September 1, 2010 by Thriving Now Support

Hunters in a Farmers World: Is ADHD a Disease?

[Note: This is a written transcript of a radio show; spoken words do not come out with perfect grammar; please expect some rough spots.] What follows is a transcript of part of Thom Hartmann’s radio show ( covering ADHD. Thom is an expert on ADHD, having written several ground-breaking books on the subject. In particular, you should note his description of the ADHD “behaviors” as they relate to hunter-gatherers vs. farmers. I believe it is crucial to realize that each individual has strengths and aptitudes, some of which are not ideally suited to classic in-the-chair, lecture-oriented education. Unless we acknoweldge this, we are trying to “fix” children who are not broken; we just have not come up with school systems that are adaptable enough to allow for different learning styles and need for physical, kinesthetic movement as part of learning. Such schools do rarely exist; they seem chaotic and uncontrolled to outsiders, until you see the depth that “hunters” will go when focused on something that truly interests them.—Rick

It was actually 25 years ago when we were running this community for abused kids, and I got it that there was something different about the kids who came in to our program with this label of hyperactivity or hyperkinesis. It was the majority of the kids who came into the program, actually. In fact, frankly, in the first year or so I can’t remember one kid who didn’t come in with that as one of many diagnoses. They didn’t call it ADHD back then, it was called hyperkinesis, the hyperkinetic syndrome, the hyperactive syndrome, minimal brain damage, minimal brain dysfunction; MBD was the acronym that was used back then. There was no pharmaceutical cure for it, they were experimenting with using Ritalin for it.

And Doctor Ben Feingold had come up with this idea that it was food additives. And I flew out to San Francisco and met with Ben Feingold. His book ‘Why Your Child Is Hyperactive’ had been published in 1977, and this was 1978 that I was running this program, and I got to know Ben Feingold and we did a study in our program on his diet. And to this day our program, the program in New Hampshire, continues to have an all natural foods diet for the kids. But what we found was that Feingold’s hypothesis that salicylate-based food additives were what were triggering these kids was not always the case. In fact, it was not usually the case. We had one kid that we could flip on and off like a light switch with salicylate-based food additives. The rest of them, it didn’t seem to make a big difference, although nutrition, I think, is just an important thing in general.

But it seemed to me that these kids were just basically by and large born this way and then wounded by the experience of trying to fit into public schools that weren’t designed for kids wired like this. And the reason that this was so obvious to me was because I was one of them. When I was a kid, I remember in the second grade, Mrs. Clark, my second grade teacher saying, you know, “Hey Thommy, a fish wouldn’t get caught if it kept its mouth shut”, you know, because I was always interrupting in class, or, “An empty wagon always rattles.”  She was a wonderful teacher. She’s the one, she and my mother, you know, just got me completely addicted to reading. My mother really gets the majority of the credit, but Mrs. Clark was a good, a great teacher. But she just didn’t know what to do with this hyperactive kid. Me!

And so the conclusion that I came to was that this wasn’t a disease or an illness or somebody being broken, it was simply another way of being in the world, and in fact a lot of the people as I grew older, a lot of the people that I knew who were entrepreneurs, who were in the media, who were actors, who were, I worked in radio for a decade in the seventies, late sixties through the early seventies, a lot of people in the media, particularly investigative reporters, a lot of the writers I knew, journalists, people who were drawn to high adrenalin professions, emergency medical technicians, ER surgeons, seemed to have this set of qualities called ADHD.

And I came up with this theory that what was really going on was that historically there had been two types of societies. This is before industrial society. There had been two types of societies. There were hunting gathering societies and there were agricultural societies. Going back thousands, tens of thousands of years. And in a hunting gathering society these three primary characteristics of ADHD – impulsivity, distractibility and a need for high levels of stimulation, that these three characteristics, this three-cornered stool for the diagnosis of ADHD would actually be useful.

If you’re walking through the forest, looking for something to eat and you don’t see anything to eat, you need to scan more aggressively, you need to be noticing everything around you. Well, that’s what kids do in classrooms, and it’s called distractibility. They’re noticing everything around them. Well, in the forest or the jungle or the savannah it would guarantee that you would spot that flash of light over there that’s a rabbit that’s going to be your lunch or that flash of light over there that’s a bear that wants to make you its lunch. In either case, you’d get your lunch and you’d survive. distractibility as a survival skill.

Impulsivity was the second one. Hey, if you’re running through the forest chasing a rabbit, let’s say, and a deer goes running by, you don’t have time to pull out a pad to pen and say, “Well let’s sit down and do a good careful analysis here. We’ll draw a line down the middle, put rabbit on the left and deer on the right. Now, let’s see. Rabbit easier to catch but he’s got less meat.” “The deer is harder to catch, but there’s a lot more.” And, you know, by the time you’ve thought the process through they’ve both gone! So what would you have to do? You’d have to change your behavior so quickly you didn’t even realize you’d thought about it. In psychological terms this is called ‘behavior precedes cognition’. In other words, you act before you think. This is the dictionary definition of impulsivity.

And again, it would be a survival skill for hunter gatherer people. And similarly, the person who wakes up in the morning and says, “You know, it sounds like, you know, fun today, it sounds like fun, yet you go out there and there’s things that want to eat me as much as I want to eat them and find lunch! That sounds like fun.” That kind of person would be highly adaptive. They would succeed in a hunting gathering society, whereas somebody who says, “Ah, I don’t know, there’s lions and tigers and bears out there, I think I’ll just stay in the cave until they go away.” That person would starve. And of course, in an agricultural society, it was the exact opposite. You don’t want distractible people. You want people who will focus on odds, pick these bugs off these plants hour after hour after hour, week after week, month after month, year after year, generation after generation. Very focused. Not impulsive, not distractible, not making quick decisions. The growing season is, you know, nine months to a year, very careful, very thoughtful, very methodical and they don’t like to take risks, they don’t need a lot of stimulation, in fact, you don’t want them to be wired in a way that they want stimulation. Instead you want them to stay in this boring farm for the rest of their lives.

So all the hunters, I hypothesized, in Europe got up and moved to the East coast of America, and then those who were still bored moved to the Midwest, and then those who were still bored moved to the Rockies, and those who were still bored moved to the West coast, and then they started to accumulate because the ocean was there, therefore we have Hollywood. So, anyhow, that was the theory that I laid out. …

… I want to continue with this story about Attention Deficit Disorder because I think this is a really important point. …

… Our quote for the day, William Butler Yeats, “Education is more than the filling of a pail, it is also the lighting of a fire”. And along with that, a nice quote from Confucius. “If you plan for a year, plant rice. If your plan is for a hundred years, educate your children.”

And here we have now this story, this news story that America’s kids are not doing all that well, shall we say, educationally. With regard to math, 15 year olds in the United States rank near the bottom of industrialized countries in math skills ahead only of Portugal and Mexico and three other nations. Here’s the breakdown. Above the United States is Spain, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Germany, France, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, and at the top of the pile, Finland. Below us is Italy and Mexico. The U.S. actually ranked 24th among 29 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which sponsored this study. In a wider group that included 10 non-members, many of them developing nations, the U.S. tied with Latvia for 27th place.

Well, here’s how this all relates. I remember when one of our children was not doing well in school and he was 12, 13 years old, something like it. First year of middle school as I recall. And the teachers were all freaking out, and all, you know, all, you know how it goes. And it was that ADD thing, right? Put him on medication! And we actually tried that for a short while. Didn’t seem to do much good.

And so we decided to go looking for a school for him, a better school, you know, a better educational environment. Let’s find a place where he can flourish, and there were all, we lived in Atlanta at the time, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, Roswell. And there are a bunch of schools in Atlanta in the phone book, twenty, thirty of them, something like that, that, private schools, many of whom advertise that they specialize in kids with Attention Deficit Disorder or learning disabilities, and so Louise and I went shopping. And what we found was that most people were of the opinion that because these kids were impulsive and distractible and not particularly well structured and organized, they “needed lots of discipline and structure. Let’s just slap it into ‘em.”

There was one school we went to where they wanted us to sign a waiver that they could use corporal punishment. The principal had a cane fishing pole, you know, one of those bamboo canes, in his office, in the corner of his office. He said, “See that stick over there?” “Well, yeah.” He says, “Kids know it’s there you get my meaning, hah hah!” And, you know, I wouldn’t be able to succeed in this school. I’m not, you know, I’m not going to inflict this on my child.

And what we found was that the schools that were purporting to be good places for ADHD kids ran the gamut from, on the one hand, the school from hell, to, on the other end of the spectrum, the nazi school from hell. I mean they were, you know, they were like variations on military academies and all this kind of stuff. And some of them were just outrageously expensive as well.

So we ended up putting our son in a, we were looking around at different schools, we finally had given up on all the ADD specialty schools, and we found this school in downtown Atlanta called the Horizon School which was a leftover remnant of the Summerhill experiment in some ways. Part of the alternative school movement. “Summerhill” was a book by A. S. Neill published back in the 1960s as I recall in which they created a school where the kids ran the school. And this school was actually run by the student council in everything except academics. The teachers had final say in academics but the kids had a student council and they ran the school, and they made all kinds of rules for themselves, it was quite remarkable.

And I remember walking into this school. First of all we sat down with the woman who ran the school and I said, “Our son has ADD.” I was, at that point in time I was in the middle of writing a book, my first book on Attention Deficit Disorder which came out that year, it’s called “Attention Deficit Disorder: a Different Perception”, it came out in 1992 or 1993. And that book is now, you know, Time Magazine wrote it up, it’s sold a quarter of a million copies or something and it’s still out there. I still think it’s probably one of the best books on ADD that I’ve written and that I think is out there, actually. And so I was in the middle of doing that, I was real into it, and I said, you know, “Our son has ADD” and she got all bristly. She said, “I will thank you not to use that phrase in my presence again.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because we don’t have labels in this school, we have individuals. I will not tolerate any individual child being slapped with a label.” You know, I was thinking, “She just doesn’t get it.” And she said, “And furthermore, we don’t want our kids coming to school medicated.” And I’m thinking, “He’s going to eat them alive”.

So then I went out and walked around the school and I remember walking into a classroom. This was seventh graders as I recall, seventh or eighth graders. And it looked like absolute chaos. Kids were not sitting at their desk. They were standing up, they were walking around, one kid was sitting on his desk. There was a kid sitting on the teacher’s desk. Kids were running up and marking things on the blackboard. The teacher was having a knock down drag out argument with the kids. And I’m standing at the back of the room and you know, keep in mind, a decade earlier, I’d been the executive director of a program for abused kids that had a school! I was the executive director of a program that contained a school. I suppose you could say I was the principal of the school. And I’m standing in the back of the room, you know, with my arms folded across my chest, thinking, “This is a classroom out of control.” This would never happen in a school I ran.

And you know how sometimes when you just listen for a few minutes more, all of a sudden you hear something that completely turns your world upside down, that completely changes the way that you view things. And as I stood there, in this very kind of critical, judging posture, I started listening to what the kids and the teacher were arguing about.

What these kids were arguing with this teacher about was that Einstein had suggested in his theory of relativity e=mc2 that you can’t exceed the speed of light. That if you exceed the speed of light, you can get to .999 of the speed of light, but if the value of the speed of light becomes one or one point anything, once you hit or exceed the speed of light, then time becomes infinite and mass collapses to zero. Or is it the other way around? Time collapses to zero and mass becomes infinite. I forget which it was. I used to have memorized the time and mass dilation theories but that was when I was a teenager. Anyway, and therefore it’s impossible in the physical universe to exceed the speed of light. You can approach it but you can’t exceed it. And if that’s the case, these kids were saying, then why is it that Einstein in his own theory of relativity, his oh most famous theory, said e (energy) equals mass times the speed of light squared? e=mc2 (c is the speed of light). How can you square something that can’t even have as a value of one? How is that possible? How can you square something you can’t exceed? That’s, you know, and they are pulling out Einstein’s General and Specific theory of relativity and they’re talking about his story about being in the train going away from the clock tower in downtown Austria and as the train approaches the speed of light the hands start to slow down and all this stuff.

And all of a sudden, I got it. That all my life, I had thought that education was about pouring things into kids. Yeats’s quote. The filling of a bucket. And that what they understood at that school was that education was about lighting a fire. And so we put our son in that school and not only did he do well, but he was doing work two grade levels above his grade level. He was getting As in senior physics as a freshman or a sophomore. He all of a sudden just caught on fire, he fell in love with learning, and all of this with no drugs, which leads us to the question.

You got a person who has a psychiatric illness in a public school that requires medication from a multibillion-dollar industry, but when you put him into an alternative school environment, not only does he not require the medication, but the disease seems to vanish and he does very well. The question is, then, where is the disease? And I have firmly, solidly come to the conclusion that the disease is in our schools. It’s not in our kids.

Rick: So what can you do if you are a parent of a child with the label ADHD and the traits of a hunter-gatherer? I’d recommend that you learn EFT and learn it well. Use EFT to release the negative emotions that come up and to help you gain intuitive clarity on how best to communicate with your child in a positive way that supports healthy growth and appropriate behaviors. Next, use EFT around all the frustration you may feel with professionals, educators, and the school system if you are finding yourself challenging a system that was explicitly designed to create farmers and factory workers who live and leave by the bell, not physical or intellectual hunters. Once you’ve done those two things, teach EFT to your kids or hire a professional to do so. When we use EFT to get to the point where we can be “calm and confident… no matter what,” we really can find optimal paths. Note that I didn’t say “perfect”… I said optimal. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

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