Maybe that’s not enough of a story for some people to understand (or celebrate) the hunting instinct. What I know is my family has depended on it, right alongside the understory and the herds.

By Emily Stoddard 

If I had to have ADHD, at least I have the good luck of having it in Michigan. Here, the weather is almost as impulsive as I am. The dunes are wide enough to hold my wild mind. Lake Michigan is the only place where I don’t get the itch to imagine being somewhere else. She brings me to stillness, creating the rare feeling that I call the good kind of small.

It also helps that in families like mine, Michigan’s traditional four seasons are interspersed with many others, named for what’s hunted or how – salmon season, steelhead season, bowhunting season, muzzleloader season. Each one keeps the year in motion, keeps restlessness at bay.

The last time I hunted with my dad, every branch of my usually divergent attention was engaged. I heard the doe’s tentative steps coming down the hill long before I saw the flick of her ear or the white of her tail. I gripped my dad’s arm and pointed. The doe moved into the open field. She turned. He shot. A clean hit. She bolted and dropped somewhere in the thick underbrush of oak trees. I heard her thrashing stop, and that’s when we caught our breath and stepped into the field.

Retracing the path of her flight, my eyes darted and registered drops of blood on the ground, deep red against dead oak leaves—nearly brown on brown, given how quickly the blood dried in the cold. My dad was chuffed. “You should come hunting with me more often. You’d make a good tracker.”

I didn’t know it then, but this instinct to hunt and track is one of many possible hypotheses for why ADHD exists. Since getting diagnosed in my thirties, I’ve tracked ADHD in family lines on my dad’s side, in the language of psychologists, and in theories on internet forums. You can’t track this mind down to a single biological origin, but I search anyway, because I want a story for myself. I want a story that makes a better home in a world where I’ve often felt I don’t belong, where I’ve often been too much for others.

I’ve learned the hunter-tracker story is a favorite of some in the ADHD community. To me, it’s the most amusing and sometimes the most problematic. In this story, it’s said those with the hypersensitive wiring of ADHD were once the heartbeat of our tribes. We kept watch while other (less savvy, less attuned, it’s implied) members of the tribe slept. They say we were the ones who made sure you didn’t get eaten by a bear or pierced by an enemy’s arrow. We were alert to footfall on fresh snow. We could smell fire miles away and point to safety. We were awake and fearless, listening in a hundred directions at once.

Research suggests ADHD may have had some evolutionary advantage, but the science can only go so far here. What interests me is how this has become a mythology about ADHD and where it places us in the world. When I read some of the posts touting this origin story, I find myself wishing they’d just beat their chests, howl, and get it over with already.

This story says that as the world evolved, our sharp instincts fell out of fashion. We no longer need to keep watch around the campfire, but it’s too late to change our sensibilities. Now we don’t smell danger in the distance, but we do time our coffee refills to avoid the colleague wearing offensive perfume. The ping of an incoming text message has much less threat than an incoming enemy, but we react with the same urgency. We’re primed for deep feeling. We’re prone to taking things personally. Just relax, they say. Don’t be so sensitive.

If I let myself follow the story, I have to wonder if our sensitivity is the problem or if it’s just that the modern world leaves us very bored. After all, we live at a time when glamping is a thing done in earnest. In the absence of true adventure, I can catastrophize any text message into the shape of an arrow.

It’s when I’m with my dad, hunting or fishing the Betsie River or heading north on US-131, that I feel the most affinity for the ADHD-as-tribal-survival myth. Our time together is interspersed with the trees and animals we spot. He can pick out a deer emerging from a corn field while driving 77 miles per hour. It’s not a game like some people hunt license plates for letters of the alphabet. For us, it’s nearly unconscious and pops in mid-sentence: “So I told him—deer—you’d love to see him, and—oh, big buck, over there, see?—maybe we could get dinner,” he’ll say. And I’ll reply: “That would be great—deer—I haven’t seen him in so long—three deer!—I hope he brings his guitar—ooo, hawk!”

There are always two conversations: the one we mean to have and the one our wandering minds collect. There are so many deer and hawks moving between cedar trees I would have missed, if it wasn’t for my attention flashing in every direction. I track constantly. My husband begs me to try a little self-control and stop following every sound when we go out for dinner. “You don’t need to look at them just because you heard something weird,” he whispers across the table. But it’s instinct—not choice, not control—that deploys this unwavering alertness, this fierce need to notice, track, and respond. There’s something in me that’s always ready to react, pulling heat from a fire I did not build but belongs to me nonetheless. The family motto of the Scottish clan I descended from: Touch Not a Catt Bot a Targe. Don’t touch this cat without a shield.

For all these reasons, the tribalism theory of ADHD should make good sense to me. It should feel like belonging, at last. I recognize the ways my ADHD electrifies my instincts. Even writing about tracking now is energizing me somehow—and yet, I keep wondering: Is this story even true? Is it necessary? Do we have to make ourselves the hero to have a seat at the fire?


