ADHD, Organizing, and the Tensions of Hunter’s Mind

You will find very little about ADHD on my blog, and this is for two reasons. The first is that I was diagnosed only two years ago, so while it has exerted psychic pressure on everything, it was an unknown quantity for most of my life. The second reason is that in spite of its penetrating influence, I’m not interested in having ADHD define my public persona. I do not want to be another ADHD blogger or podcaster, because frankly, I have “bigger” things to talk about. I do not say this to malign others who have chosen that path, or to minimize the impact of ADHD. I just have different priorities, and mostly regard neurodivergence as my own private struggle. However, I do need to talk about ADHD in this post, as I’m coming to understand how it reverberates through all of my work, and my relationships to people, especially in movement spaces.

First, a disclaimer. While I have done a good deal of research on ADHD, my story here is based mostly on my lived experience. It is specific to me, my own context and positionality, and I don’t claim to speak for anyone else. For that, I am also going to take out the “H” for this discussion, because I am not the hyperactive subtype.

Attention Overload

There are four key “symptoms” — or perhaps “features” — of ADD that are pertinent. Let me start by saying that “ADD” itself is a misnomer. The first “D”, for deficit, is just plain wrong on its face. I do not lack any ability to pay attention or to sustain it. On the contrary, my ADD functions like an antenna, picking up on every little bit of sensory and semantic data from my surroundings, or bubbling up from my unconscious at any given moment. Most human beings naturally filter out all of this “excess” information, in order to focus on a particular task, and so as not to be overwhelmed. ADD makes this filtering difficult for me, and in fact, I pay too much attention.

This explains why, as a teacher, in spite of my vehement moral and ideological opposition to standardized testing, those days were always the most peaceful for me. Under the pretext of “talking means an automatic zero”, I was able to occupy the classroom without all of the usual “static” — the whispering, chattering, screaming, tapping pencils, knees hitting the undersides of desks, stomping — all the natural sounds of youthful humanity pushing back against enclosure.

Attention Overload Disorder (AOD) might be a more accurate name, except that I also reject the premise that there is anything wrong with me. Attention Overload Syndrome (AOS)? Better, but it is still missing something. A former therapist, in passing, shared with me some of the thinking about ADD, through the more equitable lens of “neurodiversity”. She said something about ADD being an evolutionary adaptation, that it would’ve been an asset for earlier humans, particularly the hunters among us.

The hyper-attunement to her surroundings would’ve made the hunter great at tracking, due to the ability to notice and make meaning of small signs in the environment, to recognize and respond quickly to danger.

So, maybe instead of “ADD” or “AOS”, we could call it “Hunter’s Mind”. From this perspective, what I described earlier as the “intense psychic pressure” ADD exerts, is not quite right, either. What I experience is better understood as a tension between the “Hunter’s Mind” and life in an industrial capitalist society. The shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture to the industrial mode privileged those who were better at filtering. Furthermore, the cascading lattice of enclosure that structures capitalism forces and reinforces the need to “focus” and specialize for the benefit of production, and in the name of “efficiency”.

Memory Leakage and Revelation

The second important feature of ADD/Hunter’s Mind is “porous memory”, meaning that things often come and go from consciousness quite rapidly, presenting all manner of challenges with respect to organizing my life and priorities. But the things that enter my memory, even briefly, are not so much lost as temporarily inaccessible. With the right stimulus, whatever snatch of dialogue, forgotten obligation, or very important task, comes rushing back.

This “inaccessible” information also tends to influence my thinking in more subtle ways. Without fully permeating the conscious/unconscious boundary, it takes on an almost a priori quality. There is a synthesis that takes place just beneath the threshold of consciousness, such that complex thoughts seem to irrupt whole from the ether. It calls to mind the story of Athena emerging fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. If you’ll forgive the hubris of that comparison, you might imagine how the antenna and porous memory work in concert to spectacular — if often bewildering — effect. I sometimes find myself privy to knowledge or understanding, of things in which I have no expertise or even background. I think the antenna is picking up on bits of information, or I am actually learning from the dizzying array of things I consume on any given day, only to “forget” them shortly thereafter. Through the synthesis process, which remains somewhat opaque, I am able to make meaningful connections.

