19 Reasons to Rethink 'Fixing' ADHD
Updated: May 29, 2020
The idea of a normal brain is a myth but it has lead to the rise of 297 categories of mental health 'disorders', of which ADHD is one.
How long before we all have a label, and get drugged accordingly? How about we turn this on its head - examining those who are peddling these ideas and in doing so creating the conditions for mental illness to be rife?
"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, It will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."
- Albert Einstein
The disability is not in the condition itself but it’s through being told you’re a loser and ending up believing it.
The aim of this article is simply to demystify ADHD. I tried to live my life in ways which suited me, and I would love to help young people connect with hidden superpowers.
Only recently was I diagnosed with ADHD, but from a personal perspective I would like us to move beyond labels. I recognise every person is different and every brain is unique.
The most powerful states of mind I have experienced are flow and coherence. These are when senses align and clarity appears. These require me to have a deep connection with people, nature, a purpose, or an experience. I have to be living a fulfilling life according to my values, play to my strengths, and get recognised by those around me. The most destructive force is the opposite - where I rely on my weaknesses, get shoved into boxes, or have no space to explore.
Every interaction, experience and environment - whether positive or negative - rewires our brain, changes our character, and shapes how we respond in real world scenarios.
The psychiatrist Professor Stephen Ilardi points out that “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.” The amazing human condition evolved over millions of years and this is what we’ve become - is this progress, really?
We have developed complacency, an aversion to risk, and an intolerance of difference, so its no wonder people with ADHD struggle. But we’re not alone - 297 categories of disorders and counting. Who exactly is thriving, and what clues does this reveal about where we are heading?
We all want to get from a-to-b, but every journey and process is different depending on traits, skills, and the environment around us. ADHD - like any neurological difference - can be an asset or a curse, depending on the conditions we are thrust into. I didn’t conform but luck has been on my side - I find adversity makes me stronger. But two things dawned on me 1) we all leave capacity and performance on the table through the need to conform and 2) there is a shadow to this as people with ADHD are more likely to redeploy this in areas which are detrimental to their selves and also the wider society through addiction, crime, etc.
This is happening all the time under our watch and only with a rear view mirror and hindsight will we realise the madness of this approach. Mental illness is a disease of modern life and we are creating the backdrop for the contagion to spread throughout our classrooms, workplaces, streets, prisons, and every nook of society. Given the nature of our economic, societal, technological, and environmental woes - in what ways are (today’s) living, learning, working, and consumption sustainable in the medium-term?
There are win wins to be found but only if we're willing to zoom out from our bunkers, silos, and echo chambers and examine the bigger picture - can we really afford to perpetually allow people to fall through the cracks and expect others to pick up the pieces?
There’s always another path - but are we prepared to hold our hands up and concede that how we live our lives is part of the problem. Why? Because some of our ideas and assumptions (about ourselves, other people, and how we organise society) are wrong.
The modern world is very different to the environment where we evolved, but our brain is not. 99.9% of our time on earth was spent outdoors in hunter gatherer tribes, wandering the earth, chasing animals, and moving to wherever food was. Our stress response system and emotions are the same as those from our Paleolithic era ancestors.
The reason the ADHD genes exist today is because there is an evolutionary purpose. What more can we do to understand how we thrived in different environments? Unpredictable behaviour and boundless energy improved hunting success, search for new fertile lands, protected against raids, and so on. Hunter gatherers were generalists with broad interests (and knowledge) which allowed them to survive. The traits which make ADHD good hunter gatherers make them less well adapted as settlers.
Today’s environments including classrooms, industrial estates, and open plan offices are abnormal. Nothing like these existed for almost the entirety of human evolution. For the past 100 years we are increasingly expected to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention to information which doesn’t interest us.
Artificial stimulation allows us to survive these conditions. We assume that the conditions are normal and the behavioural responses are not. We neglect individual stories and experiences and ‘fix’ people’s complex brain chemistry through powerful drugs such as amphetamine.
We need a purpose not punishment. Punitive measures do more harm than good and in the long run can lead to a life of misery and crime. We struggle with the frenzy of daily life and often feel like a fish out of water. We make mistakes but kicking us whilst we’re down leads to resentment and sometimes worse. Understanding, kindness, and the time to listen to us helps. So does help with finding meaning and purpose so we can channel our energies.
We all learn differently but education doesn’t teach us this. We are fed information and instructed to memorise facts. Those of us with ADHD prefer to take charge of learning through imitation, asking questions, experimenting, momentum, and being allowed to fail. We need the freedom to explore and choose our own curriculum because the structure of modern schooling is setting people up for a life of misery.
