Totally random silly theory on the evolution of ADHD and anxiety

So I’ve been thinking, please keep in mind this has no real scientific basis it’s just what my brain was thinking when I couldn’t sleep the other night.

Some of the traits often associated with ADHD are impulsiveness, curiosity, thrill-seeking and being easily bored. These traits would have been a double-edged sword to our ancestors, the primitive humans that got bored with their current setup could seek adventure in new places and find new sources of food, new territory and come up with new inventions and innovations. They were also probably more likely to stumble into predators because they wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain or eat the wrong berries because they looked tasty or set themselves on fire while experimenting.
What if the anxiety that sometimes goes hand in hand with ADHD evolved in parallel as sort of a braking system, the stronger the impulse to go do all the exciting stuff the stronger the force needed to reign it in. It might make them a bit more jumpy when they see a bush move or hear a rustling sound and less likely to get eaten than someone with a strong desire to go check out that interesting tree over there and no fear of the big footprints nearby. It was probably really helpful to our primitive ancestors, but without sabertooth tigers all over the place to protect us from it’s manifesting in other ways and messing with our heads.

This is just my silly random thought that occurred to my sleep-deprived brain!


My understanding is that this is exactly the ‘function’ of anxiety as seen with humans and many other kinds of animals. And that such can indeed act as a counterbalance for ADHD brains.

For perspective: two test-taking anxiety techniques I share with my students is to periodically stop and purposely take several long breaths with eyes off the exam, and to bring with them the coldest water possible and drink it during those breaks or whenever feeling very anxious.

The reasoning is that doing so is to quite explicitly ‘hack’ into anxiety: as drinking cold water and pausing to recover perspective in the middle of a fight-or-flight event are two things our ancient ancestors and thus our mammalian brains were never able to do and thus glitch out when we do this (hopefully in a way favorable i.e. calming down and restoring focus).

As to the evolution of ADHD - Our biggest evidence of it being a prospectively favorable trait come from the percent population who possess it (I think 5-10% known in the USA, up to 20%+ diagnosed / otherwise); and that ADHD parent(s) are known to ‘pass it down’ to their children.

We can only speculate - but I think you’re on the right track in that ADHD brains evolved in prehistoric times in response to the benefits of boredom, impassivity, creativity, and curiosity towards perhaps finding better resources; whereas neurotypicals were more content to stay put where they were.

One hypothesis which just came to my mind on this would be to determine if ADHD is more common in individuals of nomadic ancestry i.e. the Nordic peoples as the first to settle in post-ice age northern Europe; and the various native peoples of the Americas who traversed over the arctic ice bridge into the Americas. This would likely be most feasible vis-a-vis the genetic diversity since then if we could first identify genetic sequences shared among ADHD people, then search for those genes in the genomes of preserved humans dating back 8-10 thousand years who were in the first groups to explore the new worlds of northern europe, the americas, oceania, etc.

Anyone with a sick network of anthropologists and geneticists up for reaching out to NSF for a grant to do this? :wink:

Neat ideas - I’ve been thinking similarly!

As to the ‘future’ of ADHD - I’ll put it this way: I’m near convinced that if a special school and university experience were available that was customized for fully supporting ADHD brains: it would pump out super-people able to both adapt to the mainstream neurotypical world, while prospectively having better or even total control over hyperfocus.

Hyperfocus is what I believe to be one of the only cognitive ‘superpowers’ human minds have ever evolved; parallel to those with extraordinary memories, analytical ability, and physical ability. It needs to be experimented with and researched more.

1 Like

I actually agree with this in part. I know based on experience that a carefully tailored personalised education makes a positive impact to a kids education.

But I also believe that that sort of education would benefit any ones education.

For us brains I think the key on top of personalised education it’s also pushing it all back 3-5 years. Not starting school late but keeping it play based for a little longer. And a bit more self directed until they are more neurologically developed to deal with the structure of school.

Then we will be ready and equiped to run the world.

1 Like

haha i get these random theories too. It’s interesting to hear other peoples also. The one i that i can’t seem to shake (although have nothing but anecdotal evidence to back up), is the feeling that ASD could be somehow connected to NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) in that most of the people i know who have ASD or who you see having it clearly have family members (diagnosed or otherwise) who have NPD traits. There are also higher rates of ASD in places where that would kind of add up a bit, for instance hyper competitive societies. It could also in some way explain why people being born with ASD is on the rise as NPD has very much been on the rise as societies have become more geared towards this. One albiet very crude example of this could be TRUMP and his son (who is clearly very ASD). But yeah this is all speculative at best… also taken with a pinch of salt :3. And as Jessica pointed out in her amazing ted talk “correlation does not equal causation”, so i’m a bit weary of my brain fart as well :3

So here is a psych/personality perspective of what you are talking about.

One school of thought is that we have a Behavioral Approach System and a Behavioral Inhibition System. BAS works with your dopamine system. BIS works with Serotonin. Everyone has different sensitivities to these neurotransmitters. These two systems work together.

BAS: People with ADHD have low sensitivity to dopamine. This works on our motivation. It might present as low motivation to do anything or constantly seeking something to something that captures attention. People with ADHD/low sensitivity actually have difficulty shifting attention, which is why we appear scatterbrained or inattentive. Our minds are wired to focus on one thing for long periods of time, but we need to be interested in that one thing. People with high sensitivity (non ADHDers) shift attention really quickly to something and back to their task. As far your post, this wide diversity in human sensitivity to dopamine is 100% a evolutionary advantage. ADHDers would have had an important role in innovation because we tend to become really good at the things that maintain our interest and tend to focus more on things that are novel.

BIS: People with sensitive BIS have high threat sensitivity (ie: anxiety). You can have ADHD and have either a high or low BIS, which is more related to getting eaten or poisoned. If your threat sensitivity is high, it will filter through your ADHD, so to speak, and say… ehh… don’t eat that berry or maybe don’t go over that ledge where the predators might be. (In other words, inatentive type ADHD with higher anxiety.) Basically this is how you would weigh risk and reward. ADHD doesn’t necessarily mean you are risky, it just means your type of ADHD might be a little easier to diagnose.

That was a really long winded way of saying, yeah, ADHD is totally in existence because it was/is and evolutionary advantage. :wink:

1 Like