The Night Watchman Theory for ADHD
“The Watchman Theory posits that our hyperfocus and ability to give equal attention to every element in our environment is actually honed by evolution. The theory is that people with ADHD are wired to be the perfect night watchmen and hunters of our tribes and that most of our current advantages and disadvantages trace back to this vital role wherein our ‘symptoms’ would have saved lives.”
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10 Comments: The Night Watchman Theory for ADHD
Yes! I had independently arrived at a similar hypothesis, though I hadn’t got in to the nightwatch so much as simply that the famous “squirrel” attention is actually kind of important when you are wandering through a forest looking for food. Whilst some achieve a full bag by being focused on spotting as many berries as possible, the person turning to check on every flicker of movement and flight of bird is the one that saves the tribe from being eaten by bears.
The longest job I ever held (and there could be an argument that while I worked consistently for the same employer, I moved around internally a lot working at different duty stations and in different roles on different types of crews…), was being a wildland firefighter from 1990-2002. I was great at it. It was rare when two days were even similar in how they played out. There was no boredom. As I grew professionally, managing the logistics of crews, supplies, vehicles, equipment, and a duty station along with being ready to respond locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. I was being trained to be an Incident Commander when I left the agency. As a woman, 12 years of toxic sexism had gotten to me, and I was just done. That was 20 years ago, and I still think it was the most suiting job for my hyperactivity/ADHD. The real proof of my ability to remain calm in the face of crisis was arriving on scene to a vehicle accident with 6 children involved and a smoking vehicle engine I was afraid would catch fire. This accident required 1 life-flight helicopter ambulance, 3 traditional ambulances and cutting 2 children who were extremely injured out of the car. I was an Engine Operator at the time, and my Captain was crapping his pants, and I had to delegate, make all the decisions and supervise our fighters, cut one child out of a car, and instruct none fire service people at the scene how to help. My captain was absent. He could not cope.
I am 52 now and looking for work. I have no idea what I should do, but I know the 8-5, Monday-Friday office crap is like slowly putting a bullet in my brain. it’s HORRIBLE. I feel so lost and at 52, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
Interesting article! As someone who grew up on a diary farm and the son of a farmer (dad almost certainly had ADHD too), I just wanted to give Les a heads-up – Farming is definitely NOT a 9 to 5 job. It’s often a before sunrise to after sunset, 7 day a week job. 🙂
The “hyperfocus during real threat” makes sense to me. My hyperfocus events have always been shockingly surprising to myself and others around me. But nobody thought to put a name to it.
I was working late – as asual, because of all of the reasons you mentioned – at a boring 9 to 5 job that happened to be causing severe mental and emotional distress because of my ADHD, which I was unfortunately unaware of at that time, and not knowing about it very much destroyed my life.
On my way home I was kidnapped. Long story short, I still remember the instant it happened. Unlike what they say about people getting so messed up in such situations, I felt like I had stepped into a cold shower. The calm that surged through my blood and body was unmatchable. My mind had never felt so clear. It felt as bright as day. I was analyzing things so quickly it felt like a turbo booster had suddenly taken over my brain. I remembered every little detail from my life, experiences, training, and even movies that would come in handy in the next half hour, and I put them to use.
It was not without some damages, but I came out alive and in one piece. I saved my cash, bank account, and a valuable piece that was on me at that time.
I still remember how smoothly I worked everything out. That’s the part that still amazes me and everybody who knows about it.
I’d go a step further and suggest the traits that we really struggle with were not nearly as relevant during evolution as they are today. Modern society has morphed away from nature and nowhere is that more obvious than in the realms of academic performance. Things like learning by rote to pass exams. I have spoken with my wife about this, and her visual memory allowed her to essentially read answers from a text book saved in her mind. I have no visual memory at all, so the only way I could pass exams was to read something and write out my own rationalization. The upside is that now the best part of 30 years later, I can recall information and details of the stuff I studied, where as my wife lost that info within weeks.
My father-in-law (ADHD like myself) was an air traffic controller for years. A lot of ATCs can get overwhelmed by everything that’s going on inside the tower, but for my father-in-law that was his zen space. He loved it and he was great at it.
No, this has been debunked thoroughly. Even the originator of the theory has now admitted that he was wrong. There is absolutely no science to suggest that ADHD is an evolved genetic trait that gave any advantage to early humans. In fact if you look at hunter-gatherer tribes that still exist today, the successful members of the tribes definitely do not exhibit ADHD behaviours. This lecturer explains exactly why it is a nonsense conjecture (it definitely does not deserve to be called a “theory”: https://youtu.be/o_hHNTDdgIU?t=1121
Backtracking now with the consideration that ADHD globally likely did not come from American Indians but may have given early visits by Vikings, Columbus, etc. One other idea popped into my head. Recently we’ve been hearing that Cro Magnon man likely bred with Neanderthals. Who knows, that could be the ticket.
This is a good theory. I think mine is more likely. I have native American Indian genes. My great grandmother 4 generations back was American Indian. Their genes were vastly different from ours having evolved in a totally different environment. They also had to be on watch constantly, hyper focused on hunting game, sleeping always aware, etc. Similar to the night watchman theory. I wonder if this has been considered by any of ADHD’s great physicians. Given the likely amount of times that new Americans bred with native Indians, the % of ADHD in our population follows. That’s an intuitive guess. It would be really satisfying to study this and confirm with 100’s of hours on Ancestry dot com!
Predictably male dominated answer to a problem that isnt only male. This is a throwback to 60s 70s days when so little was really known.