If you’ve ever learned something by playing a game, observing someone else, or watching a TED talk, you’re doing it the way humans have for the majority of our history.
Rather than learning in a classroom, our hunting and gathering ancestors played, observed each other and, occasionally, got a lesson from family or friends. If you were lucky enough to have a personality that was well-suited to this style of learning, it not only meant you acquired new skills quicker — it probably also meant you lived longer.
As nomads, those of us who could learn the best way to get a meal or avoid getting eaten by a wild animal were the ones who survived, reproduced, and passed their traits on to their children.
It turns out that many of those traits are surprisingly similar to the ones we now associate with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, better-known as ADHD. Being impulsive, impatient, or easily distracted might make learning in a formal classroom more difficult. But those traits may have helped all of us, as a species, get to where we are today.
Nomads With ADHD
“Having the profile of what we now call ADHD would have made you a Paleolithic success story,” Weill Cornell Medical College clinical psychiatry professor Richard A. Friedman suggested in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. In fact, there’s limited evidence, based on modern-day tribes, that supports the theory that some or all of these ADHD-like traits were beneficial for our ancestors.
Take the Ariaal, a group of people in Kenya who originally lived as nomadic animal herders: Some have a gene variant that’s been linked to a portion of ADHD cases. The variant doesn’t necessarily determine whether or not someone has ADHD — the genetic particulars of the disorder are still being investigated — but it’s one of the strongest genetic links to ADHD that’s been found to date. It’s also much more common among nomadic populations.
In recent years, some of the Ariaal separated from the original group and adopted a settled lifestyle instead. In the people who still live nomadically, those who have the ADHD-associated gene variant tend to be better- nourished. But in those who have settled, people with that gene variant tend to be underweight.
That finding suggests one possible explanation of the variant’s frequency in nomadic societies that resemble those of our ancestors: Certain characteristics that we now link with ADHD may have helped some people survive and thrive under conditions more akin to those of our earliest ancestors than to the offices and classrooms of today.
All of this suggests that the characteristics we now associate with ADHD are meaningful, and may even give those who have them an edge over others in certain situations.
“It is not hard at all to think of conditions in which ADHD-like characteristics are socially valuable,” Boston College professor of psychiatry Peter Grey wrote in his Psychology Today blog.
Think of your most impulsive friend. On the one hand, his or her inability to wait for a result or to stay focused on one thing could be slightly annoying. On the other hand, being impulsive could let him or her act quickly when something unexpected happens, some research suggests.
Or, take someone who can never seem to follow directions. While annoying to the teacher or parent whose job it is to make sure children do as they are told, this tendency could help that person come up with creative solutions to a problem that someone else might not see. Recent research backs up that idea; in two studies (one of children and one of adults), participants with ADHD came up with more novel ideas than those without the disorder.
All this also helps explain why more and more children are being diagnosed with ADHD each year: People might not be getting sicker so much as our values as a society are changing. Teachers, parents, coworkers, and bosses increasingly want people who sit still, follow instructions, and stay focused on one task at a time, Grey suggests.
In contrast, people with ADHD might be better suited for schools or jobs that take advantage of their flexibility and impatience and put these characteristics into use. “Let’s not rush to medicalize…curiosity, energy and novelty-seeking,” Friedman wrote. “In the right environment, these traits are not a disability, and can be a real asset.”
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