(Note: This is the original “Born To Explore” page, written in May 1997).
Do ADD genes exist because they make a population more fit? Does a creative and restless minority help us adapt?
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD/ADHD) may have evolved because it increases creativity and inventiveness of the population. The condition has a genetic basis and is estimated to exist in 5% of the American population. Because this is an extremely high percentage for a “defect,” modern theories in population genetics suggest a positive factor related to ADD. This positive factor may appear unrelated to ADD, for example, immunity to a particular disease, or it may be directly related to ADD traits such as impulsivity and daydreaming.
Surprising similarities between the characteristics of those with ADHD and people who are highly creative and inventive has been demonstrated in the last few decades. Creative people are born explorers, temperamentally dissatisfied with the mundane. The traits of inattention, impulsiveness, restlessness, daydreaming, lack of social skills, enthusiasm, hyperactivity, and difficulty in finishing projects are descriptive of successful and creative people as well as “ADDers.” People diagnosed with ADHD score higher on creativity tests, and highly creative people are more hyperactive than the norm. Similar physical brain differences have even been identified for the two groups. Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, Nikola Tesla and Mozart are thought to have been Attention Deficit Disordered.
Population genetics only require that the negative expressions of ADD be effectively cancelled out by other positive traits within the population as a whole, not for each individual. “Referred” ADD cases may present one end of the spectrum, while successful inventors characterize the opposite end.
If ADD genes are selected for because they foster creativity, then ADD is not a neurological “defect,” but rather a variant temperament (albeit one which may require intervention).
“Every adaptation is a tradeoff” – Carl Sagan
- 1. The Relationship Between ADHD and Creativity
- 2. Explorers
- 3. Evolution and Genetic Diversity
- 4. The Medical “Disorder” View
- 5. Bibliography
Forward:I’m assuming the reader is familiar with Attention Deficit Disorder. If not, think of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes or Maria from the Sound of Music. Calvin did poorly in school, and Maria was kicked out of the Abby. But both characters had endearing traits. Calvin is wildly imaginative and energetic. Maria throws herself at her new job and succeeds where all others have failed before her (although she is nearly fired for insubordination).
The diagnostic criteria for ADD and ADHD (ADD with hyperactivity) include behavior traits such as impulsiveness, restlessness, hyperactivity, fidgety, daydreaming, losing things, talking excessively, difficulty following instructions, easily distracted, poor attention span, often interrupting others, often shifting activity from one uncompleted activity to another. There are many web sites which contain a typical professional description (the cup is half empty).
Positive ADD Traits:ADDers are often cited in the literature as being highly enthusiastic, energetic, goal oriented and good at trouble-shooting, although these traits are not listed in the diagnostic criteria. They thrive on experiencing a greater variety of what life has to offer. They are good when directions aren’t included (ADDers can’t read instructions anyway). They are intuitive. They are exceptional with computers because computers don’t come with instructions and the results are immediate. The impulsiveness of ADD is an asset at the computer because the ADDer is curious. They are creative and they are explorers.
This site is not about “treatment” of ADD, or the pro’s and con’s of Ritalin. It is an exploration of the nature of ADD from an evolutionary standpoint, and it offers an argument against the concept of ADD as a neurological defect. You might accept this theory and still take Ritalin to help focus, just as many normal people drink coffee and cola to increase alertness. Or, you might decline Ritalin for your moderately ADD child and find a new school for him instead. What is important is that these decisions are based on all the information available, and not merely on recommendations made by school staff or physicians. My purpose here is to point out positive information and ideas drawn from the literature on ADD, creativity, evolution, genetic diversity, and invention.
The Relationship Between ADHD and Creativity
“Being ADD means you see things other people miss. When you see a peach you see a piece of fruit. I see the color, the texture, and the field where it grew.”(Matthew Kutz, a 13-year-old student with ADD, from “Think Fast! The ADD Experience”)
Creativity doesn’t mean the ability to finger paint. The highly creative individual has the ability to take disparate pieces of information and join them in completely new ways. Entrepreneurs, research scientists and engineers, trouble-shooters and inventors all depend on creativity, as do artists. These fields are often suggested as good occupations for people with ADD. Highly creative people are often a bit different or eccentric, and are characterized as “the artist type,” “the absent minded professor” or “the computer hacker.”
Dr. Bonnie Cramond published a paper in 1995 for The National Research Center On The Gifted and Talented called “The Coincidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Creativity.” Dr. Cramond review the scientific literature available for both creativity research and ADD research, and identified many striking parallels between the two conditions.
