Associative Thinking with ADHD: What Is It? How Does It Feel?

July 1, 2019 Noelle Matteson

People with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often think associatively rather than linearly. I am not alone in jumping from one thought to another (and another) in rapid succession. Though many of us are not able to track the steps our minds take to get from one idea to an apparently unrelated one, some of us are—usually, after the leaps have been made.

How Associative Thinking Can Look

For example, someone might talk about a television show that reminds me of a similar series. That reminds me of a former friend who loved the latter series, which brings up thoughts of summer camp with that person. Then I remember a hilarious moment with another camper. That is how, a second after the person mentions a TV show, I end up laughing about something that seems entirely unrelated.

We all do this to an extent, but this mental version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon seems especially prevalent with ADHDers. A number of people with ADHD do not like the confusion this causes, but a few (including myself) enjoy tracing our thought journey backward: how did we get from point A to point X? I was glad to find that many people with ADHD appreciate this aspect of themselves.1 This associative thinking can help in creative, analytical, and problem-solving endeavors. It enables someone to make unusual and interesting connections.

Associative Thinking and Brainstorming Versus Organizing

It helps explain why, when it comes to writing, I often like brainstorming (when I am not under pressure) but struggle with organizing. I have a hard time following unstructured outlines. It can feel like I am only able to organize an essay while on medication. However, I realized that there are a wide variety of ways to outline, some of which are non-linear and associative but still structured. (See "ADHD and Writing" for more information.) 

These struggles and successes can apply to activities other than writing, of course. Associative thinking can lead to very long and rambling conversations, as I often have with one of my friends who also has ADHD. Sometimes I would get frustrated with myself for not getting to the point, but now I try to embrace it (within reason).

It is hard to control our attention, to both our surroundings and our thoughts. This can cause a lot of problems, but it can also lead to fascinating discoveries.

How do you find associative thinking works in your ADHD brain? Do relevant songs frequently pop into your head, do you find yourself wondering about the beginnings of the universe after sitting on a rickety chair, or does your mind not work this way at all? Let me know in the comments.


  1. ADD Forums, "Associative Thinking-Do You Do This?" Dec. 2010.

APA Reference
Matteson, N. (2019, July 1). Associative Thinking with ADHD: What Is It? How Does It Feel?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Noelle Matteson

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August, 5 2020 at 2:03 am

So I, not more than 10 minutes ago, just penned a really weird journal entry, even for myself. I found my writing turned into an odd rhythmic poem full of mixed metaphors that all connected via associations. When finished I had to eyeball this so much to even see the details I was leaving that my conscious self was not attentive to.
Curious about that, I decided to google "associative thinking" because I had a realization that my mind does this sort of thing constantly. I've always had good reason to think I have ADHD (runs in family, DSM-5 self-analysis) but never made the connection to my non-linear thought processes.
It's super interesting and I wish it was more valuable/sought after in my field of work (structural engineering, ie. math and strict building code or client requirements). Thanks for writing! To be understood makes me feel on top.

July, 7 2021 at 9:58 pm

Yes, I do this constantly. It’s difficult to explain to others when you’re laughing about something that their story reminded you of, but I credit my associative thinking with my ability to see patterns with predictable outcomes where others cannot.

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