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Vail Daily column: Is ADHD a life-saving instinct?

Robert Valko
Dear Darwin
Vail, CO Colorado

Imagine two young cave-boys growing up some 500,000 years ago. Their families live in quaint row-caves, separated by the Grand Canyon.

One boy is your average fur-backed, 5-year-old – wrestling lizards and chasing down woolly mammoths – while the other is a bit different. He lowers himself into public restrooms on vines to avoid surfaces. He hates germs.

In addition to doing antibacterial acrobats, he likes to stand on the highest cliff early in the morning and shout “Deal or No Deal.” Though the tribal elders have speculated as to the origins of the behavior, they have not reached any conclusions. Some believe that it may be the first attempt at selling lemonade.



Come supper time, the fine young boys are often sent out to fetch fresh salad greens. Tonight’s entree? Root of tree in swamp bisque topped with a dollop of sour goat cream, or whatever they gnawed on back then.

The boys grab their baskets and scramble out of their caves. Their search strategies differ greatly though.



As he searches, germ-boy seems to be distracted; he is constantly looking over his shoulder. He’s on the alert for predators that may be eyeing him, or, conversely, chickens that would make the Caesar salad a chicken Caesar. His attention is easily diverted by rustles in the bushes, movements across the landscape or changes in light patterns. He is not very efficient at gathering greens, but he doesn’t get hurt and manages to snag some protein for the Caesar.

Boy No. 2, on the other hand, is not easily distracted. He stays focused on finding the best greens. He is very astute and efficient; he would make a great student in modern times.

His basket brimming with fresh romaine and radicchio, boy No. 2 skips back to his cave. Because he was so absorbed in his work though, he missed the meal on wheels (the chicken) that was scratching behind a boulder. And though he did not hear the lions, tigers and bears tracking him in the brush as he made his way back, he made it home safely.



As it happens, germ-boy is the first in a long line of descendents that led to Howie Mandel – host of Deal or No Deal, a popular game-show. He’s an extremely creative comedian and is very successful. His success may be due to the fact that he has ADHD. He also has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which explains his entering public restrooms in shrink wrap.

Mandel once appeared on the Ellen Degeneres show in a wearable 3-feet-by-4-feet plexiglass shield, complete with 3-feet-long reach-in gloves. The show’s staff constructed it for him so that he could attend his own book signings and stay germ free.

Though ADHD and OCD are typically viewed as debilitating, they may actually be beneficial evolutionary adaptations – conditions that helped our ancestors survive. Here’s why.

First off, a robust fear of germs and contaminated surfaces would have helped our ancestors stay disease free.

Secondly, the difference between the two boys is the difference between a more nomadic male ancestor and a more settled one. The more nomadic male would have been primed with ADHD-like traits – impulsivity, hypervigilance, aggression, novelty-seeking (creativity) and quick responses. In the words of Dan Eisenberg at Northwestern University, such traits would have “helped nomads obtain food resources or exhibit a degree of behavioral unpredictability that is protective against interpersonal violence or robberies.”

Eisenberg studied a tribe in Kenya called the Ariaal. After he completed his research, he stated that nomadic males would likely “develop into warriors and men who can more effectively defend against livestock raiders.”

Males with ADHD probably had an advantage in the challenging environment our species grew up in, while those without it may have a slight edge in the modern classroom. This only means that modern day ADHDers have to work harder in the classroom while those with good concentration should stay indoors, especially if they live in neighborhoods with vicious kittens.

It’s rumored that Howie Mandel is in talks with NASA about borrowing a space suit to do his show in.

Robert Valko is a graduate of Northwestern University. For the academic sources used to write this piece, or for new column ideas, e-mail Robert at vailko@yahoo.com.


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