The hunter would’ve needed to synthesize and make meaning of many different clues in the environment in order to track down his prey. This almost preternatural intuition — itself a function of memory — allowed him to just “know things”.

There was a time before I was diagnosed, when I attributed my inexplicable knowledge or understanding of things I couldn’t remember learning or experiencing to something mystical. It strikes me as mystical still, in spite of having a more scientific explanation.

Hyperfocus and Tuning Out

The third significant feature of Hunter’s Mind is hyperfocus, the tendency to take an intense and concentrated interest in a particular thing, often for a extended time. Once my mind flags something as important, as mediated by my interests and values, the only way I can fully interact or engage with it is to turn off the “antenna”. Unlike a “neurotypical” person, who I imagine can focus, shift focus, or unfocus at will, turning off the antenna for me is the difference between a spotlight at night, and a laser in absolute darkness. Pretty much everything except for the object of my focus — including my own body — might as well no longer exist.

For the hunter, it may take long periods of intense focus to track their prey through the forest to the cavern, and more time still laying in wait for the right moment to strike.

I love to watch films in the theater, but there is always a bit of disorientation after the credits roll, and a heaviness as I am wrenched from the immaterial mind-media interface back down into my body. What I experience in hyperfocus is comparable to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow”, except that it creates all sorts of challenges with respect to my other priorities and obligations (not to mention vital needs). It also creates tension between me and others in my life, especially when they “break the laser beam” in soliciting my attention. The sudden reactivation of the antenna feels so disruptive and intrusive that it often inspires anger — perhaps like the “hunter” reacting to a perceived threat.

Laser meets lightning (Image Credit: M. Kornmesser)

Impulsivity, Impatience, and Intensity

The final relevant feature of Hunter’s Mind is actually made up of two inexorable characteristics: impulsivity and impatience. And even these words don’t capture the essence of it. My sense is that it relates to porous memory. Not only is memory the literal (physical/chemical) content of identity, it determines how we respond to the world around us. Past information necessarily informs predictions of future outcomes, even if only on a subconscious level. And so where memory is not immediately accessible, a person with Hunter’s Mind — say, me — might find themselves continuously doing things that they should’ve “known better” not to do. Like pushing for institutional change in one beleaguered school after the next, in spite of repeated retribution from hostile leadership. The layered mnemonic accumulation of stimulus-responses that we call “learning from our mistakes”, and which can also inspire a sense of fatalism, is more or less thrown out the window in favor of the endless pursuit of novelty.

The “caution” or “pragmatism” which anchors us to the status quo is bolstered by all the evidence (stored in memory) that at least the “way things are” allows us to survive. Due to the fragility and precariousness of life under capitalism, embedded in our collective memory, many people fear change, even so much as plucking the thread to which we cling. On the other hand, without a cohesive narrative of all the things that could go wrong, I am quick to embrace radical change. I can, on a whim, make significant life changes, and I am eager to try all the things that offer another possibility. Not tomorrow, or in six months, but now. Others tend to read this as “impatience” or “impulsivity”, but for me it feels obvious, and I have difficulty understanding why they can’t “see what I see”.

When the moment came for the hunter to make her move, hesitation was the difference between securing food for the band, or returning home empty-handed.

When my antenna picks up positive frequencies: theories, practices, strategies, stories, methodologies, people, events, opportunities for creating a better world, I feel an intense urgency to act on them, before they disappear. Perhaps because of the way things enter, leave, get displaced or buried within my memory, these opportunities seem ephemeral, difficult to pin down like the position or momentum of particles. But even things that flit in and out of awareness tend to root themselves somewhere in my memory. Complex ideas are synthesized, even as their practical structures elude me. And where these ideas are of particular interest or importance, I concentrate a lot of energy into exploring further or acting on them, which can come across as “intensity”.