Brain Structure: There are strong similarities between the brains of diagnosed ADDers and those who are highly creative. Creative people appear to have weaker “braking” mechanisms in their brains than normal people. Researchers in creativity hypothesize that this weak braking mechanism allows many spontaneous and unchecked thoughts to collide over time, resulting in creative thought. ADD researchers observed a similar weak braking mechanism in the ADD brain. They, however, consider this evidence of a neurological defect. Researchers also found that mild brain damage can increase creativity. Mild brain damage in the forebrain can also cause ADD. One theory about how Ritalin works is that it stimulates the braking mechanism in the forebrain, so that the ADDer experiences fewer mental distractions.
In a 1992 study, a group of ADHD children and a group of normal children with similar backgrounds and IQs were compared (Cramond). The ADHD group was found to have a higher creativity and more use of imagery in problem solving, as well as more spontaneous thoughts during a problem-solving exersize. One researcher hypothesized in 1980 that “Intelligent individuals who are bombarded by ideas seek to make sense of them by organizing them into new perceptual relationships. Thus the creative, original idea is born.”
The Creative and Inventive Personality:Many personality traits commonly associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are also associated with highly creative people:
- Inattention and Daydreaming
- Sensation Seeking
- Inability to finish projects
- Enthusiasm and Playfulness
- Difficult Temperament
- Deficient Social Skills
- Academic Underachievement
- Hypersensitivity to Stimulation
- Mood Swings
“They are not just tuned-out of this world; they are also tuned in, often to the fresh and the new” ( Hallowell & Ratey, from Driven to Distraction).
By the time a child reaches the age of two or three, few adults can match his (or her) level of spontaneous inventiveness. There must be something about the way children are wired which fosters this incredible creativity. They also learn primarily on an exploratory, intuitive level (like ADDers) because they have so much to learn. But think about the other traits young children possess. These traits, in an older child or adult, would be identified as ADD traits. Eventually they will grow up and lose most of that excess energy and restlessness, they will have longer attention spans, be less impulsive and, you guessed it, be far less creative. Some part of their brain matures and allows them to focus on blackboards for long periods of time, but that maturity, that very braking mechanism that filters out distractions, also inhibits creativity and exploration. This is the tradeoff for being normal. Normal adults buy books on how to be creative, and long for the ability to see the world through the lenses of a child. Many ADD people, however, never completely lost this ability. That child-like enthusiasm for new experiences remains. ADD people are often described as immature. They are less often described as creative, but the two go hand-in-hand.
Now if you were Mother Nature, and had to devise a simple way to increase the creativity of the population so that they could, for example, design better weapons and eradicate their neighbors, how would you do it? That would be easy. The braking mechanism in the brain which allows people to focus narrowly on uninspiring topics would be less developed than normal. And this is exactly what researchers seem to be finding in the brains of both creative and ADD individuals. Of course, every adaptation is a tradeoff. You can’t increase inventiveness without decreasing some other ability.
Mother Nature would have to limit the number of people with this brain type, because our population also needs a large number of steadfast workers to survive. If everyone was the “creative” type, not much work would get done, and there would probably be anarchy.
So it is entirely possible that ADD exists because it fosters creativity in our population and makes us more competitive. A corporation needs lots of dedicated workers, but it also needs a few brilliant researchers or inventors in order to compete. I have not yet encountered this exact view in the literature, but it’s a rather obvious one, I think. Nearly all books on ADD make mention of an association or similarity between ADD and creativity. Thom Hartmann’s popular concept of ADD as a “Hunter” temperament is closely related. “Hunters” are adapted to constantly scanning the horizon for game, improvising, and noticing every little sign (or distraction) from the environment. However, in Hartman’s model, the ADD “Hunter” is essentially a relic of a bygone era, which just coincidentally happens to have some positives, including creativity. This is an entirely plausible theory. Then again, who wants to have obsolete genes. A simpler and equally likely explanation is that the genes are not obsolete relics, but are still useful. Obsolete genes do not last long if they are being selected against.
Explorers: I prefer to think of ADDers as “Explorers.” The Explorers of today might be descendents of yesterday’s Hunters, but Explorers exist because evolution continues to select for them. Whether in the physical or the cerebral sense, Explorers are always looking for something new and exciting. New places, new ideas, and new challenges. When not exploring, ADDers are bored, restless, and easily distracted by something else that might be more interesting and need to be explored. ADD artists explore an abstract world and compete to see who can go the farthest to break boundaries and do something completely original in uncharted artistic territory (normal people prefer a pretty picture of a barn or a simple melody). Inventors explore the limitless possibilities of technology. This is why ADDers find so easy to start projects and so difficult to finish them. Once the project has been explored, it’s no longer interesting (let someone else finish it). On to the next exploration!
