June 08, 2019


Scientists have painted Leonardo da Vinci as a genius driven to distraction, in a study that suggests he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Written accounts of the Renaissance polymath indicate he had the symptoms of the behavioral disorder, argue the authors of the research published in the journal Brain.

Most commonly identified in children, some 6.4 million young people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the condition characterized by symptoms including inattention, where an individual might have trouble focusing their attention on tasks. They might also appear not to listen when being spoken to, find themselves easily distracted and are often forgetful. The hyperactive component could see them fidgeting while seated and talking at levels deemed excessive.

Born in 1452, Leonardo's skills spanned art, science, architecture and engineering, from his iconic depictions of the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa to his forward-thinking designs for a flying machine. But his creative efforts were paradoxical, the researchers wrote: "A great mind that has compassed the wonders of anatomy, natural philosophy and art, but also failed to complete so many projects."

He would spend excessive amounts of time planning his ideas, but often lacked the perseverance to see them through, evidence suggests.

Professor Catani, an expert in treating neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD and autism from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, commented: "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.

"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."

An account of his childhood by his first biographer, the Renaissance-era art historian Giorgio Vasari, wrote how Leonardo was "variable and unstable"—keen to learn but also quick to abandon projects.

When he was 26, for instance, he was granted a prestigious commission to paint an altarpiece at a chapel but never completed the work. He continued to struggle to finish work on time.

Over time, he gained a reputation for being unreliable, leading Pope Leo X to declare in 1514: "Alas! this man will never do anything, for he begins by thinking of the end of the work, before the beginning."

These tales paint a picture of someone struggling with untreated ADHD, the researchers believe.

The fact he was left-handed; appeared to have a right-hemisphere dominance in his brain for language; and that his notebook etchings suggest he was dyslexic—common traits in those with ADHD—further support the theory, the team argue.

Catani said he hopes this link to a widely held genius could break down the stigma around ADHD. He commented: "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.'

"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 capitalizing on natural talents. I hope that Leonardo's legacy can help us to change some of the stigma around ADHD."

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