Does Our Society Suffer from ADHD?

Photo Credit: Nico Saieh

ADHD, formerly called ADD, stands for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (Refer here for a discussion of the two terms). The National Institute of Mental Health defines ADHD in the following terms: “Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” It says this about the signs and symptoms associated with ADHD: “Inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity are the key behaviors of ADHD. Some people with ADHD only have problems with one of the behaviors, while others have both inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity. Most children have the combined type of ADHD.”

Might there be a sense in which analogically speaking our society suffers from something like ADHD? I spoke about this matter with Dr. Robert Potter, M.D., Ph.D., who has served as an advisor to me for a grant on faith and science. Dr. Potter’s Ph.D. from the University of Chicago focused on religion, psychology, and ethics. He and I have a keen interest in social psychology, which is featured in this post as it pertains to societal neurosis. This blog post involves a creative synthesis of Dr. Potter’s and my reflections on the challenges posed and required for sustained attention to ethical deliberations in the face of increasing social upheaval in our day.

Dr. Potter spoke of ADHD in the context of discussing meaning systems. Meaning systems are retained in the memory and are housed primarily in the frontal lobes of the brain. They guide individuals to attend to reaching their goals. Meaning systems that result from normal neurological development are highly organized. Dr. Potter referred to ADHD as a poorly organized meaning system. Poor organization makes it very difficult to maintain a steady state of physiological homeostasis, which signifies stable operations and conditions that are vital for an organism’s normal functioning.

Meaning system are intended to help one stay on track to reach one’s goals, which are bound up with steady state homeostasis, and which includes one’s values. Those suffering from ADHD cannot stay on track because their meaning systems are underdeveloped and unable to guide their behavior toward their goals.

Something similar happens in the religious and ethical spheres. Our meaning systems include our values, which involve theological and moral reasoning. As the brain governs all bodily functions, so, too, theology and ethics which arise in the brain help govern or organize systems for evaluating what is happening in the world in service to human flourishing.

Theology and ethics are global and synthetic exercises that help us to process information in a manner that cultivates harmony in our social environment. Meaning systems continue to go through adaptation and revision to achieve harmonization or cooperation. People across the religious and cultural spectrum operate in this way. It is true of all of us. Resilience involves reorganizing meaning systems in the face of conflict and trauma.

Dr. Potter spoke of attention deficit from two angles: either an individual cannot focus on anything, or the individual can only give attention to one thing. If sound theology and moral reasoning involves thinking about everything at once, all the time, a narrowly developed theology and ethical system that does not account for all variables in a holistic and structured manner is damaging to one’s person, as well as to the community at large. When this happens, an individual or individual society cannot develop a well-ordered meaning system since the material one considers is so limited and/or disorganized. Chaos ensues, and the individual or individual society cannot maintain attention or may be locked into a narrow range of attention. Inattention or narrow attention creates distress in the individual organism or the social organism, which can be experienced as severe mood disruption.

As noted above, theology and ethics are mental activities that help create meaning systems. Dr. Potter maintains that theological education is a strategy for developing well-organized meaning systems or belief systems. Learning is a term used in neuroscience and it points to the repeated firing of selected circuits of neurons that become so closely connected that they continue to fire and re-stimulate one another into what we ordinarily call a “habit”—a fixed behavior that

responds to stimuli the same way each time. A well-learned theology and ethical framework is a relatively fixed or stable meaning system that allows us to respond to life situations with what

Aristotle called a virtue, which is “a habitual disposition to respond well.” However, such intellectual and behavioral activity is not divorced from the emotional or affective domain of life. In fact, one could argue that they flow from the intuitive sphere of the brain.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have identified six units of meaning organization that they call moral intuitions.Why the terminology ‘moral intuitions”? It is because they function more as emotional responses to life situations rather than as a result of rational deliberations. These six units of moral intuition seem to be relatively stable in humans of all cultural backgrounds.

Haidt and his team call on us to think through the values bound up with our brains’ emotional states in a comprehensive way for the sake of sound ethical deliberations. If we were to apply the discussion of cultivating a well-organized meaning system to social psychology and moral foundations, it would entail accounting for all six moral intuitions or foundations: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; sanctity/degradation; and liberty/oppression. We all tend to emphasize or prize some moral intuitions more than others, perhaps even discounting some. As a result, we tend to have difficulty accounting for those whose ethical views differ from our own. We can only focus on one perspective—our own. It is as if we are experiencing attention deficit, which in turn impacts our moods. Perhaps the level of disgust and anger bound up with our ethical evaluations of others in society today reflects our own lack of attention (in view of so much traumatic social upheaval) to all the moral intuitions that constitute ethical homeostasis.

Further to what was argued above, good theological and ethical training is thinking about everything at once, all the time. Narrowly developed theology and ethical systems do not account for all factors or perspectives in coming to a conclusion. Rather, they discount them in advance because they do not fit one’s pre-conceived biases. No matter where we are on the religious and ethical spectrum, we are all guilty of such attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder from time to time. In fact, it might be good to call it attention-deficit/hypocriticaldisorder, as we tend to portray ourselves as balanced and others as imbalanced.

Now if the sweeping charge of hypocrisy doesn’t swing your mood, I’m not sure what will! But before you allow yourself to be taken too far away from steady state homeostasis, ask yourself if you can focus a bit longer not just on the content of this blog post’s basic tenets, but all the moral intuitions Haidt recommends we consider before concluding our ethical deliberations. Moreover, we should give attention to empathy, which can actually help increase our attention span.

Empathy, a disposition that Haidt encourages us to foster, can help us decrease our sense of disgust and increase our attention span when viewing rival arguments on pressing ethical matters. Empathy entails a capacity to hear one another out. When coupled with humility, which entails acknowledging our own limitations to grasp all matters with total awareness, we can actually make headway toward social harmonization and cooperation. Immigration reform, abortion, air pollution and healthcare are some of the many pressing issues we face as a society. We must hear one another’s arguments out and account for all the ethical factors all at once and all the time. This is not something we can do alone, or only in the company of our own moral tribe. Without such collective solidarity in moving toward greater understanding and cooperation, we will never foster fully developed theological ethical meaning systems, which alone are able to guide our pluralistic society’s ethical behavior toward the goal of collective human flourishing

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