Magazine article Science News

Evolution of Attention

Magazine article Science News

Evolution of Attention

Article excerpt

Many scientists assume that attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) stems from a poorly understood brain malfunction. As many as 1 in 20 school-age children are estimated to have the disorder, which includes a limited attention span, constant fidgeting and moving about, and frequent impulsive and disruptive acts.

In some cases, however, these symptoms may represent biologically based traits that served people well in prehistoric environments, even if such propensities wreak havoc in today's schools, proposes a research team headed by Peter S. Jensen, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Md. Traits linked to the disorder probably exist in different combinations and varying magnitudes throughout the general population, Jensen and his colleagues theorize.

In the dangerous, food-scarce environments in which hunter-gatherers frequently lived, a hyperactive, get-up-and-go attitude in some folks would have fostered effective exploration of potential threats and opportunities, the scientists contend. In the same contexts, rapidly shifting attention and impulsive, hair-trigger responses would have helped in locating threats and defending against them.

As a result of innate temperament combined with childhood experiences, such as growing up in impoverished or abusive families, some modern youngsters may approach the world in a response-ready mode characterized by ADHD symptoms, Jensen's group suggests in the December 1997 Journal of the Americans Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. …

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