Contextual Thinking and ADHD (Part I)

Georgia NeSmith
5 min readAug 19, 2018


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 those of us who are ADHD 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.

This is a problem for us for three main reasons and three 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…



Georgia NeSmith

Retired professor, feminist, writer, photographer, activist, grandmother of 5, overall Wise Woman. Phd UIA School of Journalism & Mass Communication, 1994.