Did ADHD Colonize America?
A famous ADHD psychiatrist likes to argue that imperialism is part of America's DNA
This week I posted a video essay for paid subscribers!
It’s a review of Drs. Ed Hallowell and John Ratey’s latest pop-sci book, ADHD 2.0, wherein I broke down some of my problems with the book and raised a few questions about the superpower gospel it preaches.
Hallowell says some wild stuff, like ADHDers are “cows that need to be milked” or the way to snap out of rumination is to “dig a hole”, but maybe the wildest thing he says is that ADHD did colonization. I mention this briefly in the video but I wanted to expand on it a bit here.
In a 2011 New York Times article titled “ADHD Is In the American DNA”, Hallowell writes:
Back in the 1600s and 1700s, you had to have special qualities — some would say special craziness — to get on one of those boats and come over to this uncharted, dangerous land. And the waves of immigration in subsequent centuries also drew people who possessed the same special qualities. In many ways, the qualities associated with A.D.H.D. are central to the American temperament, for better or worse.
This is what American kids are taught in kindergarten, right? Early settlers were brave adventurers who dared to explore an empty wilderness. But the idea that America was “uncharted” is one of our oldest myths — the land was actually quite “charted” already, and colonization required both literal and cultural genocide. Scholars are divided on exactly how many indigenous people were living on the continent before 1492, but estimates are anywhere from 15 to 100 million.
There were also plenty of motivations for colonization that had nothing to do with genes — mostly it was religious and economic. Many European countries were looking for new trade routes with Asia, France wanted furs, and Spain was just straight up looking for gold. Is violent greed genetic, too?
To me, this sounds like an attempt to wrap Manifest Destiny in DNA. Culturally, many Americans have shifted away from using God as justification for economic expansion and the atrocities committed in its pursuit. Neurology and genetics have become new gods for us, and here Hallowell invokes them to explain why Europeans colonized the Americas. It wasn’t their divine right, but their genetic predisposition.
If you’re like, okay Jess, but that’s from 2011, surely he’s become a bit more sensitive to this issue over the last decade? Here’s a quote from an interview he did in 2021:
The people who colonized this country were full of ADHD genes, it’s why this country is so loaded with it, why we lead the world in innovation and entrepreneurialism, probably our greatest contribution to world civilization is democracy and entrepreneurialism.
Saying it’s just in our genes sweeps all the horrors of our history under the rug. America “leads the world” because its founding fathers stole a country, committed genocide, and enslaved millions of people to do all that “entrepreneurialism” for them.
We continue to be a world power not because our genes make us great at innovation, but because we exploit cheap labor across the Global South and throw billions of dollars into a military so big, it creates more greenhouse gas emissions than 140 countries.
“Democracy” is not this benevolent gift Hallowell seems to think America gives to the world — it is “spread” by military force, CIA coup, and economic sanction. Either Hallowell’s understanding of American history is limited to a high school textbook or he is willfully ignoring a pattern of violent regime change sponsored by the US government in countries like Chile, Nicaragua, and Iran in order to suit this strange genetic patriotism.
His second argument for the inherent American-ness of ADHD is because:
…most of the important research into the condition was done in America by Americans.
We have educated our general public, including parents and teachers, better than other countries have.
I do agree that ADHD, as a construct, is extremely American, but that’s not because all the biggest ADHD researchers just happened to be American.
It’s because they imbued their values of productivity, efficiency, and self-regulation into their scientific theories about what constitutes a mental disorder, and then exported their conclusions to the rest of the world in what some scholars have referred to as “psychiatric imperialism.”
Psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton writes:
they encourage the wholesale exportation of Western mental disorders, and, more than that, the wholesale exportation of Western accounts of mental disorder, Western approaches to mental disorder, and, ultimately, Western values or tropes such as biologism, individualism, and the medicalization of distress and deviance.
Journalist Ethan Watters, who wrote a book on psychiatric imperialism, says that this kind of ideological export relies on bioessentialism — they can only propose that mental disorders are universal if they are ultimately biological.
Watters writes that psychiatrists who insist the American Way of the Mind is applicable to the entire world are treating the DSM like “a field guide to the world’s psyche” and view its global application as “the brave march of scientific knowledge.”
Anthropologists, however, have found much evidence that this universality just isn’t true — mental distress is always expressed in different ways based on the time and culture in which it appears.
But, Watters says:
This does not mean that these illnesses and the pain associated with them are not real, or that sufferers deliberately shape their symptoms to fit a certain cultural niche. It means that a mental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions — the idiosyncratic cultural trappings — of the mind that is its host.
Hallowell’s insistence that America has educated our public “better than other countries have” speaks to something else Watters brings up:
For the last 50-odd years, Western mental-health professionals have been pushing what they call “mental-health literacy” on the rest of the world. Cultures became more “literate” as they adopted Western biomedical conceptions of diseases like depression and schizophrenia.
The vision of ADHD supremacy that Hallowell presents is one that obscures historical atrocities like colonization, war, and genocide with genetic justifications and believes the world would be better off if they just followed the lead of the United States. In his effort to rebrand ADHD as a desirable, marketable superpower, Hallowell has taken American exceptionalism and given it a DSM code.
Watch my video essay on Hallowell’s book ADHD 2.0 by becoming a paid subscriber: