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The Upside of a Distracted Brain

A professor analyzes the essays of French writer Michel de Montaigne, and finds his brilliance may be one upside of a distracted ADHD brain.

The brilliant French writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) confesses that he is easily distracted when he puts pen to paper, but at the same time he seems to regard his wandering attention as an advantage, even as the source of his unique informal style as an essayist. I’ve been teaching his works to students for many years. It’s only recently, in light of what we now know about adult ADHD, that I have been able to venture the following historical diagnosis-of a “deficit” that is arguably a benefit to the creative imagination.

We all read personal essays. Occasionally, we may try our hand at writing one (like this) as a way of exploring our own thoughts and feelings. An expository essay, I tell my students, drives straight down the rails of evidence toward a conclusion at the end of the line. A personal or informal essay lets the mind wander and wonder. At the moment, I wonder whether the inventor of the personal essay might have suffered-quite happily, in his case-from ADHD.

It may seem surprising that a form so familiar, so apparently “natural,” had an inventor, but before the 16th-century French writer Michel de Montaigne published his Essais in 1580, no one had quite written in the mode that would take its name, and its spirit, from the title of his book.

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“I cannot fix my subject,” says the author. “Could my mind find a firm footing, I should not be making essays [literally ‘essaying myself,’ in French] but coming to conclusions.” Nothing in Montaigne’s experience or in his own thinking is “fixed,” and so his writing will probe, speculate, veer off in whatever direction it will, even contradict itself. For him, essaying is a verb, tracking the irregular movement of his mind as a kind of encephalographic process.

Over many years of teaching Montaigne, it would not have occurred to me to regard this writing as symptomatic of anything other than the author’s literary genius. Historical diagnosis is always a sketchy business at best. But in the light of what we now know about ADHD, Montaigne’s reflections seem telling. His meditation on the “natural infirmity of the mind,” while owing much to a long tradition of philosophical skepticism, also speaks immediately to his own experience. The mind “does nothing but ferret and search, and is all the time turning, contriving, and entangling itself in its own work.” It may spy some goal far off like a “gleam of light,” but while “running towards it, so many difficulties cross its path, so many obstacles and so many new quests, that it is driven astray and bewildered.”

And this: “When Alcibiades asked in amazement how Socrates could put up with the continual din of his wife’s nagging, the master replied, ‘Like anyone who gets used to the common sound of the water-wheel.’ It is quite the contrary with me; my mind is sensitive, and quick to take flight; when it is absorbed into itself, the slightest buzzing of a fly will torment it to death.”

Much has been written lately, in a vague if suggestive way, about the possible connections between ADHD and the creative imagination. If the mind is “distracted”-shunted off the track of sequential and conventional thought-might it not then be capable of more supple forms of cognition, noticing odd bits, seeing the pertinence of the seemingly irrelevant or trivial, attuned to the resonance of ordinary moments, discovering how things can touch each other at unexpected angles?

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It is just this remarkable ability to navigate the complex currents of experience, borne along by them rather than trying to control them, that Montaigne rather modestly calls his “unsystematic practice”: “I deliver my thoughts disjointedly, article by article, as something that cannot be expressed all at once, or as a whole.” Montaigne, and the essay tradition he sponsors, prompts us to understand that the world does not present itself to us “as a whole”; indeed, that the tendency to see it so implies a mind bent on constraining the rich and shifting particularities of life (and mental life) into the mold of fixed ideas.

If my diagnosis is near the mark, then-I tell my students nowadays-as the heirs of Montaigne, we are all practitioners of the arts of ADHD when we sit down to write an essay.

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