Hunting, Novelty and the Myth of a Natural Fix for ADHD

“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. 

Namibian hunters

Namibian hunters

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:

Tobor, the Neanderthal, enjoyed novelty-seeking behavior every Saturday night.

Tobor, the Neanderthal, enjoyed novelty-seeking behavior every Saturday night.

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.

Recreation of Neanderthal woman

Recreation of Neanderthal woman, ostensibly prepped for Saturday night.

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.

Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

Posted in ADD, ADHD, ADHD myths
10 comments on “Hunting, Novelty and the Myth of a Natural Fix for ADHD
  1. Christophe Kaufmann says:

    I entirely agree with the fundamental idea. Nevertheless, I find novelty seeking in my ADHD-peers very puzzeling. For myself, seeing serveral patients allways in a new light makes enough novelty so I don’t get bored, but seen from the outside, I always do the same: sitting and speaking with a person. So hunting too may be experienced in different ways. For some, reading a page without illustration and paragraph is too monotonous other may find this kind of challenge easy, but get bored after 3 weeks in a new job…
    So I find the concept not well defined and relying on quite subjective aspects.
    C.Kaufmann

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    • You make an important point. ‘Interest’ and ‘novelty’ are are personal and subjective. An evening in Paris would be novel for me, not so for a Frenchman.

      The notion of ’emotional salience’ is more accurate than mere novelty. Fear, shame, urgency, relief of discomfort, anxiety and other emotional states. People with ADHD seek cultivate emotionally salient states, because cognitive values (prudence, timeliness, efficiency, etc.) don’t connect to motivational circuits. People with ADHD can’t engage tasks at prudent times, but certainly can at urgent times.

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  2. chaddgr says:

    Would you prefer going hunting with someone who is impatient and impulsive, or someone who isn’t? AD/HD characteristics may promote survival of the species, such as someone attaching a key to a kite string, during a thunderstorm, and discovering electricity, or discovering mold can be turned into penicillin, but lack of forethought may not promote survival of the individual.

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  3. Susan says:

    Sir, you are a national treasure. Why am I just now discovering your blog?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. chaddgr says:

    I agree; you’re a treasure. You once again proved yourself to be an INTERnational treasure at CHADD’s International Conference, three weeks ago, as the only MD speaking on medication options, at the general sessions, and on two different topics! Really enjoyed “Anxiety and AD/HD.” ‘Sorry I didn’t get to hear the other one. You may be shy and unassuming by temperament, but fortunately, for us, in your efforts to help others, you have not allowed yourself to remain a BURIED treasure! And to think you practice right here, in East Grand Rapids, Michigan! How could we be so lucky?! Love the photos on your blog, too!

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  5. Donna Munro says:

    I think, though, there is something to be said for finding the right fit, which is what the hunter/farmer metaphor speaks to. No matter what medication I take, I still have a brain that perceives in a wider angle and notices what’s interesting. That’s a real handicap in some jobs, and it’s perfect for other jobs. There is only so far medication can take me, even though it’s a tremendous help. I still have to find ways to get things done that fit my brainstyle, my motivation style, and so forth, which tend to be different from the mainstream, and thus hard to find, believe in, or justify to others. So if i think of myself as a hunter gatherer, I’m telling myself I see and do things differently, and there’s no need to try to fit into roles that I suck at. In order to make it in this “farmer” dominated world, I need chemical help, and education about my brainstyle, and about how to make it an asset rather than a hardship. In another place and time my difference wouldn’t necessarily be a handicap, but in this place and time it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. boz27606 says:

    Dr. Mason,

    I like your statement “I don’t think you get to just assume that early hunters flourished due to novelty-seeking because it fits your narrative.” To me this reveals the attempt of the article to make ADHD sound exciting and appealing. Perhaps there is good intention behind this but this kind of article does not serve ADHD research, the ADHD community nor does it change the stigma of ADHD.

    I would like to ask the psychiatrist who wrote the article “Do you even hunt?”. Their perspective on what makes a good hunter appears to be based on television and movies. You point out that the life of a hunter would probably lack novelty which is what I find is true. Very little of hunting is “novel”. Most of the time it is just a walk in the wilderness.

    I do think ADHD would be a benefit for the stone age hunter-gatherer but not in the way presented. My ADHD helps me hunt because of my DISTRACTABILITY. You see, your quarry is really good at hiding. You find animals by the little shadows, differential movement, beaten down leaves, freshly eaten plants, scat, tufts of hair and other tiny signs of their presence. If you consider the dangerous game that is found in the Savana, leopard, lion or cape buffalo, then the distactability could save your life when you notice the stare of their predator eyes. So, a hunter is helped by an attention that can be diverted by the smallest distraction or stimulus.

    There is an understanding of ADHD that only ADHDers have. You clearly possess this insight.

    Thank you,

    David Boswell

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  7. W van den Berg says:

    I like your response to the populistic psychiatrist which might have socioeconomic reasons for sharing his ideas with the newspaper. Maybe the idea of the hunter’s brain is attractive because the adhd aspect of the brain is the last part of the high-end-product the human brain is, so you could say that at the primarily hunting stage in evolution, or some other stage before it every human being had the adhd brain.

    People who have dementia will often fall soon into that state of mind( and sadly far beyond), even people with a minor head trauma can experience(temporarily) adhd symptoms as will people who have premenstrual syndrome or just a few days of shortage of sleep.

    The difference with adhd is that you are in that state the whole time for day and night.

    Now its interesting what causes some people having still that brain, is it old genetic material, or a combination of genes with some environmental factor like chemicals, childhood or parental infection?

    Kind regards,
    W. den Berg, MD

    Like

    • Thanks for your insights! It would be hard to prove, but I suspect that ADHD is a genetic remnant, that it represents an older brain form that is being supplanted by a more advanced evolutionary model with a more capable pre-frontal cortex. It probably lingers in the gene pool, since it is not often fatal prior to child-rearing, so the genetic selection pressures are slower. Since ADHD is associated with intra-uterine toxins–especially tobacco smoke–, difficult/prolonged labor, head injury, maternal anxiety, maternal depression, childhood poverty, early PTSD, adoption, family disruption and on and on it would certainly make sense that it has a genetic basis which is easily triggered by a range of early-life insults to amplify its expression. That’s an educated guess with the emphasis on ‘guess’.

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Oren Mason MD
Oren Mason MD

Oren Mason MD

Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

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