How neurodiverse people are like hunter-gatherers: part I cognition

For two years I have been researching how neurodiverse (ASD, ADHD, gifted, etc.) people are like ancient hunter-gatherers. It hasn’t been an easy enterprise, as the only work that has ever pointed to an origin of neurodiverse minds in ancient hunter-gatherer minds has been Thom Hartmann’s “Hunter-Hypothesis” of ADHD. Personally, I am somewhat in between neurotypical and neurodiverse, testing around 50% on online autism tests and 75% on ADHD tests. Like most neurodiverse people I have always had a hard time fitting in and I have a gifted son who learned to read by age two (hyperlexia) and who gets similar test results as I do. I generally do include the gifted label in my use of the word “neurodiverse”, to make it clear that not only people who are considered “having disabilities” belong to this group.

Here is a preliminary list:

  • Less politeness/socially awkward (learn few social rules)
  • Egalitarian
  • Distrust of authoritarian behaviour
  • High sense of justice
  • Support the underdog
  • Exceptional honesty
  • No-ingroupism/nepotism
  • Less gender dimorphism

Physiological:

  • Chronotype (tend to be night owls)
  • Hypersensitive to physical stimuli (sound, touch, etc.)

Anatomical:

For simplicity, I’ll stick here with only two types: hunter-gatherer types and farmer types. I usually include a third type (pastoralist types), but people are often mixed and of course, the reality is much more complex.

Here is a comparison between hunter-gatherer vs farmer types when it comes to cognition:

Foraging and farming required different cognitive skills. One huge difference is that farming requires a sustained focus on long and boring tasks, whereas hunters are more easily distracted by all kinds of stimuli that may or may not be relevant. Once a stimulus is perceived as relevant (e.g. a track of a potential prey) the hunter keeps (hyper)focusing on it until the task is finished. Also, hunting skills are very different from farming skills. The latter requires tradition and much more social learning. Once a young grown up a farmer basically kept repeating the same tasks over and over. Hunting is very different, it can’t be learned by tradition and social learning is much less relevant. It’s not young grown-up hunters who are the best hunters (even though they might have a fitness advantage), but the older and more experienced hunters. Hunting requires therefore much more self-directed learning.

Being high pattern-recognizers is another advantage. A hunter will perceive patterns leading to the prey that are imperceptible to, like recognizing from the patterns on the surface of the water where fish can be found. Neurodiverse people are therefore much more likely to recognize patterns that neurotypicals (farmer types) miss. As farmer-types were more dependent on social learning their cognition is more dependent on other people’s (e.g. teacher’s) opinions. Neurodiverse people are often independent of collective truth and tend to perceive patterns others don’t. Children with ASD and ADHD are also notorious for pointing out logical flaws in a teacher’s arguments, which may often get them into trouble with their teachers. All the more so, that hunter-gatherer minds don’t accept authority without competence and they may become straightforwardly rebellious if they perceive the teacher to treat them unjustly.

Finally, I have come across a wider field of vision for hunter-gatherer types several times in my research. Scanning their environment for danger, prey and food sources foragers are more likely to have a wider field of vision than farmer types who have to focus long on routine work. This wider field of vision in hunter-gatherer types may interfere with learning to read as the learner may be more distracted by neighbouring letters or images. In combination with pattern-seeking a wide field of vision would not only allow a hunter to spot prey more easily, but also make a hunter a great astronomer. I estimate that about 90% of astronomers are hunter types and usually hunter type children can become obsessed with astronomy very early on (before schooling) from my experience with my own children.

Most of the great geniuses and pattern-seekers in history (e.g. Edison and Einstein) had difficulties adapting to school and most Nobel Prize winners have few fond recollections of their time in school. Our different minds make it harder for us to go through the traditional school system. Hunter-gatherer type children are often among the gifted, but also among the twice-exceptional (2e) and more frequently among special ed children than farmer-type children. Even for those who are gifted, you often get the “brilliant but lazy” type of student. By now it should be clear that these brilliant students are not lazy but that their minds find it incredibly hard to focus on rote tasks and crave for more interesting stimulation. Instead of being able to show that they are super-learners, their boring school work turns them into super-procrastinators. Hunter-gatherer type children are often much better at self-directed learning (autodidacts) than learning in a classroom setting. I have met many neurodiverse children who had amazing skills to show off: knowing everything about insects or the solar system. And yet these children found it hard to learn telling the time when taught in school.

Very often these self-directed hunter-gatherer type children are great at learning with computers, especially when they get to control their own learning. As a teacher, I have noticed that there are two types of students who love learning with computers, whereas the majority of children aren’t too happy about it or often even hate it. These two types are special-ed children and gifted children. They are really one type: hunter-gatherer types. Learning for hunter-gatherer type children is PLAY, learning for farmer type children is WORK. If learning turns into WORK for hunter-gatherer type children, they start to do poorly, if it remains PLAY they start to excel. The very same cognitive skills that helped our ancestors hunt prey often turn hunter-gatherer type children into super-gamers nowadays: hyper-focus, pattern-recognition, wide field of vision, and a sense of completing the mission and perfecting your hunting skills (a love for life-long learning).

Originally published at on January 1, 2021.