Reader Question: Are People With ADHD Better at Sudoku?

ADaptHD reader Audrey wrote with an interesting question about ADHD and sudoku puzzles:

I have noticed that the ADHD symptom of having racing thoughts that are vaguely connected really jumps out when I am solving sudokus. There is lots of information about doing sudoku and other puzzles to help with ADHD but I can’t find anything studying the opposite relationship. Do you know anything about this, specifically if ADHD affects or actually improves one’s sudoku solving?

When I got this email, I wasn’t aware of any published research linking sudoku and ADHD in one direction or the other, and after searching the literature, I still haven’t found any. (As a side note, I did stumble across a paper in JAMA Neurology about someone who, after being trapped in an avalanche, developed a condition where working sudoku puzzles would cause them to have seizures – but that’s not really relevant for our purposes!)

However, there is some research that can help us speculate on the topic of ADHD and sudoku in a more general way.

As Audrey points out, the ADHD brain has a knack for “jumping around” between loosely connected ideas. Sometimes this type of jumping around and trying different possibilities is exactly what you need to make it out the other side of a tricky sudoku.

The ability to leap between ideas that aren’t directly related has to do with what psychologists call divergent thinking. A common way that psychology researchers test divergent thinking is by asking someone to think of as many unrelated ways as possible of using an everyday object, such as a paper clip.

Interestingly, there are some studies suggesting that people with ADHD score higher on this type of creativity. So to the extent that solving sudokus requires thinking “outside the box” and being able to transition between ideas in an unconstrained way, we can indulge in some educated speculation that ADHDers really could be predisposed to have sudoku skills.

While I’m not familiar with any research that looks for a relationship between divergent thinking and sudoku solving, there is a 2011 study that turned up some other factors that seem to influence people’s sudoku abilities.

One of those is working memory – as in people with better working memory tend to do better on sudokus. Since ADHD is associated with working memory deficits, that finding actually gives us a reason that people with ADHD could be at a disadvantage when solving sudokus.

Another key factor seems to be experience. Often in life, practice makes perfect (or at least less imperfect), and sudoku appears to be a case where that principle holds. So an alternative theory to consider is that even if people with ADHD don’t start off better at sudoku, they might disproportionately enjoy sudoku, leading them to do more puzzles, and ultimately making them better at sudoku.

I can think of a few reasons why ADHDers might particularly enjoy sudoku:

  • Solving a puzzle offers an immediate reward. Since the ADHD brain tends to seek out immediate rewards, people with ADHD might be especially likely to enjoy hunting for solutions to sudokus, crossword puzzles, and the like in the same way they have an affinity for board games.
  • Sudokus involve an unconstrained and non-linear type of thinking. It helps to try different possibilities and look at the puzzle from multiple angles. You don’t follow a rigid formula to solve a puzzle, and that type of fluid thinking could be a draw for ADHDers.
  • Sudokus can help counter boredom. People with ADHD tend to be highly averse to boredom. Sudokus are convenient for filling in “empty” time when you’re on the bus, in the waiting room, and so on, which could further inspire ADHDers to take up sudoku.

Ultimately, the research doesn’t give us a clear answer on whether ADHDers are more inclined to be natural-born sudoku whizzes. Maybe ADHDers’ capacity for divergent thinking helps. Maybe their working memory impairments hurt. Maybe the immediate reward and boredom-fighting powers of puzzles lead people with ADHD to do more sudokus, improving their puzzle-solving skills. Or maybe individual differences not related to ADHD are more important. In any case, for psychology researchers reading this, maybe you can do a study to test ADHDers’ sudoku skills!

As a final note, when it comes to the question of whether practicing sudokus could potentially help with ADHD symptoms, the research is similarly sparse. I’m not aware of any published studies that rigorously investigate that question (although please leave a comment if you know of one that I missed!).

Some research does indicate that people who do sudokus in their leisure time tend to have better cognitive functioning into old age. But it’s not clear that doing sudoku is the cause of those superior cognitive skills.

This topic is interesting, so hopefully we will see more published research on it. Until then, what we know anecdotally is that solving puzzles can be an activity that really engages the reward-seeking, non-linearly-jumping ADHD brain – that in itself is worth taking note of!

If you have a question you’d like us to answer, send it to editor [at] adapthd [dot] com!

Image: Flickr/Pedro Vera

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