ADHD and the Rock Star Gene
A genetic variant called DRD4-7R is linked to ADHD. Rock stars are, too.
Posted April 15, 2016 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- DRD4-7R, found in an estimated 20% of the population, has been called “the restless gene” and associated with ADHD.
- Numerous rockstars' statements and behavior have led to speculation that they might have the “nomadic gene."
- Each ADHD symptom has its flip side, one that can become a necessary ingredient in any creative pursuit.
Imagine you’re a musician—one of those sweat-dripping, song-belting men or women perpetually in motion on tour and on stage; just as capable of partying and jamming for nights on end as they are of weathering endless takes in the recording studio. Someone who can meticulously work and rework a song after everyone else has left, because they can’t stand for a single detail to be off. Someone who not only can withstand the restless, eclectic life of a band on the run but who actually thrives on that kind of creative chaos, much as they thrive on reinventing themselves over and over.
Superficially, at least, these descriptives point to a fairly standard stereotype: the rock star. On a deeper level, however, they might point to something less obvious but more interesting: a genetic variant called DRD4-7R.
DRD4-7R, found in an estimated 20 percent of the population, has been called “the restless gene” or “the nomadic gene.” It is also frequently associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition much in the news of late due to an unprecedented increase in diagnoses in school-aged children. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of ADHD diagnosis surged an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006, and an average of approximately 5% per year from 2003 to 2011.
While many find this trend troubling, it has also helped to spur new perspectives on both the gene and the so-called “disability.” One line of thought consistent with my books The Gift of ADHD and The Gift of Adult ADD employs the intriguing term “orchid children,” revisioning kids with this set of traits as rarified hothouse flowers: fragile, delicate, and over-excitable creatures who need precise and demanding pampering conditions to grow into startling, colorful successes—but who also, lacking those conditions, are easily crushed.
It doesn’t take much of a speculative leap to suggest that the rock world might be full of fragile, colorful orchids. Rates of addiction, anxiety, and depression are high in both populations; and while there are no known figures for rock stars, there are estimates suggesting that 50%-80% of children diagnosed with ADHD also have depression or anxiety as a result.
But such statistics don’t address the floral “flip side;” that when properly cared for, orchids can become the tallest, most graceful, and brilliant blossoms around; they are the rock stars of any greenhouse. And the truth is, ADHD comes with as many gifts as it does challenges—something evidenced by the many real rock stars who have the condition.
Among those who have come forward publicly about it are Adam Levine, will.i.am, Justin Timberlake, and Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s sister). Of these, will.i.am is perhaps the most vocal about the ways his ADHD has helped his music. “I’ve figured out a place for it,” he said in a recent interview with The Mirror. “If you listen to the songs I write, they are the most ADHD songs ever. They have five hooks in one and it all happens in three minutes. I figured out a way of working with it.”
Knowles, for her part, admits to struggling to accept her diagnosis at first, despite the fact that many of her personal “quirks” seemed to point to ADHD. (She describes herself as so full of energy and pressured speech that people sometimes—and falsely—thought she was on drugs.) She also seems to have pegged the correlation between ADHD and the rock world for herself. “The symptoms seem to apply to everyone around me in the industry,” she said in a 2014 interview with BET. “Loss of memory, starting something and not finishing it…” (Sound familiar?)
There are numerous other stars whose behavior—and sometimes even their own descriptions of themselves—have led to speculation that they might have the “nomadic gene." John Lennon, for instance. Or Kurt Cobain. Or Ozzy Osbourne.
I discovered a video of David Bowie where he describes himself as “a person with a very short attention span (who) would move from one thing to another quite rapidly.”
Of course, I am not diagnosing David Bowie with ADHD, nor (to my knowledge) has he ever self-identified that way. But like the other stars mentioned in this piece he certainly fits the description—both in his constant self-reinvention and in his history of drug abuse and depression, all part of the formula for becoming an iconic rock star.
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But What Does All This Have to Do With My Kid?
By this point, you might be wondering what will.i.am’s multi-hooked tunes and Solange’s breathless chatter have to do with your own “orchid child.” Obviously, every parent (I’d even venture to say most parents) won’t buy a prescription for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll for their millennial’s ADHD. But what’s important here is not the career, per se, but the idea that for some children, shifting careers from banking to baking isn’t a sign of directionlessness or lack of focus but an indicator of potential greatness. What matters is seeing that each ADHD symptom has its flip side, one that can become a necessary ingredient in any creative pursuit.
That, and recognizing that internalized negative labels like “directionless” and “unfocused” can be treacherous precursors to clinical depression and anxiety.
It’s also important to keep in mind that while people without ADHD can focus on things they are not interested in, people with ADHD can only focus on what they are interested in. Obviously, there are drawbacks to this limitation. But in his reflections on the condition, will.i.am actually stumbles on the straightforward benefit—your motivation to follow your true passion is much higher if you have ADHD.
If you can’t pay attention to what isn’t essential to you, it’s much less likely that you will look back on your life and regret valuing what essentially felt worthless to you.
Break-out Bad*sses in Any Field
So, what are the lessons here, and how do we implement them? While it is overly simplistic to link one gene to one condition, consider this theoretical experiment: Before kids go to kindergarten, they are tested for DRD4-7R, the “orchid child” gene. If a child tests positive, there is no glum discussion of “remedial” treatments or procedures. Instead, parents are given a documentary called DRD4-7R: The Rock Star Gene. The film will profile not only rock stars in the literal sense but also rock stars in the figurative sense. The breakout bad*sses in any field—be it art, athletics, or literature, all share the restless gene. From there, kids who test positive will be able to consider or choose to reject a menu of specific educational opportunities that caters to their creativity and their need for movement and constant novelty. But even more importantly, parents will tell their kids not that they are “deficient” or “disordered," but that they are in fact the opposite: rock stars who, when the time comes, will burst onto their respective stages—and blow the world away.