A racecar brain with squeaky brakes

  • Sir Richard Branson
  • Michael Jordan
  • Jim Carrey
  • Will Smith
  • Cameron Diaz
  • Michael Phelps
  • Justin Timberlake
  • Channing Tatum
  • Eva Longoria
  • Adam Levine
  • Jamie Oliver
  • Emma Watson
  • Liv Tyler, and
  • Howie Mandel

have an atypical brain.

They have a brain that enables them to multitask, to thrive in chaos, to intuitively change directions and focus incessantly on interesting problems.

They have a brain that enables them to be extremely productive under certain circumstances. A brain that is under-stimulated with tedious, mundane tasks, and would rather create than be told what to do.

They have a brain just like Albert Einstein and millions of other people all over the world.

But it’s also the kind of brain that causes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a mental disorder often thought to be caused by bad parenting, poor discipline and maybe even food colouring. A disorder that ought to be medicated.

But what if ADHD isn’t a mental disorder at all, and was never meant to be?

What if ADHD is a genetic enablement passed down through thousands of generations?

Growing research supports a genetic theory of ADHD arising from evolutionary adaptation. Thom Hartmann and many other scientists and psychiatrists theorize the ‘atypical’ brain in ADHD is what allowed hunter-gatherers to thrive in our world for hundreds of thousands of years. Classic ADHD traits like impatience, distractibility, attraction to novelty, impulsivity and hyperfocus enabled superb hunting skills back in the day.

If this is true, then ADHD actually represents a lack of genetic adaptation as hunter societies evolved into farming societies a few thousand years ago. It wasn’t until the establishment of farming, factories and universal schooling that ADHD truly became problematic. For these cultural entities are built upon obedience, reliability and compliance – the very traits people with ADHD struggle with.

If you consider the kinds of people who have shaped our culture in a positive way, I suspect that most of them have this different genetic enablement.

In fact, if you talk to successful people with ADHD, they will tell you they’re successful because of their atypical brain, not in spite of it. Their attention to things that interest them and their willingness to take risks is what sets them apart from the rest of society who’s too worried about doing what everyone else is doing.

Richard Branson didn’t build Virgin because he did his schoolwork (he dropped out at 16). Walt Disney didn’t create his empire because he followed instructions. I don’t think Ingvar Kamprad founded Ikea because he was patient. And Thomas Edison? I doubt he invented the electric light bulb, phonograph and motion picture camera because he cared much about fitting in.

If it’s true that ADHD represents historically normal behaviours that simply don’t fit into novel environments like factories and formal classrooms, then ADHD isn’t technically a mental disorder, but a cultural one.

By anesthetizing medicating people with ADHD to make them do work that bores them, we’re effectively destroying the kinds of brains that have made a tremendous impact in our world since the beginning of time.

People with ADHD don’t need to be ‘fixed’. What they need is to learn how to leverage their enormous power to win races that interest them, and quit trying to fit into systems that aren’t for them. If they can do that, they can change the world.