Hyperactivity's benefits

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may have been an evolutionary asset back in the day, writes William Saletan on Slate.

Researchers compared African children from the same tribe with a gene linked to short attention spans and unpredictable behavior. It seems to help those who live as nomadic herders and hurt those who live in farming communities.

It might be that the attention spans conferred by the DRD4/7R genotype allow nomadic children to more readily learn effectively in a dynamic environment (without schools), while the same attention span interferes with classroom learning.

Unpredictability may help nomads defending their cattle from raiders — who wants to deal with the crazy guy? — but prove a deficit for farmers who sell their crops at market.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. This may be, in fact, true. That doesn’t negate the reality that today’s children don’t live in a hunter-gatherer society anymore.

    From what I’ve seen in the classroom, the hyperactive student is made worse when they spend most of their non-school time on video games and other distractability-training equipment. Few of these children learn to slow down, concentrate, and focus on non-hyper stimuli.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    Linda says: “From what I’ve seen in the classroom, the hyperactive student is made worse when they spend most of their non-school time on video games.”

    How do you see that from a classroom? Just curious.

  3. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    Being semi-nomadic as a military brat, can this explain my notoriously short attention span? 🙂

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Do they call that “Duffy’s gene?”

  5. linda seebach says:

    The Economist had a story on this in its June 12 issue:

    http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11529402

    If that’s where Saletan saw it, a hattip would be nice.

    My son (mid-30s) is autistic/ADHD, and works as a software engineer with a lot of other quintessentially nerdy types who cope better than most people with an unpredictable environment of constant distractions and frequent crises. It may be more like the hunter-gatherer environment than like the stultifying conformity of rural subsistence agriculture or town and city life as it has developed since the agricultural revolution.

    He was diagnosed not long ago, and has only recently started taking medication. He wrote, “It turns out that, for the last thirty years, there has been a troupe of clowns following me around performing slapstick. Being medicated makes them pile into their tiny little car and drive away. It is pretty amazing.” (http://www.seebs.net/log/archives/000438.html)

    I think he might take issue with the comment by Linda F. @7:43 (a different Linda), “Few of these children learn to slow down, concentrate, and focus on non-hyper stimuli.”

    Why yes, and few deaf children who spend most of their non-school time
    communicating in ASL “learn to listen carefully, concentrate, and focus on what people are saying to them.”

    It’s not their choice. I do hope she’s not a teacher.

  6. Linda S, I’m sure Linda F wasn’t referring to autistic children. That’s a whole ‘nother thang. And I’m sure she’s a great teacher — she reads Joanne Jacobs!

  7. Hey people, don’t you remember that Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans, who are famous for their academic success and powers of concentration, are also descended from Mongolian nomads? What about all those Tibetan monks? How the heck do they do those crazy meditation exercises with their jumpy nomad genes? It’s a big mystery!

    But then again, not all Asians are brilliant in school. The Hmong and Cambodians are good examples of this. What gives?
    Consider the Hmong; in their tortured history, they’ve constantly alternated between and agrarian and nomadic lifestyle. They’re not great in school, but they have extremely strong family and group loyalties– I guess that’s what Daniel Goleman might call emotional intelligence, which isn’t so different from academic intelligence. Goleman says they’re inseparable. But then again, the Hmong are a lot like the Jews, another somewhat troubled group that is really, really successful in school. Does anyone out there think that Jewish brilliance is genetic?

    Or that Native Americans’ problems are genetic too? Farming Indians didn’t do any better than the Nomadic ones, I’m afraid. Do you think they’d have dealt with the white conquest better if they’d all had the plow?

    In short, this is all nonsense. The Germanic tribes, from whom all Europeans are descended, were nomads, of course. And besides, who says that agricultural peoples didn’t have to deal with terrifying, unpredictable events in life? Pre-modern farmers were exposed to constant famine, disease, and attacks from bandits (northern Europeans were terrorized for centuries by Viking raiders). Who says nomadic life is highly unpredictable? Nomads on the plateau of Tibet lived a very stable lifestyle for centuries, albeit a harsh one.

