Are Mental Disorders Evolved Cognitive Styles?

A recent paper in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences collects evidence that mental disorders as diverse as ADHD, bipolar disorder, autism, and schizophrenia can actually aid group survival in traditional societies.

Mental Illness and Group Survival

Think about termites in a colony. They look and behave quite differently (think fighters versus breeders), but their differences make the colony thrive. In many traditional societies, people have a division of labor in which women specialize in gathering and men hunting.

Are there different cognitive styles, too? Can natural selection have designed people to think differently for the benefit of the group? Could ADHD or bipolar disorder represent different but equally useful thinking styles – just like hunters and gatherers represent different and equally useful foraging styles?

Since the 1970s, Western psychiatry has been chained to the disease model of mental illness. This is the idea that mental disorders are just byproducts of brain dysfunctions. We’ve all heard the slogans: “Schizophrenia is like cancer.” “Depression is like diabetes.”

If this new research is on the right track, it could be the death knell for psychiatry’s disease model. Instead of disorders, conditions like autism or even schizophrenia might be designed responses to the problems of group living.

The authors of the paper, Adam Hunt (a doctoral student in evolutionary medicine at the University of Zurich) and Adrian Jaeggi (a biological anthropologist at the same university), aren’t the only people to suggest this. A paper by Helen Taylor, a researcher at the Universities of Strathclyde and Cambridge, previously developed the theory of Complementary Cognition, according to which humans evolved to specialize in different cognitive styles that promote group success. Far from being deficits, dyslexia, autism, and ADHD are viewed as cognitive specializations that play a critical role in enabling human groups to adapt both in the past and the present.

Taylor’s work reinterprets decades of research on dyslexia to show its association with exploratory learning, which includes divergent thinking – the ability to create multiple solutions to a problem. As she points out, it’s remarkable that about a third of American entrepreneurs have dyslexia.

A Massive Paradigm Change

But how might mental disorders help group survival?

Take ADHD, long suspected to be an evolved cognitive strategy rather than a disorder. Although evolutionary theories abound, one holds that rapidly shifting attention can be a benefit in an environment full of looming threats – from hyenas to hostile neighbors.

Or consider bipolar disorder. Some scientists propose that manic episodes can enhance leadership, creativity, and energy. Journalists were quick to speculate that Kanye West’s 2020 presidential bid might have been part of an extended manic episode. While we can’t know for sure, it’s not hard to see a connection between mania and extraordinary ambition.

Autism has long been seen as a cognitive strength, too. Autism has been associated with enhanced visual-spatial skills, superior attention, and heightened awareness of the physical, non-social world.

“But surely,” one might protest, “even if ADHD or bipolar disorder might be adaptive sometimes, that doesn’t apply to schizophrenia, right? That’s always a disease, everywhere.” Not necessarily. Hunt and Jaeggi suggest that subclinical forms of schizophrenia – sometimes called “schizotypy” – can boost creativity. Voice hearing, a feature of some forms of schizophrenia, can be a precursor to training in shamanism – a prized role in some traditional societies.

If some mental illnesses are evolved cognitive styles, not diseases or pathologies, then Western psychiatry’s biomedical paradigm might actually hinder, rather than help, cutting-edge scientific work.

Perhaps what psychiatry needs isn’t more time and research funding to find the brain and gene defects underlying madness. Maybe it needs a massive paradigm change in which mental disorders are seen as purposeful, not pathological.

The Neurodiversity Movement

Neurodiversity advocates have promoted a similar view for decades. The movement was originally intended to help us rethink the nature of autism. In this approach, autism, far from being a brain defect, should be seen as an alternative cognitive style. For this reason, some prefer the neutral terminology of “neurodiverse” and “neurotypical,” as they explore how society has been unfairly designed to privilege “neurotypicals.”

There’s a lot in common between the neurodiversity movement and the idea of evolved cognitive styles. But two differences jump out. First, neurodiversity advocates aren’t wedded to any particular evolutionary theory. As philosopher and neurodiversity advocate Robert Chapman has persuasively argued, whether or not autism is designed by evolution should have no bearing on the rights and support that people with autism deserve.

Second, while the neurodiversity movement is primarily centered on rethinking autism, the cognitive styles approach – whether represented by Taylor, or Hunt and Jaeggi, casts a wider net.

The most important lesson we can draw from research on evolved cognitive styles? It’s the same lesson that neurodiversity advocates have been advancing for decades: How can we design society and education so that people with different cognitive strengths can flourish, rather than founder? How can we change mindsets to see that our different cognitive styles make us valuable to society, not burdensome?

Originally posted on Psychology Today

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