Imagine being a part of a nomadic tribe from millennia ago, where every day is a new adventure, filled with unexpected twists and turns. This lifestyle fostered certain characteristics — hyper-awareness, quick reflexes, and impulsive actions — which we now associate with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Fast forward to today. Although we've traded wild landscapes for digital screens, those ancient traits haven't left us. We're cavemen and women living in a world of fast Wi-Fi and faster food. In this modern era of smartphones and instant gratification, people on the ADHD spectrum may find themselves more susceptible to the siren call of modern distractions, prone to hyperfocus on instant notifications and gratification. The survival instincts of our ancestors now make us more prone to the allure of our high-speed, high-stimuli present, and even potentially addictive behaviours.
So here we are, at the crossroads of our evolutionary past colliding with the pace of the modern world. Like ancient wanderers stuck in a digital jungle. Intrigued? Let's journey together into this fascinating wilderness, decoding the science of evolution and ADHD.
“The real problem of humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology” – E.O. Wilson, 1998
2.6 million years vs 10,000 years
The Paleolithic era (aka Stone Age) spans from about 2.6 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago. During this time, humans were primarily hunter-gatherers, relying on hunting animals and gathering wild plant resources for sustenance. Around 10,000 years ago, humans made a significant transition to agriculture, becoming farmers and cultivating crops for food production. In the grand timeline of human existence, we were hunter-gatherers for a whopping 99% of the journey, and farmers only 0.38%!
Our genetic blueprint is still palaeolithic
We carry within us a majority of the genetic code of our nomadic ancestors, the hunter-gatherers who roamed the earth, constantly adjusting to their environment. Throughout a span of 2.5 million years, our brains have developed, finely tuned to the patterns of the sun, the shifting seasons, and the ever-changing world around us. This deep connection remains rooted within our very being.
Our metabolism is also paleolithic
Our physiology and metabolic processes have preserved traits from our Paleolithic ancestors, which are designed so that our bodies can remain attuned to the natural rhythms of the environment. Humans have evolved, but the intricate machinery within us has not evolved that much and continues to function in harmony with the ancient patterns of nature.
The primal movement
Biohackers, with their relentless pursuit of optimising their mental and physical performance, have looked at our primal blueprint as the best way to understand how to hack that primal code in order to live long, healthy and fulfilling lives.
The hunter-gatherer brain is closer to the ADHD brain
Did our nomadic ancestors pass down ADHD traits? According to a study in Nature Genetics, hunter-gatherers likely had more ADHD traits because they provided a survival advantage.
Imagine the advantage these traits would confer to hunter-gatherers: an alertness to the subtlest signs of danger, a focus that zeroes in on moving prey. In essence, ADHD could have been Mother Nature's wild card, a survival strategy for our roving ancestors.
How an evolutionary edge created a modern mismatch
Evolutionary mismatch theory suggests that the ADHD traits that once empowered us have become maladaptive due to radical changes in our environment.
Fast forward to our modern world, people with ADHD are more likely to struggle with:
- lack of stimulation (classrooms, office cubicles etc)
- constant distractions from smartphone notifications
- immediacy of digital interactions may feed into impulsivity
- blue light from screens disrupting sleep-wake cycles
- modern sedentary lifestyles prevent using pent-up energy through physical activity
- noise pollution disrupting focus and concentration
- overwhelm and anxiety due to information overload from news and social media
- boredom from highly repetitive routines and schedules
So, while the ADHD traits that once aided our survival in a nomadic lifestyle may no longer serve us in our current environment, they're a stark reminder that our evolution is a work in progress, shaped by the world we've come from as much as the world we're heading into.
The Unexpected ADHD Advantage
Compelling research suggests Mother Nature is slowly trying to 'edit out' ADHD traits as they no longer seem necessary for survival. But evolution is a slow process!
Although ADHD traits can be a disadvantage in some settings, they can also be a springboard to success when harnessed adaptively:
Celebrity Superstars 🌟: Famous figures like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Justin Timberlake, Channing Tatum, and Emma Watson have all used their ADHD traits to excel in their careers.
Creative Advantage 🎨: Artistic genius Leonardo da Vinci was thought to have ADHD, which contributed to his exceptional creativity.
Focused on Passion 🔍: People with ADHD can hyperfocus on tasks they find interesting, turning passion into productivity.
Entrepreneurial Spirit 💡: Research shows people with ADHD are more likely to be entrepreneurs due to their innovative and out-of-the-box thinking.
Problem Solvers 🧩: Individuals with ADHD often excel at thinking on their feet and solving problems in real-time.
