Yes! An approach to ADHD that makes sense. Nice piece from Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College. From NY Times:
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is now the most prevalent psychiatric illness of young people in America, affecting 11 percent of them at some point between the ages of 4 and 17. The rates of both diagnosis and treatment have increased so much in the past decade that you may wonder whether something that affects so many people can really be a disease.
And for a good reason. Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating.
To compensate, they are drawn to new and exciting experiences and get famously impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world. In short, people with A.D.H.D. may not have a disease, so much as a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture.
From the standpoint of teachers, parents and the world at large, the problem with people with A.D.H.D. looks like a lack of focus and attention and impulsive behavior. But if you have the “illness,” the real problem is that, to your brain, the world that you live in essentially feels not very interesting.The more novel and unpredictable the experience, the greater the activity in your reward center. But what is stimulating to one person may be dull — or even unbearably exciting — to another. There is great variability in the sensitivity of this reward circuit.
These findings suggest that people with A.D.H.D are walking around with reward circuits that are less sensitive at baseline than those of the rest of us. Having a sluggish reward circuit makes normally interesting activities seem dull and would explain, in part, why people with A.D.H.D. find repetitive and routine tasks unrewarding and even painfully boring.
Another patient of mine, a 28-year-old man, was having a lot of trouble at his desk job in an advertising firm. Having to sit at a desk for long hours and focus his attention on one task was nearly impossible. He would multitask, listening to music and texting, while “working” to prevent activities from becoming routine. Eventually he quit his job and threw himself into a start-up company, which has him on the road in constantly changing environments. He is much happier and — little surprise — has lost his symptoms of A.D.H.D.
My patient “treated” his A.D.H.D simply by changing the conditions of his work environment from one that was highly routine to one that was varied and unpredictable. All of a sudden, his greatest liabilities — his impatience, short attention span and restlessness — became assets. And this, I think, gets to the heart of what is happening in A.D.H.D.
Consider that humans evolved over millions of years as nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was not until we invented agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, that we settled down and started living more sedentary — and boring — lives. As hunters, we had to adapt to an ever-changing environment where the dangers were as unpredictable as our next meal. In such a context, having a rapidly shifting but intense attention span and a taste for novelty would have proved highly advantageous in locating and securing rewards — like a mate and a nice chunk of mastodon. In short, having the profile of what we now call A.D.H.D. would have made you a Paleolithic success story.
So if you are nomadic, having a gene that promotes A.D.H.D.-like behavior is clearly advantageous (you are better nourished), but the same trait is a disadvantage if you live in a settled context.
You may wonder what accounts for the recent explosive increase in the rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis and its treatment through medication. The lifetime prevalence in children has increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 7.8 percent in 2003 — a whopping 41 percent increase — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 6.1 percent of young people were taking some A.D.H.D. medication in 2011, a 28 percent increase since 2007. Most alarmingly, more than 10,000 toddlers at ages 2 and 3 were found to be taking these drugs, far outside any established pediatric guidelines.
Some of the rising prevalence of A.D.H.D. is doubtless driven by the pharmaceutical industry, whose profitable drugs are the mainstay of treatment. Others blame burdensome levels of homework, but the data show otherwise. Studies consistently show that the number of hours of homework for high school students has remained steady for the past 30 years.
I think another social factor that, in part, may be driving the “epidemic” of A.D.H.D. has gone unnoticed: the increasingly stark contrast between the regimented and demanding school environment and the highly stimulating digital world, where young people spend their time outside school. Digital life, with its vivid gaming and exciting social media, is a world of immediate gratification where practically any desire or fantasy can be realized in the blink of an eye. By comparison, school would seem even duller to a novelty-seeking kid living in the early 21st century than in previous decades, and the comparatively boring school environment might accentuate students’ inattentive behavior, making their teachers more likely to see it and driving up the number of diagnoses.
Perhaps one explanation is that adults have far more freedom to choose the environment in which they live and the kind of work they do so that it better matches their cognitive style and reward preferences. If you were a restless kid who couldn’t sit still in school, you might choose to be an entrepreneur or carpenter, but you would be unlikely to become an accountant.