AD(H)D and Evolution

Evolutionary Psychology is a branch that seeks out the evolutionary advantage of behaviour and neurology.  Since up to 5% of people have AD(H)D, from an evolutionary perspective, we have to assume it has a purpose.  So what is that purpose?

Firstly, we have to remember that we are living in a culture.  We are bound by rules and expectations that we assume to be true, because it’s the agreed norm.  However it isn’t true.  It isn’t true that in order to succeed in life you have to pass exams.  Success depends on your values: money; family life; travel; longevity; a ‘quiet life’. Yet that’s what we tell young people.  It isn’t true that if you’re not sitting still, in silence, with eyes focused you’re not listening.  Yet that’s what we assume when people are shifting around.  So cultural norms are more about controlling behaviour than they are about what is true.  Remember, 50 years ago it was thought that homosexuality could be ‘cured’ by psychiatry.

A social understanding of AD(H)D would say that because people are different, to the ‘norm’ we give them a label.  It’s perfectly possible that the differences in thinking style are simply a natural variation in the way humans are made, and that it is in fact society that produces too narrow a scope in which we are expected to be ‘normal’.  Plenty of AD(H)D strengths, such as visual spatial reasoning, would have been an evolutionary advantage in every other era previous to the 20th century.  Until advanced schooling and service industries became the norm, we needed people who could:

  • See beyond the prescribed rules to a new possibility for invention
  • Use the ‘gift of the gab’
  • Build things using minimal resources
  • Work fast at mechanical tasks
  • Had a low tolerance for discomfort and would seek immediate remedies for this to avert a crisis
Think of farming.  Early industry.  Market place trading. Defending the village from neighbouring tribes. Feeding the family with little choice in ingredients.

I was watching a young boy (9?) in a park a few months ago.  He was being chased around by his mother, getting into trouble and generally ‘acting out’.  He wanted to have a go on the swing, but there was a queue and he couldn’t stand still enough to wait.  And then all of a sudden he stopped, stood completely still by the swing and appeared to be waiting.  He was focused intently on the two children swinging back and forth.  Without warning, he then dashed in between the two swings and ran to the other side of the swing frame, as one swing was far forward and the other was far back.  It was a split second decision, absolute precision timing and no one on the swings was hurt.

Of course his mother had enough at this point and dragged him out of the park with much protesting.  But it made me think – what amazing clarity of judgement! What intense visual spatial perception!  I want a kid with that skill aiming for a career as a fighter pilot; a formula one driver; a paramedic.

Yes, that boy was hard to manage in a busy playground, but the problem is that we are not giving people the right context in which to thrive.  I watched him and I thought, how sad.  That kid has a real skill and nowhere to explore it, take it to its max, let it be appreciated.  Just lots of places where he has to stay quiet, not use his body to think.  Most people will happily take personal development on board for their weak spots if they have enough praise for what they do well.  It’s only when we continually focus on the negative that people give up.

There are a higher proportion of Americans with AD(H)D than Europeans.  Is this because Americans are slap happy with the labelling and the medication?  Or is it because genetically, they come from a pool of people who were sitting around Europe and South America over the last 300 years and decided “right, I’ve had enough!  I’m going to trek thousands of miles to an uncertain future because I’m bored and hungry here!”

Bring on the AD(H)D.  We need movers and shakers in this dried up, post industrial economy.

For more info watch the Ken Robinson TED lecture on creativity and schooling, and in particular note his comment about the famous choreographer who couldn’t sit still….