Thomas Edison’s recipe of ADHD:

‘A Tremendous Ability in an Un-tremendous World'

October 31, 2012

By: Tina Burgess

“If modern psychology had existed back then, Tom would have probably been deemed a victim of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and prescribed a hefty dose of the ‘miracle drug’ Ritalin. At age seven - after spending 12 weeks in a noisy one-room schoolhouse with 38 other students of all ages - Tom's overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost his patience with the child's persistent questioning and seemingly self-centered behavior. Noting that Tom's forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average, he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster's brains were ‘addled’ or scrambled.” (The Biography of Thomas Edison)

Thomas Edison (born Feb. 11, 1847; died Oct. 18, 1931) is mentioned more often than any other historical figure for exhibiting classic ADHD behavior. As a poster child for ADHD, Thomas Edison would have been an excellent participant in the research study described on Oct. 31, 2012 in the article A little exercise may help kids with ADHD focus.

After observing “40 eight- to 10-year-olds”, the study on the “short-term effects of a single bout of exercise in order to improve the cognitive skills of ADHD” lead researcher Matthew B. Pontifex of Michigan State University in East Lansing, concluded that,

“Twenty minutes of exercise may help kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) settle in to read or solve a math problem.”

As one of the most prolific inventors of all time, Thomas Edison exerted a tremendous influence on modern life, contributing inventions such as the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. Aside from being an inventor, Edison also became a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public. (What’s the Deal with Learning Disabilities: A Tremendous Ability in an Un-tremendous World)

Would Thomas Edison be alive today, he would add another invention; a recipe for ADHD.

  1. Take a genetic predisposition for creativity, energy, and inventiveness
  2. Add a stimulating, noisy, physically restricting environment
  3. Mix both well with artificial colors, sugary foods, and carbohydrates

Thomas Edison’s recipe for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) would address the three major components that are generally included in a discussion about ADHD; nature, nurture, and the input of energy such as food.

Having experienced a physically active environment during his 12 weeks in the one-room school house, Thomas Edison would (like many other educators today) disagree with this newest research study .

ADHD and Nature

The genetic component of the children participating in the research study seems to have been left out. Just as there is a predisposition for alcoholism and certain diseases, there is a predisposition for ADHD. Whether a “predisposition” manifests itself at all and to what degree depends not merely on one factor but on a person’s nature (genetics) within nurture (an environment).

Thomas Edison’s genetic explanation for his ADHD characteristics would have been easily explained by the nature of his parents. His mother had seven children (he was the youngest one), was the strong-willed daughter of a highly respected Presbyterian minister, and was a woman of action.

Thomas Edison’s father was energetic, strong-willed, and showed the “devious” potential of ADHD. In Thomas Edison’s Biography, Samuel Edison is characterized as a “rather ‘worldly’ and roguish father”.

ADHD and Nurture

Whether an ADHD “energy gene” manifests itself in positive energy or negative energy depends very much on “nurture” or environmental influences. Had Thomas Edison stayed in the one-room school house, his life would most likely have taken a different path.

Fortunately for Thomas Edison, his mother, Nancy Edison, withdrew her son from the one-room school house as soon as she became aware of the situation and began to "home-teach" him focusing on the “Three Rs” and the Bible. Nancy Edison was convinced that her “son's slightly unusual demeanor and physical appearance were merely outward signs of his remarkable intelligence.”

As an active participant in his son’s education, Thomas Edison’s father “encouraged him to read the great classics, giving him a ten cents reward for each one he completed. “

“It wasn't long thereafter that the serious minded youngster developed a deep interest in world history and English literature. Interestingly, many years later, Tom's abiding fondness for Shakespeare's plays lead him to briefly consider becoming an actor. However, because of his high-pitched voice and his extreme shyness before every audience - except those he was trying to influence into helping him finance an invention - he soon gave up the idea… At age 11, Tom's parents tried to appease his ever more voracious appetite for knowledge by teaching him how to use the resources of the local library. This skill became the foundation of many factors that gradually caused him to prefer learning via independent self instruction.”

ADHD and Exercise

Like Thomas Edison, many children with ADHD are highly self-motivated if given the chance. In addition to self-motivation, many students with ADHD are also highly diplomatic. “I’ll give you what you want if you’ll give me what I want” is a diplomacy some educators of children with ADHD have experienced.

It is that diplomacy which could have contributed to Matthew B. Pontifex’s test results of students performing better after the 20-minute exercise.

The theory that having students “spend their ADHD energy” through physical exercise has its pitfall. In reality, many students who are physically active are so wound up that it becomes harder to have them focus in the classroom.

Would a hamster running in a hamster wheel be more likely to focus on a mental task after stopping or would the hamster want to continue to run?

In reality, finding a balance between the physical and mental energy of ADHD children is much more challenging.

Distinguishing the physical energy from mental energy in children with ADHD is one crucial factor in working with ADHD children. A second crucial factor is the relationship and effect of physical energy on mental energy.

"Meditation has been used as an attention training method for many thousands of years, and was mostly involved with religious or spiritual practices in various parts of the world, especially in the eastern countries. Breathing meditation is a popular method which can be applied to all people without instructions that are too complicated. In meditation therapy, by breathing meditation which is specified to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, benefits this group of patients, it would be very useful, culturally appropriate, cost-effective and would reduce the drugs used which will save the child from drug side effects." (

For Thomas Edison, once his parents realized that their son’s mental energy was beyond what they could do, they

“scraped enough money together to hire a clever tutor to help their precocious son in trying to understand Newton's complex mathematical principles and unique style.... Unfortunately, this experience had some negative affects on the highly impressionable boy. He was so disillusioned by how Newton's sensational theories were written in classical aristocratic terms -which he felt were unnecessarily confusing to the average person -he overreacted and developed a hearty dislike for all such "high-tone" language and mathematics.... All the while he was cultivated a strong sense of perseverance, readily expending whatever amount of perspiration needed to overcome challenges. This was a characteristic that he later noted was contrary to the way most people respond to stress and strain on their body.... The key upshot of this attribute was that his unique mental, and physical, stamina stood him in good stead when he took on the incredible rigors of a being a successful inventor in the late 19th Century.”

For any parent of a child with ADHD or any adult with ADHD, the United States Institute of Health continuously conducts research about the Functional MRI of Relaxation Response Training in Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It also conducts research about the benefits of meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques for adults and children with ADD or ADHD.