ADHD and Environmental Mismatch

From Weekly I/O#76

“If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?” ADHD may stem more from an environmental mismatch than a brain problem.

Book: The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve

In Orangutans on Ritalin, the developmental psychologist Gabrielle Principe noted that:

"No animal other than us modern humans – our hunter-gatherer ancestors included – suffers ADHD. But plenty of today's elementary school children, who spend eight hours a day jammed inside a classroom, do. The American Psychiatric Association considers it a mental disorder. But it is also exactly what you'd expect if you put any juvenile (insert your choice of species here) behind a desk, made it do seatwork, told it to concentrate, and didn't let it out to play."

The conventional explanation is that ADHD is due to how the brain controls attention. Therefore, ADHD diagnoses often suggest the root of so-called problematic behaviors lies in the person rather than in the environment.

However, many kids with ADHD can focus for hours on tasks they enjoy, indicating that the issue isn't their attentional capacity but rather a lack of interest in things the world insists they should do, such as schoolwork.

Indeed, while many children adapt well to school, it doesn't suit everyone. For kids diagnosed with ADHD, traditional school is a round hole to their square peg because they would thrive in an ancestral-type environment that allows for plenty of movement and play.

So, ADHD might be more a mismatch problem than a brain problem. Though we can't just disestablish schools and let kids run wild, we should consider the words of the American feminist Gloria Steinem, "If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?"

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