Mind Wandering: The Primal Roots of Modern ADHD
Mind wandering is a universal experience – we all do it occasionally. But for people with ADHD, mind wandering can be intense to the point of being disruptive and interfering with task performance. The culprit behind mind wandering is our brain's default mode network (DMN). Acting as an internal narrator, the DMN interweaves the past, present, and future into a cohesive narrative. It's our silent brainstormer, connecting dots and sparking new ideas.
In today's digitised age, an ADHD-wired brain may find itself in a relentless tug-of-war with our nomadic past and a techno-centric present. A defining trait of ADHD, intense mind-wandering, can throw a monkey wrench into task performance and daily productivity.
- Mind wandering is a universal experience - we all do it occasionally.
- But for people with ADHD, mind-wandering is so intense it resembles a mental rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions.
- The culprit behind mind wandering is our brain's default mode network (DMN).
- The DMN acts like an internal narrator turning our thoughts into a cohesive narrative.
- An overactive DMN can result in mental overload, leaving even the most brilliant individuals overwhelmed and exhausted.
Dr Hallowell, an esteemed ADHD expert, equates this DMN dynamic to an angel and demon dichotomy in his book ADHD 2.0. The 'angel' side of DMN fosters creativity, innovation and empathy. In parallel, the 'demon' side, can trigger intense distractibility and brain fog, turning focus into a formidable challenge.
ADHD mind-wandering is often akin to a mental rollercoaster, with a rapid stream of overlapping thoughts and emotions leading to sudden highs and lows. The challenge escalates for individuals with ADHD who have a high IQ, and when combined with ADHD, it can lead to a mental labyrinth, making thought regulation an arduous task. The resulting mental overload can leave even the most brilliant individuals feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
Explore Your Brain learning about the continuum of ADHD traits
Learning about ADHD in order to identify what manifestations resonate with us can be likened to a journey of self-exploration, which can help us understand some of our patterns of thought and behaviour and sometimes offer clues as to how to optimise our well-being or performance.
Isn’t it normal for all of us to be a bit ADHD?
Indeed. ADHD traits manifest across a spectrum, much like personality traits. Many people inherit these traits but not enough to be clinically diagnosed with ADHD, existing in what's known as subclinical or subthreshold ADHD. That’s why many people can relate to ADHD symptoms, and indeed ADHD traits are distributed across a continuum in the population. Even those with milder versions might exhibit symptoms that they've never associated with ADHD, making the decision to undertake an ADHD assessment challenging yet vital. Hence, the importance of consultation with a psychiatrist trained in diagnosing adult ADHD.
Is there a test to diagnose ADHD?
ADHD can only be diagnosed after an assessment carried out by a mental health professional with expertise in ADHD. We see the assessment as an opportunity to understand a number of important processes in your brain, like the way your reward system functions and your executive skills operate.
At the London Psychiatry Clinic, we move beyond pathologising ADHD or personality traits to embrace neurodivergence.
When is it helpful to have a formal ADHD assessment?
When the ADHD traits cause ongoing distress or impairment in somebody’s life, they may be at the higher end of the ADHD spectrum and may meet enough diagnostic criteria to formally receive a diagnosis of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
At the London Psychiatry Clinic, we offer diagnosis and treatment based on evidence and a personalised approach by highly qualified psychiatrists or clinical psychologists with extensive experience in ADHD in adults and children. Learn more about ADHD assessments and evidence-based treatment options.
What about medication?
Taking medication is not mandatory for individuals with ADHD. However, medication often proves to be beneficial and safe for many people with diagnosed ADHD who experience more severe or distressing symptoms, despite what conspiracy theories may suggest in online circles.
Generally, it only takes a few days of trying an ADHD medication to know if it’s helpful or not. In contrast, other medications like antidepressants often take weeks.
- The majority of our genetic blueprint and metabolism is still reflected in our Paleolithic ancestors.
- Biohackers use the primal blueprint as a strategy to optimise their mental and physical performance.
- Many ADHD traits may have been advantageous in hunter-gatherer settings but are now seen as maladaptive due to modern environmental changes.
- ADHD traits can also provide advantages, such as creativity, focus on passion, problem-solving abilities, and entrepreneurial spirit.
- Understanding the continuum of ADHD traits can help everyone optimise their well-being and performance.
- Mind wandering, a common experience, can be intensified in individuals with ADHD due to the brain's default mode network.
- ADHD traits exist across a spectrum, with subclinical or subthreshold ADHD being common.
- Formal ADHD assessments are recommended when traits cause ongoing distress or impairment in daily life.
- An ADHD assessment helps understand the unique way your brain navigates the world. It's an exploration that could lead to understanding, acceptance, and empowerment.
Watch ‘Rise of the Planet of the Neurodivergents”, a Global Exchange Conference presentation by Dr Alberto Pertusa - Director and Consultant Psychiatrist at the London Psychiatry Clinic.