    But wait! The agricultural peoples of Latin America are notoriously jumpy and emotionally erratic (teachers grump about Hispanic kids almost as much as the blacks). Shouldn’t the agricultural life have stabilized their genes? Or is that they just aren’t very good at farming, and so the natural selection process didn’t work as well?

    The bottom line is that kids go nuts in schools because school is boring and restrictive. Put an adult in an identical situation for a few months, and he would start going bonkers as well. People like Kozol, Escalante, Marva Collins, Gatto, and all the rest did just fine with their genetically defective ghetto kids. What did they do? (Hell, Marva Collins’ kids all had a huge file, compiled by experts, stating that they were fundamentally unteachable, yet she had them all doing college-level work in no time!) Again, its as big a mystery as those Asian monks. (But the yogis are easily explained; the Indians are an agricultural people.)

    Maybe its time to stop blaming bad genes, bad parents, bad kids, and bad teachers. Why can’t we just admit that the system is no good?

    Oh, and read two books: Daniel Kevles “In the Name of Eugenics” and Allan P. Chase’s “Legacy of Malthus,” and Plato’s “Republic.” Maybe some people out there think all this talk is harmless, but they need to think again. Call it “social biology” or “evolutinary psychology,” eugenics is always a dangerous game, no matter how innocent the intent.

  8. No, I was referring to the students who spend most of their discretionary hours on video games, choppy, disconnected stimuli (like MTV and the like), and trying to listen to their Ipod, watch TV, and carry on a conversation.

    How do I know what they do outside of school?

    1) I ask them – the first day of class, I hand out a survey, so I can get to know them better.

    2) I talk to parents. They usually complain about the amount of time their child spends on those activities. This is true even of better students.

    3) They constantly try to sneak in these distractions in class. I’ve confiscated more electronics than the average teacher (which is a policy in my district), which then go to the office, to be picked up by a parent.

    How do I know I take more stuff than the rest of the staff? The office staff told me so.

    The several autistic students I’ve had did not experience lack of focus – quite the opposite. They generally had more difficulty changing focus when we moved to a new activity.

    I’m not anti-ADD/ADHD kids. It can be a challenge to have them in a classroom. Due to their condition, they can interrupt class at times. Those students who need less noise and distraction seem to be most bothered by them. Accommodating both needs, for the ADD/ADHD student to let off some steam, and to allow other students to concentrate, takes a lot of time and energy on my part.

    Where does that time and energy come from? Well, that’s time I can’t give to the academically struggling students. I’m only one person. I get absolutely NO help from the LD resource person. If I have more than 1 special needs student (not uncommon – I’ve had as many as 7 special needs students in a single 27 student class), it’s tough to manage to cover the standards.

    When I talk about special needs students, that can include: visually impaired, hearing impaired (once, with parents who failed to replace a lost hearing aid for months), ADD and ADHD, autistic, behaviorally/emotionally disturbed, and…I could go on for a long time.

    When I talk to the Resource Teacher or the parents, they always suggest that the student be placed in the front row. That’s quite a challenge, sometimes, as I generally only have 6-7 front row seats. It’s not uncommon to get 15 requests for the front row.

    Am I complaining? Well, maybe a little. My major complaint is parents who can’t understand why their child causes so much disruption – after all, at home, he causes no trouble. Well, at home, he is (forgive the gender assumption) ONE person, not 25-35. That parent can make all the necessary accommodations. Believe it or not, I’m only 1 person, and, sometimes, it can be tough to adapt a lesson to their child’s needs. By high school, I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to expect that the student will have learned to ratchet down their outbursts, sit down for more than 2 minutes (yeah, I had one who couldn’t), and not indulge their every impulse in science labs – a potentially dangerous situation.

  9. Margo/Mom says:

    “How do I know what they do outside of school?

    1) I ask them – the first day of class, I hand out a survey, so I can get to know them better.”

