The Natural Born Scientist:
Is there an ADD Connection?
I've added this section because of the number
of people who have written to me who were scientists and engineers, and also ADD. There
are many interesting connections between ADD traits and the make-up of a good research
scientist. The "absent-minded professor" isn't just a cliche. Of course, several
of our most famous inventors and scientists are believed to have been ADD (Edison, Tesla,
This also ties in with my personal view of ADDers as
"Explorers." Researchers and inventors are explorers. ADDers are explorers.
ADDers are creative and have more ideas than most people. Researchers must be creative.
Both types are curious, playful and enthusiastic. It's a nice fit.
Nearly half of the ADDers who write to me are ENTP
"Inventors" or INTP "Inventors". These types are highly attracted to
the sciences. Some of the NF types are also in the sciences. There are two extremes of
scientists and engineers: the average ones who follow standard operating procedures and
the ones who break rules and come up with new ways of doing things. ADD scientists are in
the latter category (of course). They will probably be bored designing something which has
already been designed thousands of times, but give them a unique problem which seems
unsolvable, and here is where they excel. Ground breaking scientists very, very often have
The paradox here is that these people so often hate school;
really hate it. But to pursue a career in the sciences you need lots of school. I
wonder how many bright, natural-born scientists end up as unhappy insurance salesmen
because of their traumatic school experiences. And I have actually seen a "careers
for ADDers" list which discouraged ADDers from the sciences!
The New York Times has a Science Times edition each week,
and once in a while they run a feature on a ground-breaking scientist. One week the
following headline caught my eye:
"Accident-Prone Imp Evolved Into
Extraordinary Fossil Hunter"
Of course I just HAD to read it. The article was about Dr.
Paul Sereno, a ground-breaking paleontologist (sorry about the pun), and contained the
following description of his childhood:
"He was considered a poor student. 'I wasn't reading
in second grade,' he said. 'I couldn't tell time in third grade, and I nearly flunked
sixth grade.' He was also incorrigibly mischievous and accident-prone. He tried derailing
trains and pelting school windows with rocks, and he landed in several body-mutilating
accidents involving knives and bikes. Twice he was rendered unconscious in gym class
mishaps." His interest in fossils started after he stole a book from the library.
After a trip to the Museum of Natural History, he "became fascinated with stories of
"'I could combine art, travel, science, adventure,
biology, paleontology and geology,' he remembered thinking. 'Right then, I knew exactly
what I wanted to be.'" Since then, he's lead all sorts of expeditions and developed
creative theories on how the dinosaurs are related to each other.
It's amazing how many of our most creative and brightest
scientists had slow starts in school.
Some examples of famous inventors and scientists:
Ben Franklin moved about constantly, sailing
overseas several times and bounced endlessly from interest to interest. He invented the
basic woodstove (called the Franklin Oven), lightning rods, started up the first fire
department in Philadelphia, improved sailing ships, and of course was indispensable during
Thomas Edison was constantly into trouble as child
and was nearly expelled from public school because he was 'addled'. In school he fidgeted,
asked too many questions, or didn't pay attention. His mother withdrew him and he was
homeschooled. In his early teens he left home, beginning a series of countless jobs, some
of which he was fired from. His inventions are legendary.
Nikola Tesla was also constantly into trouble as a
child. He possessed the spatial ability to visualize his inventions in incredible detail
before they were built and could even identify parts which would fail by picturing the
invention at work.
Albert Einstein had trouble in school. It was only
after a relative showed him how to play games with numbers and Albert was moved to an
alternative school that he began to do well. Still, he described himself as a 'slow
thinker' and was spatially oriented with verbal difficulties.
Leonardo Da Vinci had a great deal of trouble
finishing projects, bouncing from one interest to another.
Bill & Mary Allsopp's Project
A while back I received some very interesting email from
Bill Allsopp regarding his experiences teaching a volunteer program he and his wife Mary
started called "Project Lab."
