Updated 17 July 2017

Does ADHD make you cleverer?

People with ADHD are often considered "stupid" and perform poorly at school, but evidence suggests that they might be brighter than average, they just can't achieve their potential.

ADHD, and it’s related-disorder, ADD exist in a haze of stigma, misunderstanding and over-diagnosis. Most importantly, though, is the way that these highly prevalent conditions are viewed as an “excuse” for poorly performing children and, increasingly, adults.

However, what if ADHD had a benefit? What if ADHD actually made you cleverer?

This is a question that has been posed a number of times, with academics pointing to the sky-high activity levels in the brain of an ADHD sufferer as evidence that these minds are extremely powerful, but unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to focus these minds and thus harness their potential.

Read: Do you have ADHD?

In an effort to find clarity on the matter, Dr. Thomas E. Brown, assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Yale, conducted a study of 157 adults diagnosed with ADHD. In his findings he noted that all had significant impairments in their working memory and processing speed.

Working memory is the part of the brain that could be said to comprise a person’s attention, or focus, something is clearly impaired in a true ADD/ADHD sufferer. Processing speed in these individuals is substantially reduced to their inability to focus on a task until completion, often getting distracted “mid-thought.”

However, Brown’s study also found that the mean IQ for the participants was over 120, putting them in the top 9% of the population.  The average person’s IQ is 100. Other evidence has shown that up to 25% of ADHD sufferers may have IQ’s of 130 or over, classifying them as intellectually gifted, a much higher proportion than in the general population.

However, it appears that while ADHD sufferers might enjoy higher IQ’s, they struggle to translate this into real world advantages. In fact, smarter people with ADHD actually have greater impairments than less intelligent ones. True ADHD is known to impair the executive functioning aspects of the brain, commonly impairing abilities like forward planning, decision making and impulse control; high IQ and ADHD often combine to exaggerate these impairments, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read: Side effects of ADHD medication

One of the main problems with determining the effects of ADHD on intelligence is that the neural basis of intelligence is largely unknown. The closest scientists have come to determining which areas of the brain are responsible for intelligence is a focus on the strength of the connections between the left prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is one of the most developed areas of the brain and is responsible for many higher functions.

Recent studies have shown that individuals with ADHD often show less activation in the left prefrontal cortex than those without the condition, indicating that this area of the brain could be where the condition manifests itself. This is backed up by studies that show that the brains of children with ADHD develop slower than normal, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.  As the brain develops from the back to the front, the prefrontal cortex is the last to grow, hence the higher prevalence of ADHD in children than in adults.

It is possible that future treatments for ADHD could minimise or eradicate these effects and allow ADHD sufferers to unlock the potential of their high IQ’s. Until that time, however, those with ADHD may have to work harder than their peers to achieve the results they deserve.

Read more:
Antidepressants during pregnancy may up risk of ADHD 
Causes of ADHD 
Could banting treat ADHD?


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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