You might have heard that people with ADHD tend to have certain cognitive deficits. On specific kinds of cognitive tasks, people with ADHD do worse than people without ADHD on average.
An example is working memory, the kind of memory you would use if I were to ask you to remember a phone number temporarily so you can enter it into your phone. Generally, people with ADHD score worse on working memory tests than people without ADHD. Another example is that people with ADHD tend to be worse at estimating and reproducing intervals of time.
These findings have led researchers to hypothesize that cognitive deficits are a key part of what ADHD fundamentally is. People with ADHD struggle with things like attention, self-control and organization partly because they’re lacking in cognitive skills that these things draw on.
However, it turns out the situation might be a little more complicated than this. In particular, it seems that whether people with ADHD have some of these cognitive deficits depends on the context in which they’re being asked to use these cognitive skills.
For example, children with ADHD tend to have more variable reaction times, and variability in reaction time is one of these cognitive deficits associated with ADHD. But it turns out that if you give children with ADHD a reaction time test and give them an incentive to respond quickly, their performance starts to resemble that of children without ADHD.
The same pattern applies for at least some other cognitive deficits linked to ADHD: when you give people with ADHD a reward, it reduces or even eliminates the deficit.
In the case of visual working memory, researchers have found that providing incentives improves the performance of children with ADHD. Similarly, adding a motivational incentive improves the ability of children with ADHD to reproduce intervals of time but doesn’t do much for children without ADHD.
In all these studies, the running theme is that cognitive deficits associated with ADHD might partly be a question of motivation and reward. Maybe people with ADHD underperform on these tasks partly because they’re more dependent on having some kind of incentive for their brain to be working in top shape.
This idea dovetails nicely with another point I like to bring up on here a lot: that if you have ADHD, finding an environment that’s optimal for your brain is especially important. The studies I linked to above drive this point home in a stark way because they show that for people with ADHD, an environment without the right incentives quite literally means worse cognitive functioning.
So there are two takeaways from this research. The first is that apparently people with ADHD can’t do anything consistently – not even have cognitive deficits! The second is that the brains of people with ADHD are unusually dependent on rewards, so if you want to have your brain at its best, being in an environment that keeps you motivated is essential.