It can be hard for someone with ADHD to pay attention in boring lectures, stay focused on any one subject for long, or sit still when they just want to get up and go. People with ADHD are often perceived as those who stare out the window, daydreaming about what’s outside. It can feel at times like the structure of civilized society is too rigid and sedentary for those with brains that want to go, go, go.
It’s an understandable viewpoint, considering that for 8 million years since the earliest human ancestors evolved from apes, we’ve been nomadic people, wandering the earth, chasing wild animals, and moving to wherever food was. There was always something new to see and explore.
This sounds like an ideal environment for someone with ADHD, and research may prove that hyperactive hunter-gatherers were indeed better equipped than their peers.
ADHD and hunter-gatherers
A study conducted at Northwestern University in 2008 examined two tribal groups in Kenya. One of the tribes was still nomadic, while the other had settled into villages. The researchers were able to identify members of the tribes who displayed ADHD traits.
Specifically, they examined the DRD4 7R, a genetic variant that researches say is linked to novelty-seeking, greater food and drug cravings, and ADHD symptoms.
Research showed that members of the nomadic tribe with ADHD—those who still had to hunt for their food—were better nourished than those without ADHD. Also, those with the same genetic variant in the settled village had more difficulty in the classroom, a major indicator of ADHD in civilized society.
The researchers also noted that unpredictable behavior—a hallmark of ADHD—might have been helpful in protecting our ancestors against livestock raids, robberies, and more. After all, would you want to challenge someone if you had no idea what he or she might do?
In essence, the traits associated with ADHD make for better hunters-gatherers and worse settlers.
Up until about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture, all human beings had to hunt and gather in order to survive. Nowadays, most people don’t have to worry about finding food. Instead, for most of the world, it’s a life of classrooms, jobs, and plenty of other places with structured codes of behavior.
In evolutionary terms, hunter-gatherers were generalists, in that they needed to know how to do a little bit of everything to survive. This information wasn’t passed down during the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a classroom. It was passed down from parent to child through play, observation, and informal instruction.
ADHD, evolution, and modern schools
Children with ADHD quickly learn that the world isn’t going to change for them. They are often given medication to curb the unruly and distracted behavior that can cause problems in school.
Dan Eisenberg, who headed the Northwestern study, co-wrote in an article in San Francisco Medicine which said that with better understanding of our evolutionary legacy, people with ADHD can pursue interests that are better for them and society.
“Children and adults with ADHD are often made to believe that their ADHD is strictly a disability,” the article stated. “Instead of understanding that their ADHD can be a strength, they are often given the message that it is a flaw that must be solved through medication.”
Peter Gray, PhD, a research professor in psychology at Boston College, argues in an article for Psychology Today that ADHD is, on a basic level, a failure to adapt to the conditions of modern schooling.
“From an evolutionary perspective, school is an abnormal environment. Nothing like it ever existed in the long course of evolution during which we acquired our human nature,” Gray wrote. “School is a place where children are expected to spend most of their time sitting quietly in chairs, listening to a teacher talk about things that don't particularly interest them, reading what they are told to read, writing what they are told to write, and feeding memorized information back on tests.”
Until recently in human evolution, children took charge of their own schooling by watching others, asking questions, learning through doing, and so forth. The very structure of modern schools, Gray argues, is why many children today have trouble adjusting to social expectations.
Gray argues that there’s enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that if children are given freedom to learn the way they do best—instead of being forced to adjust to the norms of the classroom—they no longer need medication and can use their ADHD traits to live more healthy and productive lives.
It is, after all, how we got here.