ADHD May Have Been Evolutionary Advantage

Study involving online berry-picking suggests ADHD is 'adaptive specialization for foraging'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 22, 2024 12:33 PM CST
ADHD May Have Been Evolutionary Advantage
A girl eats fresh berries from a patch.   (Getty Images/PetrBonek)

Traits associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can include difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Though such traits are often viewed negatively, it really depends on the environment. Research has backed the "evolutionary mismatch" theory that argues traits of neurodivergence, though perhaps disadvantageous in our hyperstimulated modern world, provided an evolutionary advantage in the past. Now, a new study highlights a particular advantage in foraging for food. It finds "people with ADHD-like traits are less likely to dwell among depleting food resources and more likely to explore other options," per the Washington Post.

Researchers asked 457 participants to play an online game in which they had to collect as many berries as possible within eight minutes. They could repeatedly harvest berries from a single bush, but the yield decreased each time. Or, participants could instead venture to other bushes, but that meant they lost time traveling. Ultimately, participants who frequently moved between berry patches collected more berries—and these were the same participants who self-reported ADHD-like traits. Though real-world foraging is entirely different and requires more effort, researchers say the findings could explain ADHD's "widespread prevalence and continued persistence in the human population."

"If [these traits] were truly negative, then you would think that over evolutionary time, they would be selected against," Dr. David Barack of the University of Pennsylvania, lead author of the study published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, tells the Guardian. But ADHD is highly heritable, suggestive of advantages. The study authors suggest it's "an adaptive specialization for foraging." But it could be a benefit in any environment "where a willingness to take risks and having lots of energy are advantageous," Annie Swanepoel, a neurodivergence researcher and psychiatrist who wasn't involved in the study, tells the Post. (Leonardo da Vinci's genius may have been fueled by ADHD.)

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