“Scattered Minds” by Gabor Maté

# books# mind

Scattered Minds is one of the most influential books on the topic of ADD/ADHD. Canadian physician Gabor Maté wrote the book after receiving his own diagnosis for ADD. (Maté uses the shorter abbreviation, “ADD”, so I’ll do the same here.)

Scattered Minds is an impressive accomplishment of memoir, medical writing, and self help all in one as Maté ties together his childhood, family life, medical practice, research, and life’s wisdom. His prose, weaving together his personal experiences, research, and case studies, kept me engaged for the most part. Nonetheless, I got bored a few times and skipped a few chapters. I found some sections a bit repetitive or drawn-out. But, on the whole, I thought this was a great book about life as well as ADD.

Maté was born to Jewish parents in Hungary during the Holocaust — which immediately become relevant in Maté’s main thesis about ADD: it is primarily caused by emotional strain during infancy. Maté goes so far as to argue that ADD is actually caused by a deficit of eye contact between guardian and child in the early stages of development. I found his insistence on this causality suspect, but I take his broader point: emotional stress during early development affects the brain, and that can present in later years as ADD. Maté says that early childhood strain leads to a weaker executive function. In his analogy, the traffic cop who regulates emotions, thoughts, and impulses is off duty.

I don’t know if I have do or don’t have ADD. I haven’t been assessed or diagnosed. What I do know is that I grew up in a house with financial strain, and my parents divorced when I was seven. My report cards describe a child who didn’t pay attention or hand in assignments despite being thoughtful and intelligent. In high school, I was excited to enroll in the advanced classes, but I spent much of my time asleep on my desk, having stayed up too late the night before and now unable to follow what was happening on the chalkboard. I developed a distrust for authority and tendency toward subversion. I fell in love with activism and backpacking. In university, I argued with my teachers. At work, I argued with my bosses. I picked up side gigs and worked on weekends. I never felt like I was doing enough.

I relate to many experiences that Maté and other people with ADD describe. So many that I can’t list them here; I would need to go through the book again with a pen and paper. Like the experiences described in the book, I developed a self-identity based in unmet potential, even while I was accomplishing achievements I was proud of.

I don’t think you need ADD to learn from Scattered Minds. Ultimately, we live in a society that puts strain on working humans from life’s first moments through to its last. About the social conditions for ADD, Maté quote the poet Robert Bly,

Bly notes that “in 1935 the average working man had forty hours a week free, including Saturday. By 1990, it was down to seventeen hours. The twenty-three lost hours of free time a week since 1935 are the very hours in which the father could be a nurturing father, and find some center in himself, and the very hours in which the mother could feel she actually has a husband.” These patterns characterize not only the early years of parenting, but entire childhoods.

Although society has created economic pressure on women to participate in the workforce when children are very young, it has made little provisions for the satisfaction of children’s needs for emotional nourishment and stimulation. In neither Canada nor the U.S. has public support for the care of young children of working parents come close to adequate.

Under this pressure, many of us struggle to find any sense of accomplishment or stability. In lieu of that, it’s normal to feel anxious, unmotivated, and flustered.

For someone with an ADD diagnosis, there are proven medical treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. But for anyone who feels overwhelmed with the scope of daily life, Maté offers solid advice rooted in self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Beyond finding compassion for ourselves, I think Scattered Minds is also a call to cultivate compassion for others. In 2015, when I read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, the idea of neurodiversity blew my mind. I realized that many people’s psychological experience of the world is profoundly different from what we understand as “normal.” But instead of accepting a diversity of minds, we demean people who seem odd. Scattered Minds reminded me of this again. Everyone has a different experience of the world. Sometimes, those experiences can be very difficult. Sometimes, society makes those experiences unnecessarily difficult. But nonetheless those different experiences — the things that make each of us me — are beautiful.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023