Young children are the ultimate explorers. The entire world is new and must be learned as fast as possible. Abstract relationships must be grasped quickly and this is accomplished largely on a subconscious, or intuitive level. No one explains the mechanics of grammar, yet they learn how to construct proper sentences amazingly fast. ADDers are known for being intuitive and needing to learn at the exploratory level. Most people look down upon this, but it’s probably a faster way of picking up patterns and relationships. Perhaps the impulsivity, restlessness and short attention span of young children are related to the child’s critical need to explore and learn.
If young childhood is a critical age for learning, why is the brain is wired for inattention and hyperactivity (in the same way that an ADDer’s brain is wired?). These children learn faster than adults, but they have many of the same traits as an ADDer. Perhaps long attention spans aren’t as important for learning as we think. Attention is certainly needed for the mundane chores of adulthood, but not for learning. Note I said “learning,” which is not to be confused with the passive memorization so typical of our schools. There is a tremendous difference, which is why some kids who fail classes despite all their efforts actually learn computers very fast when left to their own devices.
I suspect an ADD “explorer” is not wired to work, at least in the mundane sense. They are wired to learn and explore, just like a small child. That they do not learn in school is a failing of the school, not the ADDer. I’ve heard so many stories of “learning disordered” ADDers who are brilliant on their home computer I cannot think otherwise.
Let’s dispel the notion that a consistently focused brain is a more advanced brain. Honeybee “workers” concentrate completely on the task of gathering pollen each day. This does not mean their nervous system is more advanced than ours. Actually, a more commonly used predictor of intelligence in the animal world is playfulness and curiosity. Separating us from the rest of the animal world is not our ability to stay on-task, but rather our ability to solve complex problems and to ask the question “why?” ADD Explorers are great problem solvers because of their creativity and are very often the first ones to ask this question. This is no brain defect.
Actually, not all honeybees focus so clearly on gathering honey. About 5% of honeybees are called “streaker bees” because their purpose is to locate a new nesting site when the time is right (Grade). A highly social species, honeybee populations need more than one type of temperament in their hive to survive. Do the streaker bees gather honey as well as the worker bees? Probably not. But if the worker bees didn’t have the streaker bees to find a new nesting site they would perish.
Evolution and Genetic Diversity
“If the mean effect is favorable, the gene will increase in frequency, and so will all its effects, both positive and negative” – (G. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection)
Modern theories of evolution embrace the concept of selective pressures on populations rather than individuals.A trait that may be bad for an individual might be good for the population overall. For example, some individuals who are ADD will become criminals, but if a few brilliant ADD inventors change the course of history and increase the fitness of the population, the ADD genes will be favored.
If the frequency of a gene occurs in more than 1% of a large population, then it is not considered to be a random mutation, but is assumed to have been selected for. Attention deficit disorder occurs in an estimated 5% of the population. Therefore, we should suspect that it carries some advantage for the population. This advantage might have something to do with the temperamental differences of ADD, or it may be seemingly unrelated, such as immunity to a disease.
Sometimes it’s hard to find this association. A textbook example is the gene responsible for sickle cell anemia in African Americans. This same gene is responsible for increased survival rates upon exposure to malaria, which is still a lethal disease in many parts of the world. There is no intuitive link between sickle cell anemia and resistance to malaria, yet one is a genetic trade-off for the other. Most, if not all, of the more common ailments which run in families are trade-offs for something else.
It’s important for a population to diversify its genes. A four wheel drive truck is a good choice off-road, but makes a poor race car. The race car quickly becomes mired in the mud once it leaves the track. The family car is limited to everyday situations. There is no perfect car which performs best in all settings. It’s better to have all three types available than to be forced to choose the best one. This is exactly what happens in populations, with some genes being more common than others (like having more family cars than race cars).
Within populations of social species, there are social niches which must be filled. Each niche requires a certain temperament. Human populations function best when there are a variety of temperaments to fill the various social niches which exist. That is why there are so many different temperaments. None of these temperaments is ideal under all scenarios.
Think of a population of clones who all have the same temperament. Who would lead? Who would follow? The trick is to have both leaders and followers, in just the right mix.
Now imagine a land of a few creative and restless ADDers amongst a population of workers (or “Farmers”). If there were no ADDers, the workers might never explore new lands, create new inventions, or make new weapons. Conventional thinking would be challenged less often (ADDers are real non-conformists). On the other hand, if there were too many ADDers, who would stick to the daily grind?
