption is limited and so access to the frontal lobes via the dopaminergic pathways. The long neurons of the dopaminergic pathways run the entire length of the pathway and use dopamine to transmit signals to their synaptic destinations:

Mesolimbic Pathway
Transmits dopamine from the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens. The VTA located in the midbrain is widely held to affect the reward circuitry of the brain. It is also important in cognition, motivation, drug addiction, and psychiatric disorders.

Mesocortical Pathway
Transmits dopamine from the VTA to the frontal cortex. One of the primary affects is to down regulate the sub-cortical part of the brain, to damp down impulsivity, emotion and reactions.

Lost in the hemispheres

The older brain, sub-cortical or right-brain, is where intelligence largely resides. It is the engine of pattern recognition and makes connections and links between what we see, hear, feel, smell, taste and what we already know. If the frontal cortex asserts less dampening on the part of the brain, then its seems inevitable that we rely more on our sub-cortical abilities to seek patterns and make connections when we struggle to access our frontal cortex for memory and sequences.

According to Iain McGilcrist in "The Master and His Emissary : The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World", the right hemisphere is more tightly connected with fewer synaptic connections and relies more on nor-adrenaline/nor-epinephrine than dopamine for communication. If left-brain processing is harder and less rewarding, then surely the brain comes to rely more on the easily engaged right-brain? Here’s a useful article about the hemispheric differences and a Scientific American report on ADHD and creativity.

Problems with Evolution

The “average” or neurotypical brain, more stimulated, more controlled by executive functions, is not necessarily always an improvement on the ADHD brain.
Our ADHD, neuro-diverse brains are better able to engage certain capacities of the brain precisely because of the weaker grip of executive functions. We better use our right-brains and avoid some of the problems brought by the functions such as excess social conformance, narrow focus and emotional constraint.
People with ADHD have certain strengths, talents, positive traits and abilities precisely because of their disorder. ADHD is a genetic, neurological difference that may result in serious debilitating issue but not always, sometimes outcomes related to ADHD traits can be highly beneficial.

Logical conclusion

Sadly very little progress is taking place in this really critical area that could beneficially affect approaches to both both education and employment for people with ADHD. Today ADHD positive traits are left undebated and unresearched:
  • Lack of evidence does not equate to either disproof or proof, simply lack of scientific experimentation
  • Without a genetic test ADHD and only symptom lists for diagnosis, the science on ADHD is weak
  • A very high proportion of ADHD adults feel they share these positive traits
  • Someone who is under-stimulated will seek stimulation that may result in discovery, exploration and invention.
  • In my coaching experience ADHD adults fulfil the positive stereo types: funny, creative etc
  • History books seem to offer very ADHD-like descriptions of entrepreneurs, artists, entertainers, inventors and explorers
Medicine is wrong, that’s the nature of science – to constantly upgrade our understandings. Look back a few years when homosexuality was defined in DSM II as a disorder too and the many decades it took doctors to revise their thinking on miasma “bad-air” and to finally wash their hands to remove germs: "The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis".

Since I am ADHD, I am impatient. I don’t want to wait for scientific proof to discuss these ideas. Lack of proof was never an issue to psychologists such as Freud, expounding his weird theories. No one has found an id or ego anywhere. I plan to continue to discuss ADHD and a mixed bag of more extreme traits than normal that can cause problem but in the right context can be significant advantages in life.
ADHD Coach, Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis is an ADHD Coach, writer and founder of SimplyWellbeing. He has over 15,000 hours and 18 years of experience in coaching over 500 ADHD executives, ADHD business professionals and ADHD creatives. Andrew ran a major ADHD support group and an ADHD diagnostic clinic for a while. He is an ADHD specialist backed with business expertise from a twenty years career in software, from roles in programming, through marketing, sales and to running a few software start-ups. His ADHD insight is personal, with decades understanding his own ADHD experience and in bringing up his ADHD daughter. He has published his writing primarily via this website, with interactive ADHD courses in development.

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