Organizing Principles of a Hunter’s Mind

Perhaps with all this context, it will be easier for me to explain the frustrations and challenges I encounter on a regular basis. Since leaving the classroom, most of my work has been in the orbit of land, food, and climate justice. I have been extensively networking (by which I mean forming meaningful partnerships) with people from many different organizations — in Philadelphia and beyond — whose work is either in those three areas, or adjacent.

Many of these organizations operate within silos, not only with respect to how their particular work area overlaps with others, but also within a given area. Which is to say that there are many organizations doing similar, if not the same work, sometimes even in the same part of the city, and yet somehow without knowing about each other. Part of this is specific to Philadelphia, being a “city of neighborhoods”, hyper-segregated with enormous disparities in wealth, health, and quality of life, geographic concentrations of deprivation, poverty, and violence. This matrix of domination breeds distrust, animus, and fear, and with that, a firm commitment by many to the status quo, in spite of all the reasons to demand something better.

Hunter’s Mind allows me to glimpse both the underlying systems that reinforce domination, and the ley lines along which alternative lifeways might be built. The utter soup that is my mind under capitalism requires serious organizational structure in order to even function. And so my thoughts naturally gravitate toward and coalesce around any possibilities for breaking down silos, traversing boundaries of animus and distrust, fostering communication, and synthesizing many different kinds of work into a more cohesive vision. Which is what I would call “organizing”.

Network (Image Credit: TheDigitalArtist)

In my work with the Food Policy Advisory Council, I’ve been thinking about the food system as a series of nodes which either facilitate or obstruct the movement of plants and animals from land or sea. At each node, more energy is required (transportation, processing, storage), which means more emissions and more waste. Both of these contribute to a warming climate, or the degradation of the surrounding environment. I am also aware of how the underlying logics of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy create and reinforce the barriers between people and their fundamental needs.

In planning an intervention to help mitigate the urban heat island effect, I thought about how green spaces could do double duty by feeding people in the community. When I think about development in Philadelphia, I’m concerned not only about how gentrification exacerbates the housing crisis, but the fact that buildings are the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and how some of the land might be better used to produce food and localize the supply chain.

I am not writing any of this to exalt myself as some special or unique thinker, and certainly not as a particularly effective organizer, but to explain how I tend to enter movement spaces. What to others seems like impulsivity, intensity, and moonshot ambition, is how my brain attempts to reconcile the gravity and scale of the problems we face with an internal imperative toward justice. Hunter’s Mind tunes me into many possible solutions, constantly attempts to synthesize, seeks to combine all of the resources and bring in all the necessary people — immediately — and work with relentless focus until we’ve at least made significant progress. And then do it again the next day.

Where things feel too slow or intermittent, or not comprehensive enough, the energy of Hunter’s Mind accumulates in the form of restlessness and frustration.

The hunter’s reputation or very identity may have depended upon his ability to bring home food to the band, after all.

While I do my best not to project these feelings, the pent up energy inevitably finds release in other ways, such as in the way I speak: rapidly, forcefully, and with liberal use of hyperbole. For people who don’t know me very well, and know even less about all the underlying processes at work, I can sometimes be “a bit much”.

Hunter’s Mind — or ADD, if you must — can be a challenge, but given grace, empathy, and space, I believe it can be an asset in movement work. While I am writing this essay, in part, as an appeal for understanding to all of the people with whom I have worked or will work in the future, I have no illusions or expectations around how many will actually read it. But I have also found it cathartic to articulate and express what I’ve felt or understood intuitively for years, as the tension within myself, and between me and others. As I continue my work, I strive to reconcile these tensions through personal transparency, mutual struggle, and a shared sense of responsibility for people and planet.

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