Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Da Vinci and Attention Deficits

Wendy MacNaughton for NPR

In the upcoming book, Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image, Author and Historian, Toby Lester, reconstructs what Leonardo Da Vinci's daily life looked like by examining his journals. Lester claims Leonardo used to travel with a small notebook hanging from his belt, and "whenever something caught his eye," he would make a note, or begin "sketching furiously." Included in this notebook, a to-do list of things Leonardo wanted to accomplish throughout the week.

Artist's rendering by Wendy MacNaughton for NPR

The notebooks brings to light Leonardo's insatiable curiosity, as well as an immense lack of focus. Some experts, such as Jonah Lehrer, think that this lack of focus may actually have contributed to Da Vinci's creativity. In his upcoming book Imagine, How Creativity WorksJonah states: "We live in an age that worships attention. When we need to work, we force ourselves to concentrate. This approach can also inhibit the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain."

Jonah sites a recent study by Dr. Holly White, then at the University of Memphis, and her colleague Priti Shah, of the University of Michigan.

They recruited 60 undergrads, half of whom were diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So these kids had real difficulty focusing and sticking to any one activity. All the students were then given a variety of creativity tests (including the Creative Achievement Questionnaire, originally developed by Shelley Carson at Harvard) and, surprisingly, the ADHD students generally got higher scores. When White asked, "Who among you has won a big part in a play, an art prize, a science prize?" — who has been recognized for his or her achievements out there in the real world — again it was the ADHD students who had done better.

The study suggests that minds that break free, that are compelled to wander, can sometimes achieve more than those of us who are more inhibited, more orderly.

Article via NPR


  1. I find my problem is not the lack of ideas but the lack of time and focus to execute them. I guess it's all a question of balance.

  2. Yay! Thanks. I feel much better about my lack of focus now. Seriously.

  3. That's so weird. I was just talking yesterday about how I think most people don't improve on their craft because they lack the focus and patience to work through a piece.
    Although when I'm frustrated or bored of a piece it usually ends up being the biggest struggle to finish it.

  4. I think the important aspect was Da Vinci's innate and intense desire to examine and learn about nearly everything, rather than an inability to decide on what to focus on - or to simply have too much going on, and not enough time.

    Curiosity and a life-long appetite for knowledge is the crucial other half of the equation. These days, we're conditioned to have increasingly shorter attention spans, but that's simply sculpting a generation that is easily and quickly bored - and I don't think that necessarily correlates with increased creativity.

    I'm off to read the NPR article, because I'd be interested to know what other factors characterised the study group...

    Thanks, Dan - a great morning topic!


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