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Celebrating Neurodiversity: Study Showcases a New Perspective on The Evolutionary Advantage of ADHD

Why We Must Embrace Neurodiversity in Our Society

By Olivia L. DobbsPublished 3 months ago 5 min read
Celebrating Neurodiversity: Study Showcases a New Perspective on The Evolutionary Advantage of ADHD
Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

On February 21st, 2024, a research article on ADHD was published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B by a global team of biologists and neuroscientists. The article in question, titled “Attention deficits linked with a proclivity to explore while foraging”, highlighted an incredible trend: participants in their study who screened positively for ADHD were more likely to explore an environment when foraging, instead of exploiting a single source of a resource like their neurotypical counterparts.

This article quickly lit the fuse of sociological discussion across the internet, serving as the most recent concrete example of the benefits of having the set of traits we’ve defined in the DSM as a disorder. The researchers saw a pretty compelling story in their experiment: different approaches correlated to different neurotypes and, when those approaches are put together, a remarkably efficient group of humans in collaboration.

Understanding Neurodivergence & Neurodiversity

Neurodivergence is a general term for neurological or mental functions that are different from the “typical” way we consider human minds to process the world around them or the experiences they have. Though primarily used for Autism Spectrum Disorder, a great many types of conditions are included in the neurodiverse umbrella, including dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, OCD, and ADHD. Folks who identify themselves as neurodivergent may have symptoms of any of these conditions I mentioned or may have an alternate condition that they feel applies to the term. As the notion of neurodivergence is more a societal label than a medical term, each individual may choose to identify with or not identify with it.

Neurodiversity, on the other hand, is a term that describes the incredible variability of the human mind. It showcases different perspectives that come along with medical syndromes, disorders, and conditions, and highlights the need for neurologically inclusive societies, made accessible to both neurotypical and neurodivergent-identifying people. The term, coined by sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s, was created to promote equality in light of the uniqueness of every individual’s brain, instead of portraying her condition and those of others’ minds as a deficit to be stigmatized by those without the condition(s).

Because of Singer and countless other researchers, the perception of many of these conditions, syndromes, and disorders has shifted dramatically. Gone are the days of seeing neurodivergence as an inherent detriment to the person who experiences conditions. Instead, broad society is shifting towards an incredible improvement: a recognition of inherent value in the unique cognitive functions of all individuals, no matter their diagnosis.

ADHD and The Evolutionary Perspective

The presence of ADHD and related conditions have been described for millennia, with mentions of the personality type recorded by doctors thousands of years ago in ancient Greece. Though only officially described by scientists about a hundred years ago, there have been hints of the neurotype throughout history, including literary and historical mention. The new research published this year, however, paints a picture of an even more lengthy presence of the neurotype.

In the incredible piece of research, the authors noted that participants with ADHD, in comparison to a control group of participants who did not identify with the condition, had very different (and arguably more efficient) foraging patterns. In “competitive environments where foragers must keep track of other foragers, impulsively leaving patches could yield a competitive advantage by enabling learning about competitors and capturing newly renewed resources first.”, they wrote, “The increased foraging proficiency of participants with ADHD-like behavior observed here suggests the prevalence and persistence of ADHD in human populations may serve an adaptive function in some environments.” Not only does this research showcase a potential reason why ADHD has persisted throughout human history, but also suggests that it may have served as an advantage to both the individual and the community that they were a part of.

Diversity is a Ridiculously Good Group Survival Strategy

When the term ‘ADHD’ was coined, the set of symptoms was generally seen as either a moral failure or an unfortunate circumstance to have to deal with. It wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that that perspective started to shift. Around this time, researchers from around the world started to ask the question, “If this condition is truly disadvantageous to the individual who has it, why is this neurotype common and persistent everywhere throughout history?” A study published in 2005 by two European scientists, The evolution of hyperactivity, impulsivity and cognitive diversity took a stab at the answer, “Individually impairing combinations of genes, such as ADHD, can carry specific benefits for society, which can be selected for at that level, rather than being merely genetic coincidences with effects confined to the individual.” Essentially, the scientists proposed that, though the conditions are indeed not beneficial to the person who experiences them, the behaviors serve as a societal fortifier, making altruistic groups of cooperating humans stronger in their presence.

The 2024 study takes the advantages of the ADHD neurotype a step further. Not only can this diverse set of behaviors help bolster a society but, in some circumstances, the neurotype may even perform better in comparison to neurotypical folks. This could very well mean that ADHD developing in our ancestors was an adaptive strategy, meant to better make use of the resources in past environments. It may not be a disorder, but a diverse and advantageous human cognition that the societies we’ve built thus far have failed to be inclusive of.

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Of course, more research is necessary to better understand the potential ramifications of this one study — and to confirm the patterns recognized therein. Though the team compiled an impressively large sample set to test on and achieved very significant results, there’s still an incredible amount of work to be done before we can truly say we “understand” the breadth of effects of ADHD and other forms of neurodivergence to human populations. No matter how compelling a study might be, one study is never strong enough on its own to establish a theory. For now, all we can do is consider the value of neurodiversity in our species — and speculate what more we may discover as this fascinating field of research continues.

Humanity is beautiful not for a specific set of traits that define us all, but for the radical ways we all work differently. For our minds which vary from the onset of life, unique expressions of combinations of genetics from ancestors, to each experience we traverse while we are alive, learning and growing and shaping our neural pathways with each moment. We weren’t able to shape the Earth under our hands because we were the smartest, largest, or strongest, but because we found a way to socially organize ourselves, differentiate, and use our incredible diversity to our species’ advantage. We have thrived because of our neurodiversity, we progress because of those who think differently, we persist because we, with such diverse thoughts and inner experiences, manage to work together.

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Cross-Posted From Medium :)

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About the Creator

Olivia L. Dobbs

Science Enthusiast, Naturalist, Dreamer, Nerd.

I crosspost my Medium articles here :)

You can find my main account on Medium: https://medium.com/@oliviadobbs13

Check out my science! -> bit.ly/DobbsEtAl

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    Olivia L. DobbsWritten by Olivia L. Dobbs

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