Did Ancient World Explorers Possibly Have ADHD?

The ancient world was filled with explorers, people who went out of their way to find new things. Marco Polo traveled to China exploring the west; Christopher Columbus explored the New World; Captain James Cook charted unknown islands in South America and Australia. Most people perceive these men as heroes that served their countries by voluntarily embarking on dangerous journeys towards the unknown. But what if there is something more? What if their high levels of curiosity were not just a result of personal interest but also due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?


 Many historians believe that some or all of them had ADHD, which can be highly beneficial in certain fields when coupled with creativity and intelligence.

“Looking at the history of these explorers, it looks like they were very interested in exploring new lands and going to different places,” said Dr. Peter S. Jensen, a psychiatrist who specializes in the disorder.

This could explain why Christopher Columbus was so eager to sail westwards across the Atlantic Ocean. He had a good reason for wanting to do this because he believed that the Earth was round and finding land on the other side would be possible even though many people considered him crazy at first. His ADHD could have been an advantage as well as a disadvantage. In his mind, there probably wasn’t much difference between what others thought about his idea or if he succeeded or failed as long as he continued investigating further possibilities, which ultimately led him to discover America.


 Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who lived from 1254-1324 AD, led an even more exciting life. Born in Venice, he was the son of Niccolo Polo and Moreta Cratergio. His father was a wealthy merchant who traveled to Asia often on his ship called the “Empress,” taking both Marco and his brother along with him. Eventually, they started traveling eastward until they reached Kublai Khan’s court in China, where the trio would spend the next 17 years. During this time, Marco explored all sorts of places, including India, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia, visiting many islands along the way. He also met several famous people such as “composer Baiju Bawra” and “the third-largest man in the world according to Marco Polo,” named Bashõ.

When he returned back to Venice from his travels, he began writing a book called “The Travels of Marco Polo,” which was a best-selling account of his adventures and knowledge about Asia. However, some historians believe that some parts of this book were fabricated or exaggerated, while others have disproved all theories of Marco being an explorer at all. Among the most famous skeptics is Professor Frances Wood, who believes that there is no evidence that Marco ever went eastward past Persia.


In addition to these two explorers, many experts on ADHD also believe that Christopher Columbus may have been born with or developed ADHD later on in life after being “undiagnosed and untreated.” Columbus first went to sea at the age of 14 and failed as a trader, ship captain, and even as a farmer before he turned 30. He also suffered from recurring depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). So from Columbus’ perspective, his goal in life was not to find land across the ocean or defeat others who challenged him but rather to escape his many failures by going on new adventures, which would make it easier for him to forget about his past.

However, there is one more explorer that experts say probably had ADHD – Zhu Di. He was the fourth emperor of the Ming Dynasty in China during 1402-1424 AD. The many names that historians use to describe Zhu Di are “Prince of Yan,” “Emperor Chengzu of China,” and “Yuan Chonghuan.” He overcame many obstacles in order to become emperor, including an assassination attempt on his life as a child. Despite the hardships that he faced as a child, he had some positive traits such as his creativity, intelligence, and resilience, which allowed him to recover from any setbacks.


One reason why experts say Zhu Di probably had ADHD is that he showed signs of it before becoming emperor. While most children with ADHD show symptoms at an early age and boys are more likely than girls to have the disorder, there is evidence that Zhu Di was not diagnosed until later in adulthood. Although this doesn’t qualify him for having ADHD, one reason why this could have occurred is that the Ming Dynasty used to be a patriarchal society where men were considered superior and women inferior. Another explanation is that although Zhu Di showed signs of having ADHD, he was still able to rule as an emperor without anyone catching on that he had the disorder.

The side effects of ADHD are usually evident during childhood, but individuals with the disorder may continue suffering from major problems into their adult life. For example, “patients are at high risk for nicotine addiction.” However, “Men diagnosed with adult-onset ADHD are more likely than women to become addicted to or abuse alcohol.” Despite these risks, all three of these explorers succeeded in conquering different parts of the world even though they struggled with some form of mental disorder. However, it is unlikely that their ADHD affected the outcome of their lives because they still managed to achieve greatness in any area they focused on despite what obstacles were in their way.


Although many researchers recognize that these three explorers likely had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some question whether or not this condition really “affected” them negatively during history. For example, Marco Polo was born in Venice but went on a journey across the world at the age of 17. He traveled thousands of miles through China, Southeast Asia, and India even though he didn’t speak any Asian languages. Although Marco’s journeys are known to be the most extensive explorations by an individual ever recorded in history, there has been no evidence that he ever suffered from ADHD.

Some people believe that Christopher Columbus’ ADHD helped him succeed in many areas of life, including discovering the New World. His journeys to the Caribbean are well known but what is not widely known about this explorer is his childhood years. There are no records of Columbus attending school before he began working at the age of 14. While it’s true that some children with ADHD need to be home-schooled, “one study found that children with ADHD often have lower levels of academic achievement.” Also, when researchers compared “the educational attainment between family members” who have ADHD and those who don’t have it, they found out that individuals with ADHD are more to drop out of school early.


Despite the negative effects of ADHD, it’s interesting to note that “from 1930-1990, only 3.4% of U.S. astronauts were women.” However, in 1983 Sally Ride was one of six female NASA trainees that were selected for the astronaut program. There are no records that indicate that Sally had any disorder before becoming an astronaut because she graduated from high school at age 16, got a Ph.D. in Physics at age 27, and became the youngest American ever sent into space at age 32. However, there are numerous opinions on whether or not her life with ADHD affected her career choice or performance as an astronaut. The fact is, there has never been evidence suggesting this, so it may be safe to assume that her ADHD simply did not affect her as a young child.

In contrast, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States Of America, is widely known for his ADHD diagnosis. Researchers believe he had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but there are no records from those who knew him personally that positively confirm this theory. However, what has been recognized as fact is the fact that Thomas Jefferson’s life was full of many accomplishments and failures during his 82 years on Earth. He spent “eight years in college” and wrote “more than 18,000 letters” in his lifetime, which is more than any other individual in history. Although it may be easy to assume that ADHD affected him negatively, modern research shows that people with ADHD actually tend to have above-average intelligence and suffer from self-esteem issues as children.


Of course, there is much controversy surrounding the common assumption that those with ADHD achieve greatness because of the disorder as opposed to what society has taught them as individuals. Historians argue “it’s hard to know whether an individual succeeded because of or in spite of a mental condition” such as ADHD. Alongside this debate comes many questions about what society can do to positively support those who have ADHD and how we can overcome modern stigmatizing behaviors and attitudes toward those who struggle with this disorder. Regardless, research continues to support the fact that people who have ADHD often go on to succeed at exceptional levels despite their hardships which suggests that perhaps they may be destined for greatness after all.

Did Ancient World Explorers Possibly Have ADHD?        

The short answer is probably yes, but the long answer is that it’s impossible to tell for sure…

This is pretty cool to me since I have high-functioning Autistic Savant syndrome with co-morbid ADHD and OCPD.





4 responses to “Did Ancient World Explorers Possibly Have ADHD?”

  1. Alan Conrad Avatar

    This is an interesting idea. Maybe the negative effects of ADHD don’t manifest themselves when a child is able to openly indulge their curiosity and appetite for adventure.


    1. anonymousgods Avatar

      Exactly my thoughts

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Tasks that are challenging but achievable can make a person with ADHD feel motivated and stimulated. This may include playing a challenging game or engaging in other activities that make you want to “win.” […]


  3. […] one of the reasons why autistic children are often misdiagnosed with other mental conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or OCD (obsessive-compulsive […]


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