What do we actually mean by an attention deficit? We have two hemispheres in the brain (right and left) and each has different states of attention. The nature of attention changes how we interact with the world - the left is narrow and fixed which isolates objects and allows us to grasp things for self interest. The right on the other hand is broad, vigilant, sustained, and sees context, relationships, meaning, and connections. We prioritise the narrow and fixed attention and typically medicate to enhance this, but in doing so we neglect the surplus of attention in our right hemisphere.
Have we misunderstood the hierarchy of attention in the West? The intuitive mind (Right) is a sacred gift and the rational mind (Left) is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and forgotten the gift - Albert Einstein. Eastern cultures prioritise the right but instead of following them we have exported our thinking and they increasingly mimic us.
People with ADHD are wired differently, here are some examples. Hemispheric lateralisation - each brain hemisphere interacts and understands the world differently - the left controls the right side of the body and vice versa (90% of us are right handed). The left allows us to grasp things and therefore use the world and the right helps us to understand life in its full context. Every process (creativity, maths, communication) requires a combination of both. People with ADHD can have a problem continuously switching between states. This is exacerbated through sensory overload and rampant distraction from our modern environments and technologies. Hyper-focus and mind-wandering - we are more connected to the extremes of our hemispheres. We’re comfortable dreaming and imagining but if interest and motivation align we collapse into hyper focused states of attention. Brain Waves - There's four main types (Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta). People with ADHD spend more time in Theta (second slowest frequency which connects with the subconscious and delivers creative insight). Atypical people on the other hand spend most time in Beta (mind and body active and busy, short term memory in use). Neuro-chemcials - dopamine resides in the left hemisphere and it allows us to feel pleasure. People with ADHD are born with our pleasure meter lowered. This explains why we seek higher stimulation to get ordinary pleasure. This can lead to addiction if we’re not careful. Ferrari Engine and Bicycle Brakes - A term coined by ADHD specialist Dr Ed Hallowell. This links back to the hemispheres too, our engine is the right hemisphere (exploring the big picture, pattern matching, connecting dots), and our brakes is the left hemisphere (focused on details and categories). We know we have a great engine and we want to learn how to use it but education and work is both - rigid and administrative - forcing us to predominantly rely on our weaker brakes. We will never compete with people who are more adept at using brakes, but if we only rely on brakes, how will we get to the future? Our brains often works counter-intuitively - e.g. stimulation calms us down. Adrenaline and excitement help us to think with clarity giving us a sense of the world slowing down. Education and work is often boring which means people turn to seeking thrills and risky behaviours for this stimulation.
We’re adaptable but without guidance can embrace maladaptive coping strategies. People with ADHD often find themselves in the wrong environment and become addicted to drugs, gambling, sex, and crime.
Impulsivity is understandable in a world which bombards us with screens, adverts, notifications, and junk values which encourages us to act mindlessly.
We’re hyperactive because it’s ‘normal’ to have energy and enthusiasm. The more we sit still the more energy we will bottle up which is released in unhelpful ways.
We can organise, schedule, and plan but what are we trying to achieve? We’re not great at going through the motions for the hell of it. Our brain network needs to be activated by interest and motivation. It’s not our fault admin and calendars don’t light up our faulty reward network.
We get energy from people. Not just energy, but ideas, connection, and a sense of belonging too. Screens disconnect our brain’s circuitry but also elevate our threat response network
Our stress response system is temperamental. On the one hand we are great in crises - high stimulation slows us down so we don’t freeze. But the deluge of distractions from technology and man-made environments continuously set off our stress response network. Without a change of lifestyle, emotional dysregulation awaits.
Emotions often make or break us. Emotions are a fundamental part of human nature but society thinks it’s a good idea to exclude or suppress them. Emotions drive our behaviour and they change our habits. People with ADHD thrive on positive emotion but the inverse is true to and we become really bogged down by negative ones. Emotion for us is an on/off switch for peak performance and learning potential, or bust.
We are always striving for balance and harmony. We need both stimulation and calm. We want to be productive, but must find space to be creative too. We adore new things, but take comfort in the familiar. We know how to be serious, but humour and play are essential too. Routine is good for us, but life without spontaneity is not worth living for us. We’re always agitating to scratch an itch to explore, discover, and push boundaries… this is a healthy part of the human condition and without it progress is not possible.
We are not great at being passive and obedient (especially when we know it doesn't make sense). At one point our world was stable and each generation had a more hopeful future. The exact opposite is true today, and we need to be active in shaping a different path to the future. Passivity and obedience in this sense stands in the way.
We are not predictable machines. Some people are able to cope with the assembly line of life as we are endlessly sorted, categorised, and discarded from playground to retirement home. Those with ADHD are not and we should be happy because as an army of virtual robots will soon replace most of our work. Maybe then will we realise that ADHD isn’t a disorder, but a gateway to an imagined new world.
Rules are there to be broken - how can we find ways to break them for the common good?