I think one reason people accept the theory of ADD as a brain “defect” is the underlying belief that there are only normal people and sick people, and any significant variation from normal must be a sickness. Most people do not understand the basis for radical but normal temperamental variations between individuals, especially if 95% of people are one way and 5% are another.
The Various Expressions of One Gene Type A particular gene type can be expressed differently in various people, depending on hereditary and environmental factors. The same gene(s) that produce a net positive effect in one person may produce a net negative in another. ADD combined with high intelligence may be more likely to pay off than ADD combined with a low IQ because the smarter ADDer is more likely to make constructive use of the constant stream of mental input he receives. For evolutionary purposes, what matters most is the net effect within the population.
ADDers Spill the Beans As an illustration of population genetics and ADD consider the following unlikely example. It is 1000 BC in a small village, and all unmarried teenagers are required to count beans for two weeks. There are several ADDers amongst the bean counters:
ADDer #1 is the black sheep of the flock. This bean counting is the last straw. He takes his bowl of beans and smashes it over another counter’s head, then leaves the village to join a band of thieves who prey on the village for years to come.
ADDer #2 is a daydreamer. She messes up her count often, but is good at faking it. No one notices.
ADDers #3 and #4 are trouble. On the second day of bean counting, they sit near each other and start a huge bean fight. The exasperated but wise elders send the boys out to snare a rabbit for dinner. They return after a 3 day absence with an elk and the village feasts in their honor.
ADDer #5 is a highly energetic woman who counts three times faster than all the others. She actually makes several mistakes, but no one can tell. On the 5th day, she suggests to the elders that there are better ways to count the beans. The elders shake their heads at her forwardness and she forgets about it.
ADDer #6 is highly intelligent. We’ll call him Tom. On the 7th day of bean counting, Tom devises a better way to count beans and becomes a hero. The villagers save so much time that an extra hunt is scheduled and a good surplus of meat is acquired just before an early and devastating winter hits. With the extra meat, the villagers survive the winter, although many of the neighboring villages do not fair so well.
In the above example, ADD genes are expressed in both positive and negative ways. The net result is either neutral or positive, so the gene remains in the population. Also notice how the individual ADDers were not necessarily selected by evolution, but the village population, which contained ADD genes, was.
Now, imagine if the village doctors examined only ADDers #1- #4 and based their assessments of ADD accordingly. ADD might resemble a disease. On the other hand, imagine if only Tom, the inventor, was studied to determine the traits associated with creativity. The ADD traits would be a curiosity, not a disease. Notice how all the ADDers would exhibit similar traits, but these traits would be interpreted differently.
Now lets examine how Tom’s brain “differences” allowed for innovation. After the 6th day of counting beans, which Tom despises more than anyone else, he is required to attend a long village meeting. It is truly boring, and he starts to daydream. He absent mindedly stares at a clay bowl because it has an interesting design on it. A picture of a bear. Bears don’t have to count beans and neither should he. The elders are stupid. Why can’t they just estimate the number of beans? They could size a clay bowl that holds exactly 1000 beans. Then the beans would be easy to count. Suddenly Tom becomes energized and starts to hyperfocus on his project. He rudely leaves the village meeting to start working on his invention.
Notice how the stray thoughts were precursors to creative ideas. While Tom was on another planet, all the normal people were paying close attention to the village meeting. But they didn’t invent the new bean counting method, did they? Tom was impatient, easily bored, impulsive, daydreamed and held little regard for his elders. All of these traits contributed to his invention, and his invention contributed to his village’s survival. And so his ADD genes were passed on to future generations.
The Medical View: History and Bias
“A frequent though hidden component of the ADD experience is the feeling of being defective or retarded.” (Hallowell and Ratey, in Driven to Distraction)
Since the turn of the century, ADD has been viewed as a brain defect. By 1902, hyperactive children were being diagnosed with “organic brain disorder,” which was later termed “minimal brain dysfunction.” It was demonstrated that minor brain damage was associated encephalitis and war injuries sometimes resulted in the behavior patterns of ADD (Bain). For the vast majority of ADDers, who showed no sign of brain damage, it was assumed that the damage was so minor it could not be identified. The line of reasoning used is this: A few ADD cases can be traced to brain damage. Therefore, all ADD is caused by brain damage. This view was later modified to “genetic neurological disorder,” meaning that about 5% of the population has a genetic defect.
Consider the logic used. Chronic malnutrition can cause someone to be shorter. Does this prove that all short people suffer from malnutrition? Of course not. Some people are short because their ancestors were short and were selected by nature to pass on their traits. Being shorter held certain evolutionary advantages. And growth hormones can be used to make a short child grow taller, just like Ritalin can be used to make a fidgety child sit still. The success of such drugs in no way proves that the undesired traits are defects rather than natural variations within the population.
