The Wall Street Journal
What If Einstein Had Taken Ritalin?
ADHD's Impact on Creativity
February 3, 2005; Page D1
In American schools these days, countless class clowns are sitting down and shutting up. In chemistry labs, students who used to mix chemicals haphazardly, out of an insatiable curiosity, now focus on their textbooks. In English classes, kids who once stared out the windows, concocting crazy life stories about passersby, now face the blackboard.
Ritalin and other drugs for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have helped many children improve their focus and behavior -- to the great relief of parents and teachers. But ADHD support groups offer long lists of out-of-the-box thinkers who had classic ADHD traits such as impulsivity, a penchant for day-dreaming, and disorganized lives. Among those who are believed to have had the disorder: Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, Winston Churchill.
The question is whether the Ritalin Revolution will sap tomorrow's work force of some of its potential genius. What will be the repercussions in corporations, comedy clubs, and research labs?
Some researchers now wonder if would-be Einsteins and Edisons will choose different career paths because their creativity and drive are dulled by ADHD drugs. They also worry that the stigma of being labeled with ADHD could lead some kids to lose confidence, and dream smaller dreams.
This concern comes as more parents are being forced to weigh the sometimes dramatic benefits of ADHD drugs against the unknown that accompanies any new generation of treatment. As many as 12% of kids today have been labeled with ADHD, and the number of kids' prescriptions for ADHD drugs, including Strattera and Adderall, rose 23% between 2000 and 2003, according to the latest figures from Medco Health Solutions Inc. ADHD drug prescriptions for pre-schoolers were up 49%.
A person who focuses better taking Ritalin can be "like a horse with blinders, plodding along. He's moving forward, getting things done, but he's less open to inspiration," says Lara Honos-Webb, a psychologist at Santa Clara University. In her new book, due out next month and titled "The Gift of ADHD," she identifies "gifts" that often accompany the disorder, including creativity, exuberance and intuition. She believes ADHD drugs temper these traits.
But others who treat ADHD argue that when children are given appropriate drug regimens, they become far more capable. "God knows what Einstein would have accomplished had he been diagnosed and treated," says Wilma Fellman, a career counselor who helps clients with ADHD.
It's too early for there to be long-term career studies about today's Ritalin generation. And certainly, many who take Ritalin say it helps; some describe it as quieting the circus in the room. Still, a lot of adults who've excelled as entrepreneurs, performers, politicians and communicators trace their successes to their ADHD.
In seventh grade in the late 1970s, Erich Muller was such a class clown that his teachers actually sentenced him to more days of detention than there were days in the school year. They had a cubicle-like enclosure built atop his desk to keep his eyes from wandering. They said he should be on Ritalin. His parents refused.
"As a kid, I'd see a thousand different things in every cloud," says Mr. Muller. "Teachers told my parents I was 'too creative.' Too creative like who? Picasso?" He now goes by the name "Mancow," and, based in Chicago, is one of the nation's highest-paid radio personalities.
David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue Airways, never took drugs for his ADHD, and is now an advocate for kids with the disorder. He says ADHD helps him think unconventionally, and he worries that if he took medication, he'd be like everyone else. He has found techniques to concentrate better, while hiring others to handle organizational details. He is credited with inventing the electronic airline ticket, which was in part an effort to help people with the classic ADHD trait of forgetfulness.
Too many kids, especially boys who are merely rambunctious, are being given the drugs with just cursory evaluations, says William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School.
In his ongoing research into boyhood, Dr. Pollack has found anecdotal evidence that Ritalin renders some kids less interested in pursuing creative opportunities. One boy he studied had been active in his school's science club. After he was put on Ritalin, he felt like the spark inside him was extinguished. He lost interest in the science club and dropped out. Eventually, he stopped taking Ritalin, returned to the club, and developed a flashlight alarm system that won a major science competition.
Another subject in Dr. Pollack's research is a math whiz in his 40s who was hyperactive as a child. As an adult, the man earned several hundred million dollars developing computer technology. "His ideas come to him in a flash," explains Dr. Pollack. "He feels that if he had been given Ritalin as a child, he'd have just ended up as a teaching assistant in some science course."
This man did try Ritalin recently because his wife said his hyperactivity was hurting their marriage. But he found the drug stifled his thinking. He's now trying behavioral techniques to be calmer at home.
ADHD drugs are good for patching up weaknesses, not enhancing strengths, says Dr. Honos-Webb. "If your parents want you to be a lawyer, maybe these drugs can help you do that." But she believes a child on Ritalin is less likely to be the next great dot-com pioneer or even a Robin Williams-like comic.
She wishes more parents would see their kids' futures in less-rigid terms. "Spaciness," she insists, "is a path to inspiration."