    So you must be the one who sent that worksheet home on the first day that was headed something like: “Do I Know Enough About You to Teach You?” Apparently you (or the teacher who actually sent it) didn’t know enough to appreciate the grapho-motor difficulty that is noted pretty plainly in the IEP and MFE. Worksheets are a really terrible way to teach or communicate with my student. I have been waiting over five years for the school staff to catch on to ways to give assignments that require a keyboard (so that the word-suggestion software will be helpful). Actually, it’s not just waiting. I find articles and lesson plans and write IEP goals–but what do I know, I’m just a parent.

    BTW–I know why the resource teacher isn’t much help. In my district, the resource teachers have classes full of their own kids that they are teaching. The resource room teachers are not necessarily qualified to teach the content areas that they teach–but getting kids into regular classrooms and seeing that they are appropriately accommodated is nigh onto impossible.

    “I’m not anti-ADD/ADHD kids. It can be a challenge to have them in a classroom.”

    I haven’t yet met anyone who will admit to any bias, yet, there you have it. Teachers list the number of kids with IEP’s among the things that make their lives more difficult than anybody elese. As a parent, I have been pretty helpless to protect my child from a system that defines him as a challenge at best, a problem, pathology or just downright bad at worst. We have recently been in contact with a counselor who has been a great antidote to all the negativity–and believe me I needed it. Through her eyes I have been able to refocus on my son’s great strenghths (empathy, creativity, resilience). And just in time, as the district was getting ready to prepare him for a life of bagging groceries (no lie–can you believe that they pay someone to do that?). It’s rough, because he has missed out on so much learning. And even with the immense creativity and positivity of this counselor, I still have to take her good ideas into an IEP meeting and watch them go over like a lead balloon (we don’t do it that way).

    So–yes, I too am complaining. BTW–my son has never had a science lab. Just worksheets.

  10. “I’m not anti-ADD/ADHD kids. It can be a challenge to have them in a classroom. Due to their condition, they can interrupt class at times. Those students who need less noise and distraction seem to be most bothered by them. Accommodating both needs, for the ADD/ADHD student to let off some steam, and to allow other students to concentrate, takes a lot of time and energy on my part.”

    My child is gifted/ADHD she needs a fairly large amount of physical and mental actively to be able to function. She also needs less noise and distraction in the classroom. Actually all my kids need that, including the two “normal” ones. As for the kids letting off steam, how about making them run a mile around the track…it works for my daughter, gives her a chance to burn off excess energy and refocus.

    I understand that an ADHD child is more difficult, trust me, I live with one, I understand. I also have some strategies that can help, if the teachers would listen and not assume that since I am a parent I know nothing.

    But, the reality is, there is a glitch in her brain that makes life more difficult for her. It is no more her fault than being diabetic would be her fault. There are strategies to help her cope, and they written in her 504 plan.

    “3) They constantly try to sneak in these distractions in class. I’ve confiscated more electronics than the average teacher (which is a policy in my district), which then go to the office, to be picked up by a parent.”

    Is it just the ADHD kids, or it is all kids? My NT daughter constantly reads under desk in class….she is just as disconnected as anyone with a GAMEBOY. If you have so many kids sneaking in distractions, maybe you should examine what is going on in your class that kids do not feel the need to pay attention.

  11. Anyone who gets all het up about video games has pretty obviously not played any. If anything, the hyper-focus part of the ADD/ADHD brain kicks in as you figure out what route to take, who to shoot, where to go, what to buy, who to trust.

    That same brain part kept my father alive as a sniper in WWII in the Pacific theater. Admitted, he self-medicated by chain-smoking Lucky Strikes. I prefer Adderall.

    Video games are a narrative, and no more choppy or disconnected than Agatha Christie.

  12. Since the response to my comments was so intense, I decided to move further discussion to another blog.

    http://teachrl.blogspot.com/

    Visit if you have any further interest.

  13. linda seebach says:

    James @ 6:38 asks, I assume rhetorically, “Does anyone out there think that Jewish brilliance is genetic?”

