The Rainforest Mind (RFM): Mysterious, Misunderstood, and Misdiagnosed?
Are you highly sensitive, smart, complex, creative, intense, curious, and misunderstood? According to Paula Prober (Your Rainforest Mind, 2016), these are the typical signs of a rainforest mind. Prober is a former teacher of gifted children and has coined the term rainforest mind. I have to admit, after having read dozens of books on gifted and twice-exceptional children, I found the book rather underwhelming. It is poorly structured, quite repetitive, leaves a lot unclear (e.g. if there is a difference between HSPs and RFMs — both concepts are based on overexcitabilities), and overuses anecdotal evidence. The author frequently tells her readers frequently just to read some of her main sources, such as Elaine Aaron, Susan Cain and watch a couple of TED-talks. Even the metaphor of the rainforest seems to work poorly: “Like the rain forest, are you intense, multilayered, colorful, creative, overwhelming, highly sensitive, complex, idealistic, and influential?” WTF?
Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading as it offers some great insights into the struggles of gifted and 2e children and teens.
Contrary to the mythology that “smart” people will be just fine without help, what often comes with smart is excessive doubt, anxiety, depression, shame, and loneliness. […] Billy, 16, had been experiencing severe anxiety, missing several days of school. His mother described him as “hard on himself,” a “perfectionist,” and “very sensitive.” He felt judged, misunderstood, and bullied by peers. Never identified in school as gifted, Billy assumed there was something seriously wrong with him. He knew he was different, but he did not know why.
Anyone familiar with the concept of neurodiversity will immediately find themselves at home here: social struggles, bullying, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The word ADHD comes up almost a dozen times in the book and yet Prober insists that RFMs are misdiagnosed with ADHD. As someone who can identify both as ADHD (undiagnosed) and RFM, I find this stance quite annoying and I was reminded of Elaine Aaron’s insistence that HSPs have NOTHING to do with ASD. While a lot of HSPs/RFMs might be reluctant to be labeled ASD/ADHD it equally makes no sense to me to exclude neurodiverse people. In fact, I would even argue that most gifted people are neurodiverse. A woman on the spectrum recently blogged: “Why is HSP still code for ASD?”. One might equally argue that RFM is code for ADHD.
Prober could improve her rainforest metaphor a lot by reading Thom Hartmann, who argued that people with ADHD have a hunter mind. Indeed, the only people really living in rainforests today are slash-and-burn horticulturalists like the Yanomami and hunter-gatherers like the Aka. I agree with Hartmann that such nomadic hunter-gatherers require different cognitive skills and more flexible minds than sedentary farmers, who are far more specialised, which has its manifestation as trait conscientiousness on the level of personality psychology. Multipotentiality is the term Prober refers to in this context and its signs are:
- Feeling like a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none
- Feeling like a dilettante
- Changing majors in college many times
- Taking longer to get through college
- Not going to college because you cannot decide on a major
- Having a terrible time choosing one career
- Frequently changing jobs and/or careers
- Being told you can do anything you want (Aren’t you lucky?)
- Not feeling lucky
In 1972, R.H. Frederickson et al. defined a multipotentialite person as someone who, “when provided with appropriate environments, can select and develop a number of competencies to a high level.” From the point of evolutionary psychology, this is exactly what we would expect in the changing, fluid environments of hunter-gatherers as compared to the more stable, routine-like environment of farmers. Despite book titles such as Why Generalists Win by David Epstein, specialists tend to have the safer life path, from schooling to getting employed. Of course, generalists like Einstein, who completely fits the description of a RFM, do occasionally win, but I am quite sure that a lot of RFMs feel unlucky and think like they just didn’t win in the lottery of life.
The difference between farmer and forager minds can often be seen in children and teens when they get asked what they want to be later in life. Farmer type children tend to be very specific, like a truck driver or a policeman. Forager type children are often less sure or at a loss. John Lennon famously answered “Happy”. When his teacher said that he hadn’t understood the question, he unanswered that the teachers didn’t understand life.
The concept of RFM is therefore very close to that of an “orchid child”. As Thom Hartmann argued, a hunter mind will do worse at farmer tasks (e.g. route learning and routine work), and we mostly live in a farmer world. Of course, most people alive today have a mixed forager-farmer genetic heritage, so we see many different shades of the phenomenon, such as neurodiversity, gifted, RFM and HSP. And they generally tend to come as spectra.
For more on the hunter-gatherer neurotribe check out my :