Evolutionary Psychology: The Powers and Pitfalls of the Extrovert

"In the world of ADD, there are only two times: there is now, and then there is not now."
-Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D. Delivered from Distraction (pg. 24)
Cozying up to a tiger at the Naples Zoo
Throughout this blog I mention theories of evolutionary science and psychology simply because I find them interesting. During my "Evolution of Infectious Disease" course at Colby College, I discovered how insightful these studies are given modern human behaviors.

I remember the winter break following my Evolution of Infectious Disease course. As usual, the Wilson family visited the Burskys, our "Jewish Cousins,” for our annual holiday get-together. Embodying the curiosity and enthusiasm of ADHD, I launched into a discussion about human disease, "Did you know that diseases evolve and adapt in order to survive?" I might as well have asked, “Did you know that the human head weighs 8 pounds?” (Cue: Jerry Maguire clip) Also curious folk, my family and cousins indulged my tales of rabies, HIV, and Lime Disease, despite the turkey on our plates.*

In terms of evolutionary psychology, I’m currently re-reading Quirk, written by a friend of a beloved Colby professor, Tilar Mazzeo. I bring this book into play because of its acute observations about ADHD, its behaviors and evolutionary origins.

Not surprisingly, Holmes mentions ADHD under the “Extraversion” personality type and its chapters “Impulsiveness/Novelty Seeking” and “Activeness.” Given my understanding of ADHD personalities, I easily accepted “Cheerfulness” and “Assertiveness” as the other chapter headings. Holmes explains, "Extraversion is the gas pedal. Extraverts charge forward into life. They’re energized by other people. They’re optimistic. They’re naturally resilient. And they learn from life’s rewards, not its punishments” (pg.52). As I reread this section, I identified with many of these characteristics and recognized them in those close to me, who were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

So what does this have to do with evolution? In ADD / ADHD Super Children: How to Develop Your Inner Powers, I mentioned how historically we ADHD “super children evolved the ability to adapt to difficult situations.” Holmes offers explanations about why such adaptations might evolve, “[They’re] ideal for an unpredictable environment. If your environment goes through boom and bust cycles, or drought and flood cycles or no-acorn and many-acorn cycles, you can benefit from a flexible strategy” (pg.166). ADHD’rs are risk-takers, we’re optimists. We’re the first to gulp down questionable berries or descend upon a water source without checking for predators. We benefit the pack here and now.

An unlikely partnership: the Extrovert & the Neurotic.
The giraffe and the peacock at the Bronx Zoo

Holmes also describes the flaws of such novelty seekers, “Things do get lost. He [Holmes’ husband] gets lost. He lets the dog out but neglects to shut the gate. He leaves his office window open, which sets off the burglar alarm in the night. He puts burgers on the grill and then goes around front to pull a few weeds…” (pg. 65). Of course, these are modern references. Evolutionarily, we might poison our pack with those berries, contract typhoid from that water source, and lead our pack to be eaten by lurking predators. When acting impulsively, the outcome is often the luck of the draw.

Considering the pitfalls of the ADHD personality, its comforting to know that there are non-ADHD’rs out there, who will check the berries, the water, and the great plains for predators before we step out of the woods. We might get frustrated with their painstaking methods and neuroses, but at least we’ll see the next sunrise together.
What other ADHD behaviors might have evolved to benefit our human pack? 

*For more info diseases and why they evolved check out Evolution of Infectious Disease by Paul W. Ewald, which served as one of my primary textbooks.