    Why yes, actually, quite a few evolutionary geneticists do. For links to some relevant research, search on “ashkenazi” at wwww.gnxp.com and specifically http://www.gnxp.com/MT2/archives/002588.html . That will get you into the literature, which contains all the requisite caveats about misunderstanding the social implications of genetics.

    James needs to absorb the caveats before venturing out in public again. He also asks rhetorical questions about American indigenes, apparently not knowing that the principal cause of depopulation of the Americas after Europeans arrived was indeed genetic; the lack of evolved immunity to a host of pathogens. Early modern Europe was a boiling cauldron of infectious diseases, which roared through the Americas in the first century after contact. No deliberate infection was necessary — who in the sixteenth century would have known enough about disease even to think of that? — just casual contact was more than sufficient to devastate communities where the adults had never been exposed to measles, say, as children. And to be fair, syphilis traveled in the other direction with catastrophic results still medically significant into the 20th century.

    Oh, and he says, “Oh, and read two books: Daniel Kevles “In the Name of Eugenics” and Allan P. Chase’s “Legacy of Malthus,” and Plato’s “Republic.” ” I think that’s three. His grasp of biology is similarly fantastical.

  14. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Decades ago, long before ADD and “hyper-active” became household words, science fiction writer Katherine MacLean commented that forcing kids to sit still in school is profoundly unnatural, and that the method was a flaw in our educational system. (I did OK in school; I daydreamed rather than do anything that disrupted class. As an adult, I had trouble staying awake at meetings.)

    Many years ago, I heard a talk by someone who had taught Alaskan natives. Their preferred method of learning was to memorize facts. The reason was the environment. If a minor slip can get you frostbite, you memorize what to do first and figure out the generalizations later.

    Which means? Beats me.

  15. I suppose I should apologize for a sarcastic tone which probably offended Ms. Seebach. I was a bit perplexed by her reply (besides the part about how I got my number of recommended books wrong, which is egg on my face), which seemed to have no actual relationship to the bit that I wrote.

    Although she states that I am ignorant of the facts of genetics, I made no direct assertions about it, and do not claim any expertise in it. Although she demands that I look at “the facts of the matter,” academic debates of this sort have been raging for decades.

    I pointed out, in a unnecessarily sarcastic way, what seemed to a basic layman’s objection to such glib theorizing about correlations between environment, genetics, and race. The correlations described were all extremely superficial and easily contradicted by anyone with a basic knowledge of anthropology, history, cultural studies etc. I did NOT explicitly deny that there was any correlation between genetics and intelligence. (Although, as Ms. Seebach should recall, Jews were once viewed as biologically defective according to the best available science of the time. This was right before WWII. In 1936, she would have gravely informed me to look into “the facts of the matter” before “venturing into public again.”)

    It is disturbing to me that custodians of children take such a casual attitude towards such matters. They fail to understand that such ideas inevitably shape themselves into educational policy, and when those ideas turn out to be wrong–and every educational reform movement in the past 100 years, each one based on the finest science of the time, has made the schools worse than before– they are hard to get rid of. The educator desperately needs to the know the history of his/her own field. On the level of teachers and principals, its a more or less noble enterprise, but on the policy level, its been an endless parade of chicanery. Even a persual of such conservative writers as Diane Ravitch will confirm that makers of educational policy have made endless errors and destroyed countless lives. Other conservatives like James Koerner tell us that they have only survived through the protection of powerful political allies.

    This business sounds more like eugenics than genetics, but only a person ignorant of what that is could fail understand the distinction. Connections between genetics and behavior are notoriously difficult to quantify; it might be useful to post some information on behavior studies of identical twins (who, by definition, have identical genomes). Sorry folks, they don’t all act the same, don’t have identical IQs, don’t have similar temperaments. They just look the same.

    Stop wasting your time on junk-science unless you’re Steve Malloy, and please assume others are ignorant just because they don’t buy into it. Or at least do so for the sake of kids. When people make decisions about their lives based on such ideas, who will be there to defend them if not teachers?