Why ADHD is Not a Mental Disorder

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

When my children, Cindy and Eric, were diagnosed with ADHD in the 1990s, hardly anyone had a good word to say about it. The go-to-guide on ADHD, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), classified it as a mental disorder. The negative labels embedded in the diagnosis--deficit and disorder--were difficult for me to accept. I'm an optimist by nature, so I take a glass half-full approach to life. I couldn't help feeling that the author of DSM, the American Psychiatric Association, was taking a glass half empty perspective.

An exception to the APA's disease model of the 1990s was Thom Hartmann's hunter versus farmer theory, which argued that ADHD behavior gave adaptive advantages to our hunter-gatherer ancestors 45,000 years ago. Hartmann reasoned that distraction, a common ADHD trait, was an advantage for our hunter ancestors because it allowed them to continually observe their environment. Hyperactive and impulsive behavior facilitated strong muscle development and a quick response in fight or flight conditions.

I was intrigued by Hartmann's quirky, counter-culture hypothesis because it offered a positive way to view ADHD. More important, it answered a question I'd often wondered about: Would Cindy and Eric's behavior be so problematic in earlier times? They were both accident-prone, which terrified me at times, but their main behavior challenges involved school activities. If we still lived in a farming community, they wouldn't have to to go to school, so their antsy actions wouldn't be such a problem. Instead, Cindy could be physically active while tending the chickens, pigs and cows (which she would enjoy because she loved animals) while Eric could drive a real tractor instead of the miniature replica he zoomed around the family room with. I felt it was short-sighted of the APA to call ADHD a mental disorder when the same behavior might have been considered normal 100 years ago.

As much as I liked Hartman's hunter theory, there was no evidence to support it. Having been around academics most of my life, I felt obliged to accept the APA's definition of ADHD as a mental disorder. Still, contrarian that I am, I clung to my glass half-full philosophy, convinced that there were good things about having ADHD. A friend joked about my having "high maintenance children" but she freely admitted they were never boring and often charming.

Fast forward to present time. Recent genetic research suggests that Hartmann's theory has merit. Scientists are examining the human genome and have discovered that ADHD is 75% hereditary. An much studied gene is the dopamine DRD4 7R, which researchers have nicknamed the "novelty seeking gene." Frequently found in individuals with hyperactive ADHD, novelty seekers are known for enjoying new experiences. In hundreds of human studies, researchers have found that novelty seekers are out-of-the box thinkers who are more likely to take risks, show curiosity, enjoy travel and have a taste for exotic foods. Novelty seekers have played an important role in our history, as hunters, warriors, explorers, and inventors. Their curiosity inspired sea captains to sail into uncharted seas and scientists to propose radical ideas that have altered the way humans live.

The world has changed dramatically since hunter gatherer days, but our stone age brains haven't caught up to the present. Behavior that was adaptive has become maladaptive in current times. For example, modern day binge eating is believed to be a leftover from our feast or famine stone age days. They didn't have Burger King back then, so if a clan came across a bush of berries, it made sense for them to eat as many as possible. Gorging increased the tribes' survival rate, which increased the chance that members would reproduce and go on to leave their genes in the population. Evolutionary psychologists call this “gorging gene theory” and have argued that when we pig-out on pizza and ice cream, we are paying homage to our feast or famine forebearers. Binge eating in ancient times helped our ancestors to survive, but in today’s world, it can lead to heart disease and obesity.

Binge eating, excessive energy, and a preference for new, sometimes risky experiences were adaptive traits for early humans but they can create trouble for modern humans. To learn more about novelty seeking, take the quiz in my post, "Are you a Novelty Seeker?"


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