Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.)
When I practised pharmacy, one of the most upsetting prescriptions dispensed were stimulants like Ritalin for pre-pubescent boys. To me they were just boys being boys and I was very much against dosing their growing active brains with drugs. My favourite story is about a Hamilton Crown attorney, who when told by the school’s principal to put his son on Ritalin, not only refused but charged that principal criminally with practising medicine without a license.
Today the word “hyperactive” doesn’t just describe certain individuals; it also is a quality of our society. We are bombarded each day by four times the number of words we encountered daily when I was a young boy. Even vacations are complicated—people today use, on average, 26 websites to plan one. Attitudes and habits are changing so fast that you can identify “generational” differences in people just a few years apart: Simply by analyzing daily cellphone communication patterns, researchers have been able to guess the age of someone under 60 to within about five years, either way with 80 per cent accuracy.
To thrive in this frenetic world, certain cognitive tendencies are useful: to embrace novelty, to absorb a wide variety of information, to generate new ideas. The possibility that such characteristics might be associated with A.D.H.D. was first examined in the 1900’s.The educational psychologist Bonnie Crammond, for example, tested a group of children in Louisiana who had been determined to have A.D.H.D. and found that an astonishing high number—32 per cent—did well enough to qualify for an elite creative scholars program in the Louisiana schools.
It is now possible to explain Professor Crammond’s results at the neural level. While there is no single brain structure or system responsible for A.D.H.D (and some believe the term encompasses more than a single syndrome), one cause seems to be a disruption of the brain’s dopamine system. One consequence of that disruption is a lessening of what is called “cognitive inhibition.” The human brain has a system of filters to sort through all the possible associations, notions and urges that the brain generates, allowing only the most promising ones to pass into conscious awareness. That’s why if you are planning a trip to Europe, you think about flying there, but not swimming.
But odd and unlikely associations can be valuable. When such associations survive filtering, they can result in constructive ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have been thought of. For example, when researchers apply a technique known as transcranial stimulation to interfere with key structures in the filtering system, people become more imaginative and inventive, and more insightful as problem solvers.
Individuals with A.D.H.D. naturally have less stringent filters. This can make them more distractible but also more creative. Such individuals may also adapt well to frequent change and thus make for good explorers. Jews whose ancestors migrated north to Rome and Germany from what is now Israel and the Palestine territories show a higher proportion of the A.D.H.D. gene variant than those Jews whose ancestors migrated south to Ethiopa and Yemen. In fact, scientists have found that the farther a group’s ancestors migrated, the higher the prevalence of the gene variant in that population. North America has one of the highest levels of A.D.H.D. in the world because nearly all of our ancestors migrated great distances to come here.
Or consider the case of Ariaal, a Kenyan tribe whose members through most of history were wild-animal herders. A few decades ago, some of its members split off from the main group and became farmers. Being a wild-animal herder is a good job if you are restless; subsistence farming is a far tamer occupation. Recently, the anthropologist Dan Eisenberg and collaborators studied whether people with A.D.H.D. might thrive in the former lifestyle but suffer in the latter. They found that among the herders, those who possessed a gene that predisposed them to A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Among the farming Ariaal, the opposite was true: Those who lacked the genetic predisposition for A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Each group did what they were better suited for according to their genetic makeup.
A.D.H.D. is termed a disorder, and in severe forms it can certainly disrupt a person’s life. But you may view a more moderate degree of A.D.H.D. as an asset in today’s turbulent and fast changing world. Many boys today are held back in school, not only because they are slightly hyperactive, but due to the large proportion of female teachers who expect them to sit still with their hands folded like little girls. The majority of university graduates today are female. Men are losing their place in our future society and some of the brightest innovations may be lost with them.