In the 1990’s, the most popular ADD book authors are ADD themselves. Books like “Driven to Distraction” and any of the Thom Hartmann books all challenge the conventional wisdom of ADD and describe many positive traits shared by ADDers, including creativity and intuition. Thom Hartmann’s concept of the ADDer as a “Hunter” in a Farmer’s world is very popular and ADDer’s now commonly refer to themselves as Hunters. The ADD “Hunter” has a variant temperament, not a neurological defect, and is essentially a fish on dry land. It’s easy to see why ADDers identify with this view, because that’s what it seems like from the inside. It’s not that the attention span is too short, rather, the class is too boring!
ADDers and the population at large are increasingly accepting the temperament argument while the medical community is committed to its diagnosis of “neurological defect.” Why?
The medical community is trained to look for a disease and treat it, which results in tunnel vision. The premise is that ADD is a brain defect, or error of nature shared by 5% of our population, actually has very little basis. It has been assumed. Theories in population genetics do not support such a genetic defect in 5% of the population unless it is a tradeoff for something else. There must be a positive side to ADD. One has been identified scientifically (creativity), but has been essentially ignored.
The diagnostic checklists used by professionals list only negative traits. “Scores high on creativity tests” would be every bit as valid as the other ADD behavior traits listed. Why isn’t it? Creativity testing has been recommended as a part of ADD diagnosis (Cramond). Other traits such as “enthusiastic”, “intuitive”, and “learns computers quickly” could also be added to the checklist.
Interpretation of data is also affected by this assumption of ADD as a disease. For example, creativity researchers assumed that less developed “braking” mechanisms in the brain were directly responsible for the high level of creativity and hypothesized how this could be so (Cramond). The ADD researchers also found a less well developed braking mechanism but assumed this was a brain defect. In both cases, the conclusions reached by researchers were significantly influenced by the underlying assumptions about the nature of ADD and of creativity.
Conclusion: My evolutionary theory is offered as an alternative to the standard medical view of “neurological defect.” It’s just a theory and it may be wrong, but I think it’s just as plausible as any of the other theories offered so far, and it’s infinitely more positive. The “neurological defect” theory is being passed off as fact by many people with credentials, most commonly “M.D.” As a scientist, I have a real problem with this. I suspect we may never know for certain why genetic ADD occurs. And we may never know for sure if it’s an expression of a brain defect or a simply a brain difference. It may be a defect in some people and a simple difference in others.
The scientific and medical literature should identify ADD only as a neurological “difference,” because that is all that science can tell us at this time. Physicians should not be telling millions of people they have a brain defect without a solid basis, especially in light of the unique and valuable creative talents many ADDers possess. (See The Temperament vs. Disorder Debate ). It is the root of depression for many ADDers who should be busy learning to exploit their creative traits rather than dwelling on their terrible brain defect.
Bain, Lisa J., A Parent’s Guide to Attention Deficit Disorders (Bantam Doubleday Publishing Group, 1991).
Blum, Kenneth, et al, Reward Deficiency Syndrome (American Scientist, March-April 1996).
Bourne, Russell, Invention in America, (Fulcrum Publishing, 1996).
Cramond, Bonnie, The Coincidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Creativity, (The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, 1995).
Garber, Stephen, et al, Beyond Ritalin (Random House, 1996).
Grady, Denise, A Life Spent Among Bees Deciphering the Swarm (New York Times, April 1, 1997)
Hartmann, Thom, ADD Success Stories, (Underwood Books, 1995).
Hartmann, Thom, Beyond ADD, Hunting for Reasons in the Past and Present, (Underwood Books, 1996).
Hartmann, Thom, et al, Think Fast! The ADD Experience, (Underwood Books, 1996).
Kolata, Gina, Ritalin Use is Lower Than Thought, (New York Times, December 17, 1996).
Ohio State University, Forces Determining Genetic Diversity and Evolutionary Rates (website-broken link).
Sagan, Carl and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Ballatine Books, 1992).
Sutton, Eldon, Heredity, Evolution & Society (website – link broken).
University of Delaware, Idea Factory (website – link broken).
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (G.& C. Merriam Co., Second Edition).
Williams, George, Adaptation and Natural Selection (Princeton University Press, 1966) .“Born to Explore!” was written by Teresa Gallagher, February 1997, and may be reproduced without permission (with credit). The “Born to Explore” ADD concept is the property of Teresa Gallagher.