  • • •

My favorite examples of the story in action are presentations and social media posts that liken these instincts to a superpower. In one TEDx talk, for instance, speaker George Cicci sets the scene: “Think about it. We’re in the same tribe or clan of people. It’s nighttime. We’re sitting out in front of the cave. We have a fire going. And out beyond the edge of that fire, beyond what we can see, there is a very slight snap of a twig… about five or seven of us are off into the night with spears, and we sink them into whatever made that sound: saber-toothed tiger, bear, wolf, whatever it was.”

His body moves back and forth with conviction, accelerating toward his punch line: “We return to the tribe we saved—and we mate with your partners.” The audience laughs with him. I admit I return to this talk sometimes just to watch such a wonderfully Freudian moment unfold. It’s a moment where the tribal story perhaps reveals how it has been able to stick around.

A meme that occasionally circulates features a background image of a half-naked man, turned away from the camera so we can see his back muscles engaged. His arm is extended with a spear in hand, preparing to launch it. This text overlays the image:

“They give you mind-bending amphetamines for the ‘disorder’ of being wired to drive a spear through the heart of a fleeing antelope. This is how much they fear the man of power. Your ADHD is a sign from God that you are meant for more than domestication.”

For a sensitive mind whose clichés include immaturity, misbehavior, emotional volatility, and careless thinking, it’s easy to imagine why an alternative story—one where ADHD is a source of power, something others should fear—might be attractive.

But there’s trouble in building up one narrative to quiet another. First, there’s the problem of false choice. Such stories offer two options: ADHD is either a superpower or a disorder. The truth is more complex. At least in my case, denying the complexity of ADHD only makes it harder to navigate the world. I can beat my chest about the fleeing antelope all day long—it would just be another mask I wear to hide the ways I do, in fact, struggle because of how I’m wired.

The tribal story also lets me imagine people are simply afraid of my innate powers. It’s a comfortable way to skirt accountability for mistakes I’ve made or times when, in my impatience, I’ve overstepped. In that sense, the tribal storyline is just a long way of saying: I’m special and if you don’t get it, you must be afraid.

It can’t be a coincidence that it’s often white people, especially men, who seem particularly interested in this narrative. It’s telling that memes and talks use a vague idea of “tribe.” They arrive without association to an actual tribe or indigenous culture. (It wouldn’t be the first time a generalized idea of “the tribe” has been exploited for the purposes of storytelling.)

This origin story may be interesting, and it may even have some scientific validity, but the more I dig into it, the more rootless it becomes. Context and specifics are ignored—making me wonder if what this story is really after is power, not understanding.

Under the guise of being neurodivergent, it might be tempting to make the leap to feeling marginalized all around—to ignore, for instance, the ways that being white also shapes the space you hold in the world. Some might prefer a story like this for their ADHD, one that reinstates dominance around the fire. At times you can even spy the fingerprints of manifest destiny on it: Your ADHD is a sign from God you are meant for more… Go forth and wield your power, special one.

We want stories for why we are the way we are—even better if they recast us in a good light and give us purpose. I know the impulse. I’m searching for a story too. But any story aimed at re-centering my power—instead of helping me find an honest place in the circle—is a story worth questioning.

  • • •

It’s Michigan’s hunting seasons that remind me of this, again and again.

Whenever I feel skittish about the deer lining the truck bed after a hunt, my dad reminds me that hunting—honest, ethical hunting—isn’t about going in for the kill. It’s not about dominance. It’s about stewardship. It’s about taking part in a cycle.

In places where deer proliferate, the understory of the forest doesn’t get a chance to regenerate. Large, unmanaged herds mean a deer’s fate is either the bow or an unlucky car. At least the bow feeds people. For some, this meat is how they get through the winter. I’ve seen how venison trades hands, how family members in need get first dibs on the ice chest full of meat.

Maybe my dad’s sensitive wiring has made him a better hunter, in turn moving the cycle along. In turn, helping us survive and helping the forest regenerate.

Maybe that’s not enough of a story for some people to understand (or celebrate) the hunting instinct. What I know is my family has depended on it, right alongside the understory and the herds.

What I know is that when I heard that doe’s footsteps coming down the hill, I did not think of how powerful my dad and I were. I felt the forest wrapped around the three of us, how small we were in it. My heart began to race, until the familiar percussion of awe filled my ears.

What I know is that after my dad takes a deer, there is always a pause where he says: thank you.

Emily Stoddard (she/her) is a poet and creative nonfiction writer in Michigan. She is a past recipient of the Developmental Editing Fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Kenyon Review, and her work appears in Tupelo Quarterly, Baltimore Review, Radar, Whitefish Review, and elsewhere. Her debut book, Divination with a Human Heart Attached, is available now. More at