ADHD = right-brained?

ADHD strengths map to right brain functions

Popular culture has taken to heart the idea that the right-brain is artistic and emotional and the left brain is logical and verbal. This simplified view has led to an almost pathological avoidance of any discussion on the differences between the two hemispheres in much scientific writing, for fear of criticism and ridicule. But quite obviously, if you just open up a head (preferably from a corpse), you can easily see two very distinct halves – linked only by a very small area, the corpus callosum. Research shows that each has many unique functions.

Fortunately there is extensive evidence of the very different functions of the two hemispheres, predominantly from observing people with brain injuries such as strokes. In The Master and His Emissary eminent neurologist Iain McGilchrist, bravely ventures into this contentious area to draw on this contemporary research, to reveal that the profound difference between the right and left brain are not only in specific functions, but in their incompatible ways of experiencing the world.

Two hemispheres

Left hemisphere Right hemisphere
The left hemisphere is detail-oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest, The origin of all experience is in the right half, the master, that sees everything in its environment, is holistic and intuitive yet wide-focused.
The left brain, the emissary, focuses on specific details of the experience and analyses it and returns this detailed picture to the right half, while the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity.
The left brain uses language precisely, more abstractly, the right brain understands meaning, metaphors and jokes.
The left half organizes, manipulates and controls details for a specific purpose, in the right brain the details become integrated to enrich the wider picture.
The left wants consistency, it measures, classifies and creates labels and abstractions, and will happily disregard inconsistent facts or information! the right brain is responsible for empathy; relationships; and appreciating the meaning of gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. The right half handles the greater part of our emotional life.
The right half experiences time as a continuum, it responds to music, poetry, the spiritual and moral dimensions.

Right brain yes – left brain no

McGilchrist’s list of right brain attributes is extraordinarily close to my personal experience of ADHD, and it chimes too with the insights and prepectives of the hundreds of adult ADHD clients I have coached. As I read his book, I related completely to my ADHD strengths in the functioning of the right hemisphere, but was constantly reminded of my ADHD weakness in his descriptions of our left-brain traits.

ADHD adults consistently describe and exhibit their “right-brain” traits: holistic thinkers, more intuitive, empathetic and emotional, wide-focussed and flexible, love humour, adrift in time, and a profound response to aesthetics and creativity.

I have coached around twenty medical practitioners. Every one has been ahead of the curve in their field, bringing together the latest research, nutrition & wellbeing, psychology and meditation into a holistic whole.  These ADHD doctor clients have all had a far more integrated approach to medicine than I have ever found in my personal experience with doctors. Anecdotal yes, but then we have a lot of anecdotes…

The left brain traits appear rather to map onto ADHD problems or weaknesses. Scientific research confirms our problems with details; our struggles to reflect, analyse and organize; our consistent inconsistency; our tendency not to classify the trees but to consider the forest, country, world and solar system too.

Any expert with personal experience of ADHD, will relate to our right-brained love for big-pictures, humour and joy in finding connections.

Neurological bias for “right-brained = ADHD”

There are neurological grounds for this ADHD right-brained emphasis too. Though never mentioning ADHD, Ian McGilchrist explains that the right-brain is more neurologically “tightly connected” than the left, signals travel shorter distances with less chance of signal decay. More importantly the right brain uses nor-adrenaline, (nor-epinephrine) rather than dopamine for communications. Research shows dopamine as the “faulty” neurotransmitter at issue in ADHD, so logically you might expect the left brain to be affected, not the right?

In ADHD, with a less-dominant left brain, there is a struggle to focus on detail, lessened self-interest, a reduced desire to organise and control but with a dominant right-brain in ADHD, there is a greater sense of emotion, breadth, flexibility and generosity, an experience of time as a continuum, a strong response to music, poetry and the moral dimensions.

Where’s the research?

There really has been little to no research on the actual experience of being ADHD, it’s so frustrating! Where are the large qualitative and quantitative studies asking ADHD adults about their thinking, decision making, desires, values and perspectives? There are so many writers, presenters, coaches and doctors saying so, there are websites, blogs, books, articles that discuss these right-brained traits as being central to ADHD. It is such a shame that there is so little funding for research available – outside the “ADHD is nothing more than a disability” box that is.

Knots and ducks

In the absence of any sound ADHD research on this matter, I think the principal of the Gordian Knot applies: the simplest and most obvious answer is probably right: If it looks like a duck swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck see the Duck Test. With no evidence to the contrary, if people with ADHD think, talk and act right-brained – they most probably are right-brained…
ADHD Coach, Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis is an ADHD Coach, writer and founder of SimplyWellbeing. He has over 10,000 hours and 15 years of experience in coaching hundreds of ADHD executives, business professionals and creatives, and previously running a large ADHD support group and an ADHD diagnostic clinic. His business expertise comes from a twenty years career in software, from programming, through marketing, sales and running a few 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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