I’ll tell you what ADD feels like:
- Boredom, and jittery limbs—even after a long hike.
- Wanting more from people, but finding it never enough.
- Intense engagement with interesting people, books, or ideas.
- Arm-scratching pain and boredom in church, structured events, and meetings.
- Restless while in conversation about the everyday.
- Always looking for angles that will build out a model in the mind.
- Zoning out in bursts of inspiration. Too many books and projects.
- Distraction from the daily, all energy focused until exhaustion… and then rest… and then renewed energy for new projects and interests.
An oscillation between boredom and fascination.
And one that makes steady engagement a challenge.
Eugene Peterson calls the way we form our character “a long obedience in the same direction.”
For people with inborn distraction and impulsivity, or what Americans call ADD… dang, that’s hard.
Thom Hartmann calls it being “hunters in a farmer’s world.”
He’s a quirky writer… but that’s par for ADHD folks. Hartmann finds this brain wiring adaptive for a detective, a news reporter, a novelist, a hunter scanning his environment. For a researcher in the field or a trucker eyeing long distances and pulling over at a whim. For a hare, sprinting across the field.
A different mind is needed for a 9-to-5 worker. For a farmer milking cows at the same time each morning before the daily tilling of soil. A different mind for those loved ones who gravitate to steady, sequential work, the incremental process of noting and building and sorting data over years, the tortugas in a steady race.
Where does it come from?
I was told years ago that farmer-types have more dopamine in their brain, while hunters transmit this chemical only fitfully. Yet dopamine is our brain’s reward, the bit that satisfies. Without it, we find ourselves driven, seeking, and craving stimulation—all the time.
As Andrew Lewis writes,
Dopamine is critical for mental stimulation, reward and interest. With ADHD, our brains are understimulated. We are in a desert without water, desperately seeking stimulation. . . [our friends] can amble, watching the shadows play across the dunes—we are on a mission to find an oasis!
Lower stimulation means our motivations, our interest, and our decisions differ. . . we focus on the interesting. . . we seek out stimulation, however it’s available.
This unsteady transmission of dopamine means the ADD mind struggles to organize and regulate. Instructions cross the mind in pieces. Emotions feel stronger. Non-urgent or stomach-churning tasks are swept aside. Impulsive thoughts and actions rule. Our minds can even spin in anxiety, stimulated by the alarm itself. (Is this true cross-culturally? So many questions…)
Why can’t a smart person be equally interested in everything?
The ADD person doesn’t have much of a dimmer switch. They tend towards off-on:
“If something isn’t inherently interesting to them, it takes a huge amount of effort for them to tune in.”
“The capacity to focus. . . depends primarily on release of dopamine in specific areas of the brain, and that release of dopamine is not under voluntary control.”
The farmer may have reward machinery quietly humming in his brain, feeding him in the course of everyday life.
The hunter is restless—feels a painful nothing until they find something intense enough to set it off all at once.
So how do people get dopamine going when it’s lagging?
According to the internet, they find something that stimulates. Things like:
Aerobic exercise. Intense research or hobbies. Sugar, coffee, chocolate. Internet searching, video games, porn, television. Poetry. Dope, alcohol, Adderall, Ritalin. Fast driving, extreme sports. Picking fights. Crying. Falling in or out of love. Sex. Anything stimulating and intense. Scoring a deal. Gambling. Socializing. And so on…
(I’ll reassure you that caffeine and research are my drugs of choice.)
(And remind you that there’s no shame in formal medication, when so many are medicating anyway.)
It can be chaos in school, jobs and relationships.
The farmer wants stability. They deserve attention, love, and task-sharing from their hunter friends/mates/co-workers.
But the hunter craves variety and stimulation, while needing structure. Twice as bright, they struggle in college. They excel in some tasks–but not others. Successful singles aren’t as successful in running households with children. (Or maybe they’re bored, needing that next thing to happen in heaven).
As Melissa Orlov writes, the farmer falls in love with the hunter’s wit, insight, adventure, and focus… and the latter is quickly diverted. As one woman reports, “He wasn’t a different person… he just wasn’t paying any attention.”
Which is kind of important.
If you’re looking for solutions, there’s a magazine called ADDitude (oh yes, really) to help. There’s a lot to work out.
But we need both hunters and farmers.
These untamed hunters are our intense lovers, creative kids, honest friends, compassionate parents, and activists moved to recreate the world. They’ve got great artistic sense and intuition,
“rewarded by seeking and making connections… our minds wrestle with problems and their solutions, we love new ideas, designs, and concepts” (Lewis).
They upset the apple-cart, but sometimes that’s necessary. They challenge and ask why. They’re great in emergencies and under pressure. They seek both integrity and the big picture, building something that makes sense.
And in the end, hunters need to find places where they thrive. To find healthy ways of regulating dopamine, using the hunt for good, and connecting to others.
And when they find their space, they can hum along, experimenting and producing the work that challenges and interests them—and benefits all of us.