The purpose of Bill & Mary's program is to offer hands-on learning experience for
students interested in engineering careers, because colleges tend to turn out engineers
with no real-world experience. For over fifteen years the program has been offered to
students of various ages, from high school to grade school. The program focuses on
hands-on tinkering, creative learning and trouble shooting. Kids are not 'taught' per se,
but 'turned loose' in a room full of opportunities.
Bill and Mary found that about 60% of their older students
never adapted to their creative type of program. They needed to be told exactly what to do
and how to do it. On the other hand, another type of kid excelled. This second type took
great interest in a project of his own choosing and worked feverishly on it during the
entire class period. Bill and Mary wondered why some kids took to this independent and
creative style of class while others of equal intelligence did not. They began making
observations about the two types of kids:
"Over the years we had come to the stark realization
that the youth that were successful in Project Lab were somehow different from their peer
group....Over the years we worked up a crude list of commonalties that seemed to spell out
the differences between the youths that were successful in our program and the ones that
weren't. The list didn't make much sense, was disjointed and seemed somewhat
uncomplimentary to some of the most wonderful people I had ever had the pleasure of
working with. I could have been knocked over with a feather when I found the same list,
with even many more identifying characteristics in Dr. Hallowell's book (Driven to
Distraction). I had finally found the lead that we had been looking for and horrors
upon horrors, the professionals who were pursuing the subject were not only calling
"my kids" names but were trying to change them into the kind of kids that we had
long ago given up as technically clueless. I couldn't believe it then, and I still don't.
It has taken me three years to poke around with my new insight and each day gets more
exciting. " - Bill Allsopp
What traits did the successful kids possess? Generic
ADD traits, although not necessarily to the degree for an ADD diagnosis. Bill
refers to them as 'hunters' after Thom Hartman's concept of ADD being the expression of a
hunter in a farmer's world. Listen to Bill describing one of these traits:
"You may be interested in learning that the single
definitive trait for identifying "our kids", and which I have been using for
over ten years (long before ADD), is "watching their eyes". This is almost an
unfailing rule for predicting success in Project Lab. Try it yourself. I have had lot of
fun watching kid's eyes in restaurants. The hunters are the ones who are constantly
looking up and down, to the left and to the right, not furtively as a thief might, but
openly and inquisitively as they look at the light fixtures, the rollers on the chairs,
the people going by, the fire fixtures in the ceiling the rug patterns and everything else
that there is to look at. When asked what they were just looking at, they are usually
totally unaware that they had been studying anything in particular, but, it was evident
from their scrutinizing appearance that something was taking place. This characteristic is
every bit as strong in girls as it is in boys and when I get brave and go ask their
parents if their kids are interested in science I have almost always gotten a strong
"yes" and a questioning of what led me to think so."
Bill Allsopp is now an advocate for kids labeled
"ADD," since his experience with these kids has shown them to be more talented
under the real-world conditions of his and Mary's Project Lab. As I have said before, most
jobs are not like high school; the best employees are self starters who can work
independently and solve problems using their creativity.
One last note: Young children invariably adapted to Bill
& Mary's type of classroom much faster than older kids, because they are naturally
curious. I have previously drawn parallels between ADD and children; ADD seems almost a
preservation of childhood traits. Since children are such natural inventors, it's not
surprising that ADD adults are, too.
Since the above article was written I've come across an
In The Mind's
Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People With Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties,
Computer Images and The Ironies of Creativity by Thoms G. West. I think most
people who are ADD will understand this book. The author uses the term dyslexia to
mean all people who are relatively weak verbally. The same people are very often
spatial thinkers, that is, they have an entirely different way of thinking. Instead
of serial, linear thinking and remembering details, they are global thinkers who are quick
to pick up concepts, relationships, and they are good creative problem solvers. He
profiles eleven historic figures, including Einstein, Edison, da Vinci and Churchill.