It's no secret that children and adults with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) often struggle to focus on tasks they find uninteresting. High distractibility -- in children with ADHD who are unable to stay focused on a classroom lecture or in adults with ADD who never get around to doing their paperwork -- is a key ADHD symptom and diagnosis criterion.
What you might not know about ADHD is that there's another side: the tendency for children and adults with attention deficit disorder to focus very intently on things that do interest them. At times, the focus is so strong that they become oblivious to the world around them.
For children, the object of "hyperfocus" might be playing a video game or watching TV. For adults, it might be shopping or surfing the Internet. But whatever holds the attention, the result is the same: Unless something or someone interrupts, hours drift by as important tasks and relationships fall by the wayside. "People who think ADD means having a short attention span misunderstand what ADD is," says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life. "A better way to look at it is that people with ADD have a disregulated attention system."
Like distractibility, hyperfocus is thought to result from abnormally low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is particularly active in the brain's frontal lobes. This dopamine deficiency makes it hard to "shift gears" to take up boring-but-necessary tasks.
"Children and adults with ADD have difficulty shifting attention from one thing to another," says Russell Barkley, Ph.D., a research professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. "If they're doing something they enjoy or find psychologically rewarding, they'll tend to persist in this behavior after others would normally move on to other things. The brains of people with ADD are drawn to activities that give instant feedback."
In the view of Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington D.C., such intense concentration is actually a coping mechanism.
"It's a way of dealing with distraction," Silver says. "College kids with ADD tell me they intentionally go into a state of intense focus to get work done. Younger kids do the same thing unconsciously when they're doing something pleasurable, like watching a movie or playing a computer game. Often they aren't even aware that they're focusing so intensely."
There's nothing inherently harmful about hyperfocus. In fact, it can be an asset. Some ADDers, for example, are able to channel their focus on something productive, such as a school- or work-related activity. Others allow themselves to hyperfocus on something as a reward for completing a dull but important task.