Last year we learned that a bung eye likely helped Leonardo da Vinci become one of the world’s great artists. Now it’s suggested Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also played a role.
It would have contributed to his chronic procrastination, but also to his extraordinary creativity and achievements across the arts and sciences, according to Marco Catani from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, UK.
“While impossible to make a post-mortem diagnosis for someone who lived 500 years ago, I am confident that ADHD is the most convincing and scientifically plausible hypothesis to explain Leonardo’s difficulty in finishing his works,” he says.
“Historical records show Leonardo spent excessive time planning projects but lacked perseverance. ADHD could explain aspects of Leonardo’s temperament and his strange mercurial genius.”
Catani presents his evidence in the journal BRAIN, drawing on historical accounts of da Vinci’s work practices and behaviour.
ADHD is a behavioural disorder characterised by continuous procrastination, the inability to complete tasks, mind-wandering and a restlessness of the body and mind. While most commonly recognised in childhood, it is increasingly being diagnosed among adults.
Da Vinci’s difficulties sticking to tasks were pervasive from childhood. Accounts from biographers and contemporaries reveal he was constantly on the go, often jumping from task to task, and sleeping very little.
There is also indirect evidence, Catani says, to suggest his brain was organised differently to the norm. He was left-handed and likely to be dyslexic and to have a dominance for language in the right-hand side of his brain, all of which are common among people with ADHD.
The condition can have positive effects; mind-wandering may fuel creativity and originality, for example. However, the same traits can be a hindrance when interest shifts to something else.
“There is a prevailing misconception that ADHD is typical of misbehaving children with low intelligence, destined for a troubled life,” Catania says.
“On the contrary, most of the adults I see in my clinic report having been bright, intuitive children but develop symptoms of anxiety and depression later in life for having failed to achieve their potential.
“It is incredible that Leonardo considered himself as someone who had failed in life.”
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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