“People with ADHD have novelty-seeking brains that are better-adapted to hunting for prey on the savanna than for attending school.” This time-worn gospel truth was recently repeated in the New York Times in “A Natural Fix for ADHD”, and it remained the most-emailed article in the entire Times through the week of mid-term elections.
The psychiatrist who wrote the article should know a thing or two about novelty-seeking. Thankfully, for New York Times readership statistics, he took a break from the things he does all day, every day to enjoy the novelty of becoming an expert on ADHD for a day. According to the Weill Cornell Medical College, his humdrum daily existence limits him to expertise in Personality Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Mood Disorder, Mood and Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, Psycho-Pharmacology and Refractory Depression. There was no mention of attention disorders, learning disorders or behavioral disorders.
Who said that novelty-seeking brains are better suited for hunting?
The oft-repeated notion that hunting-gathering is more suited to ADHD brains than non-ADHD brains doesn’t get challenged much, because a) it sounds intuitively plausible and b) there aren’t many hunter-gatherers around to test it on. This means…(drum roll)…it probably deserves to be challenged!
A day of hunting sounds very novel to people stuck in 40-hour workweeks. Here in Michigan, the entire state shuts down for the first day of deer season, just like Louisiana shuts down for the first day of alligator season. No one wants to miss these hunting holidays, because they are once-a-year novelties.
Contrast that to the life of a Stone Age hunter-gatherer. Hunting was their workweek. Every day, they hunted. Their day planners probably looked something like this:
Not sure how much novelty you want to impute to Tobor’s life, but doing the same thing day-in and day-out is the definition of humdrum, not novelty. Modern-day school looks pretty interesting to me compared to day-after-day of chasing down the same prey on the same savanna with no retirement in sight.
Current ethnographers think that early man became successful at hunting due to physiologic adaptations that allowed steady runs of 30 plus miles every day. (There’s a really interesting TED talk on this here.) Our ancestors couldn’t outrun many species for 100 meters, but they could outlast them in a marathon. This required hunters to focus on a small herd or even a single animal for much of an entire day.
Any novelty seekers want to join me in a 30-mile run every day?
I don’t think you get to just assume that early hunters flourished due to novelty-seeking because it fits your narrative. I’ve run a few marathons. It takes planning, practice and steadiness to finish them. People who get overly excited, distracted or erratic fall behind the ones who can keep a consistent pace. Now, if you want to make the case that novelty-seeking drove reproductive behavior and ensured the survival of the species, your case begins to sound plausible.
In sum, hunting prey on the savanna may be the opposite of a job that entails novelty-seeking. For all we know, it might have required more mind-crushingly boring dependability and consistency than most 21st century jobs. At any rate, we shouldn’t change the educational system or adjust medication use based on this novel, untested and probably erroneous speculation.
I hope Dr. Friedman enjoyed the novel experience of being ADHD expert for a day. I hope the New York Times readers enjoyed the novelty of a break from the election monotony.
Mostly, though, I’m thankful for the research community that slogs 30 miles day after day to bring home some real meat in the search for an evidence-based understanding of ADHD.