Did Leonardo da Vinci Have ADHD?

In a paper published in the journal Brain, King’s College London researcher Professor Marco Catani suggests that the iconic artist Leonardo da Vinci may have had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

According to historical accounts, da Vinci had many traits similar to those with ADHD, including a lack of perseverance when it came to finishing his projects, voracious curiosity, high levels of creativity, and a tendency to jump from task to task.

“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,” said Catani, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience.

“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 lays out the evidence supporting his hypothesis, drawing on historical accounts of Leonardo’s work practices and behavior. He also believes that ADHD could have been a factor in Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinary creativity and achievements across the arts and sciences.

“There is a prevailing misconception that ADHD is typical of misbehaving children with low intelligence, destined for a troubled life. 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,” says Catani, who specializes in treating neurodevelopmental conditions like Autism and ADHD.

“It is incredible that Leonardo considered himself as someone who had failed in life. I hope that the case of Leonardo shows that ADHD is not linked to low IQ or lack of creativity but rather the difficulty of capitalising on natural talents. I hope that Leonardo’s legacy can help us to change some of the stigma around ADHD.”

Da Vinci’s difficulties with sticking to tasks were pervasive from childhood. Accounts from biographers and contemporaries show he was constantly on the go, often hopping from task to task. Like many people with ADHD, he slept very little and worked continuously night and day by alternating rapid cycles of short naps and time awake.

Another distinctive trait was his voracious curiosity, which both propelled his creativity and also distracted him. Catani says that the mind-wandering trait commonly found in ADHD can fuel creativity and originality but be a hindrance when interest shifts to something else.

Alongside reports of erratic behavior and incomplete projects from fellow artists and patrons, including Pope Leone X, there is indirect evidence to suggest that da Vinci’s brain was organized differently compared to average. For example, he was left-handed and likely to be both dyslexic and have a dominance for language in the right-hand side of his brain, all of which are common among people with ADHD.

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