ADHD and Contextual Thinking

Years ago in early graduate school I wrote a paper on the communications theorist Walter Ong, who looked at the differences between and among primarily oral and primarily literate cultures and the ways that literacy actually restructures the way people think. He told a story about how some researchers were trying to get some indigenous people to categorize the way Westerners categorize things. You know — “one of these things is not like the other; which one is different, do you know?” The example he gave (if I recall correctly) was of a hammer, a saw, a carving knife, and a piece of wood. We would automatically say the first three are tools and the last one is not. However, these respondents absolutely insisted: “why take something away from the thing for which it was made?” Each of those “tools” would work on piece of wood — that is, the thing for which those tools were made. 

When we go about trying to “make a point,” we have great difficulty separating the “tools” from the “things for which they are made.” We are HIGHLY CONTEXTUAL THINKERS, and more often than not the context we feel we need to supply comes from our personal experiences. Thus as we relate our personal experiences as we are trying to make our point, it appears that we are “making everything all about ourselves.” When we are not at all doing that. We are simply conveying the ways in which we understand the world.

It is also our contextual thinking that makes it difficult for us to create a linear outline and to follow it, and to produce work that passes muster in a linear-thinking world. We understand what we read in the context not only of everything else we have read but also in the context of our personal lives. ALMOST EVERYTHING is relevant to the point we are trying to make, including something that may have happened to us (for example) when we were four years old!

This is a problem for us for three main reasons and three o main reasons alone:

1) The rest of the world (but especially the academic world) thinks linearly, or demands linear thinking, because they see it as more “efficient,” and so therefore all our provisions of context are just a waste of time.

2) The rest of the world devalues personal experience both as a source and as a context for knowledge.

3) Efficiency of time use is prized above everything else.

Do you see how utterly contrary these three concerns that “normals” have are to our way of being in the world, our way of understanding it? And how utterly alien they would be to people living in a primarily oral culture, where time is measured by the location of the sun and the moon in the sky, and people don’t mind waiting for others to arrive at a gathering because the waiting time can be spent in all sorts of wondrous pleasures, and nobody is thinking about the next meeting they have to get to?

And when it comes to speaking and making points — STORIES are valued?

Now, it may seem contradictory that all of us here are writers and we love to read (but kapow! I just suddenly understood why so many ADHD folks have trouble with reading, and it is not because of short attention spans, but rather because reading is linear and the subject matter all too often taken out of context).

I have learned how to edit dissertations and other writing in order to get them to conform to the standards of the linear, academic world that prizes efficiency. I am absolutely superb at it. But I am much better doing it with other people’s work than I am with my own, because I don’t have the attachments to context that my clients do.

Come to think of it, this may not just be an issue of differences between ADHD folks and “normals” but also differences between people whose own cultures are different from the dominant one. For example, I can see how African Americans might have difficulty with the linearity of “standard” academic thinking, depending on whether they grew up in middle class or lower class environments. In middle class environments they would have parents who’ve also been drilled in how to think linearly. Ditto with working class cultures. I know that working class folks find much of academia alienating.

Anyway, I have come to the point that I intend to DEFEND my way of expressing myself as a legitimate way of understanding the world. I may choose to speak less often in deference to the constraints of time so that others also have the opportunity to speak. But I will ask people to be patient with my story-telling and all my prefatory material that I believe needs to be part of “my point.” And if they aren’t willing to be patient, am out the door. Because I don’t need that negativity.

People who are looking for support from other people to allow them be who they are in all their glorious individuality as well as their differences from the “norm” should be able to accept someone who is different, but different in a different way.

Time to have an ADHD Liberation Movement, maybe? I am only half serious about that. But the half that is serious is very serious. I think we need to stop accepting other people’s evaluations of ourselves for our failure to conform to their expectations. We have our own unique contributions to make. Yes, we need to become more self aware — if for no other reason than we know how unbearable it can be to be in a room full of ADHD folks who are unaware! We do need to find ways to compromise and live within the dominant world, but as we do that we must not for once think that our way of being in the world is WRONG, something to be FIXED.


4 thoughts on “ADHD and Contextual Thinking

  1. I have a new relationship with a man who has ADD. He can come across as scatter brained, not paying attention, selfish and just plain old bored when he is in full ADD mode. I have no idea if his ADD has effected him as it has you. I will have to ask him about this. Thanks for posting this


  2. I encourage you to learn everything you can about ADHD. It will help you to understand your new man — although it is possible, of course, that an ADHD person may indeed be selfish (we are, after all, human beings), chances are good that behaviors you interpret as “selfishness” are simply manifestations of ADHD. Most people with ADHD have a terrible time with relationships because people interpret our behaviors within a framework that simply does not apply. Most ADHD people are in fact deeply compassionate, because we know the pain of being misjudged, isolated, and alienated from the communities of which we strive to be a part.


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