Scientists Graph How People With ADHD Tell Stories

Maybe you’ve seen this comic about ADHD storytelling, created by Dani Donovan, that has made its way around the internet:

ADHD storytelling

You might’ve thought this was nothing more than a good meme illustrating the ADHD tendency to go off on tangents and tell stories using way more words than necessary.

But this picture might be more than a meme. It might be … science.

We know that because a team of ten education, linguistics and psychiatry researchers have applied network analysis techniques to create graphs of stories told by people with and without ADHD, as described in a paper newly published in the journal PLOS One. And the upshot is that the graphs don’t look too different than the ADHD storytelling meme shown above.

To make these graphs, the researchers asked young adults to read a picture book, then tell the story in their own words. The young adults’ stories were recorded, then turned into speech graphs. Here are some examples the researchers provided showing how stories were turned into graphs:

Example story graph

The stories were told in Portuguese, but for those of us who don’t speak Portuguese, the examples still show how the graphs were put together. Essentially, every point or “node” in each graph is a word, and the connections between nodes show which words followed other words in the speakers’ stories (not including words like “and” or “the”).

The annotations like “L1” and “LSC” refer to different features of the graphs that the researchers were interested in, such as where words immediately circled back on themselves, and where there were large groups of words linked together in cycles.

What’s most important is that these graphs can be used to learn about how people tell stories. Graphs with large groups of nodes that circle back on themselves correspond to more coherent stories in which people reused some of the same words at different times throughout the story. Graphs of nodes that run in a line without loops correspond to people talking but not returning to words they had used earlier.

When the researchers analyzed how graphs of people’s stories related to ADHD symptoms, they found some interesting patterns. In particular, people with more ADHD symptoms tended to have the following characteristics in their storytelling graphs:

  • Fewer long-term connections: When researchers took the largest group of words connected in a cycle, it was smaller for graphs of people with more ADHD symptoms. That indicates people with ADHD reusing words less throughout their stories, suggesting stories with less long-term coherence – or, to put it another way, stories where the teller goes off on tangents.
  • More single-word loops: Although they had fewer long-range connections, people with higher levels of ADHD symptoms told stories with more loops consisting of a single word. In other words, ADHDers seem to have a preference for immediate, short-term repetition rather than long-term structure.
  • Greater total number of words: People with more ADHD symptoms used more words overall to tell their stories. However, that pattern was specific to people with high hyperactive and impulsive symptoms – which, the study’s authors point out, is consistent with the DSM’s hyperactive symptom of “talks excessively.”

Here’s a picture the researchers provided with some examples graphs of stories told by people with and without ADHD:

ADHD story graphs

The bottom two graphs were for people who reported experiencing none of the symptoms listed in an 18-question ADHD questionnaire. As you can see, the graphs for those people’s stories have large cycles and groups of interconnected nodes. In other words, the people telling the stories reused words throughout the stories, suggesting long-term coherence.

By contrast, the top two graphs represent stories told by people who reported experiencing all 18 ADHD symptoms screened for. Those graphs have some small loops in them, but they mostly go in a long line without ever returning to the same words. What you’re seeing is a visual depiction of someone with ADHD telling a story that turns into an ongoing, disjointed tangent!

Now, these graphs aren’t exactly the same as the comic about ADHD-style narration. The underlying idea, though, is similar: that stories told by people with ADHD have a way of taking unexpected detours away from the place they started, sometimes using far more words than anticipated.

Based on everyday experience, many with ADHD have long known that to be true, and now we have confirmation – from memes and science.

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