The ADHD Brain

ADHD’s Secret Demon — and How to Tame It

Ever wonder why your brain is always trying to pull you away from the task at hand? It may be related to a little-known function of the brain — called the default mode network — that’s draining valuable energy from more active regions. Here’s how to fight back.

A young boy struggling to control his brain's default mode network
Boy with fingers on head and puzzle over brain

I call the default mode network (DMN) “the demon of ADHD.” The DMN is one of the most fascinating and significant discoveries to come out of neuroscience in the past 20 years, but most people haven’t heard of it.

The DMN seems to be more active in those of us who have ADHD, and it may explain our tendency to make “careless” mistakes. In fact, when using a functional MRI, you can predict a mistake 20 seconds before it is made by watching for activity in the DMN.

Defining DMN

What is this powerful network no one has heard of? In 2001 scientist Marcus Raichle, M.D., noticed that distinct areas of the brain lit up, showing elevated metabolic activities, when the brain was not engaged in a task, conversation, or other activity that required focus. He discovered that when the brain was “at rest,” it was more active than when it was focused on a task.

He called these regions of the brain “the default mode network.” They include the medial prefrontal cortex; the posterior cingulate cortex; the hippocampus; and the amygdala, as well as parts of the inferior parietal lobe.

There is another network called the “task positive network,” or the TPN. Unlike the DMN, this network lights up when the brain is engaged in a task that requires conscious attention.

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In people who do not have ADHD, these networks are reciprocal: As one increases in activity, the other declines. In ADHD, however, the DMN remains active while the TPN is active. This competition provides a neurological explanation for what those of us who have ADHD feel so often — a persistent, magnetic pull away from the task at hand into distraction.

The Seat of Angst

When we are under the influence of the DMN, we ruminate. We recall a funny look a colleague gave us, and we wonder what he meant by that look. Was it really a funny look, or was it nothing at all? If it was a funny look, what did we do to prompt it? The hippocampus, the seat of memory, is an active part of the DMN, sending up memories of embarrassing situations we’ve caused or been part of, humiliating moments we can’t forget. The medial prefrontal cortex, another part of the DMN, projects the repetition of these horrible moments into the future, while the amygdala kicks in with more negative feelings.

Researchers at MIT have shown that the 40 percent or so of children with ADHD who significantly improve by the time they reach adulthood, even without treatment, show a restoration of the reciprocal relationship between the two networks. In the adults who remain symptomatic, the DMN continues to ramp up, even when the TPN is trying to keep a person’s focus on a given task.

This is the hell the DMN creates. It can ensnare a person, especially someone with an active imagination and a keen intellect, and reduce that person to misery.

Tame the Demon

The way to manage this demon is to name it. Don’t confuse what the DMN leads you to conjure up — ugly and painful representations of life and of yourself — with the truth. Don’t get sucked into analyzing or parsing it. Once you name it, you can tame it.

Then, you need reliable ways to switch back into the TPN. One easy way I have found is to focus on your breathing. For example, you might pick a pattern, so you have a task to focus on. You may pick 6-3-8-3 — inhale for six beats, hold for three beats, exhale for eight beats, hold for three beats; repeat. Do this for a few cycles and you will have broken out of the DMN. And life will seem brighter and a little more hopeful.

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8 Comments & Reviews

  1. Hi, very good article.

    I also have this very active DMN.

    I am now using a technique that seems to be working for me.

    I keep a counter on my phone, and every time I catch myself ruminating or mind wandering, I add +1 to the counter. This helps a lot to bring me back. And at the end of the day I can see how many times I entered on DMN

  2. Wow! This is very interesting. I know ADHD can be genetically inherited. Is DMN also genetically inherited, perhaps independently or perhaps linked to ADHD?

    1. Unless I’m misreading, the DMN exists for everyone. It’s the actions of the DMN v. the TPN that are the issue. I don’t think a cause was mentioned in the article. The cause might be what’s genetic/inherited.

  3. , .Interesting article.
    I have been having an issue with some of ADDitudes articles.

    Your authors are regularly using the behavioral shaming phrase, “careless mistakes.” I cannot count the times of being labeled as careless or lazy. The damage that this regular shaming inflicts on the ADHD impacted is substantial.

    Hey, I am not angry. I believe that we need to be careful about how we communicate in response to and about our impacting behaviors language matters.

    Even today my reactiveness and shame are easily triggered by the words, “careless, lazy, uncaring, forgetful, selfish, when referenced with my ADHD behaviors. My ADHD behaviors are rarely negative in intent; most of the time I am simply reacting without intent. When I am reactive the assumption of my Intent as being angry or hurtful is difficult emotionally for me, I try to educate others that reactiveness should not automatically equate to the negative.

    Recently I stated, “when I react, 9 out of 10 times I am just reacting to stimuli,” feedback loops regularly setup between my wife and me in response to my reactiveness. She will tell me to stop yelling, and I’ll get angry cause I’m not yelling, then she is yelling, so that further impacts my reactiveness, etc. We are getting better with this.

    I’m guilty, every so often I have found my self admonishing my ADHD daughter regarding her impactful behavior. We are societally programmed to react to alternative social behavior. When this happens to me I use the lapse to sensitize my self to my own insensitive ADHD shaming programming.

    ADHD is not about carelessness or forgetfulness; it is about unique brain processing that does not conform to the societal norm.

    Thanks for listening, or reading. I was diagnosed eight years ago at age fifty, also dyslexic. Self-education and awareness are vital to being able to educate our spouses and friends impacted by our behaviors.

  4. I found this article very helpful, but with the exception of the advice given right at the end, re: the “breathing excercises”. If I encounter advice to “focus on your breath”, I suddenly feel anxious, and not calmed. Thinking about counting one’s inhales and exhales by “timing” them feels like holding one’s breath underwater. I am a swimmer, so water breath-holding (in real-life situations) is not a big deal, but, for some reason, the practice of “breath-exercises” feels stress-producing and not relaxing.

    That’s just an observation. An alternative action (had one been given) to “breath work” might have been more useful to me, personally. Are there other actions one can take to “tame the DMN”? Thanks for letting me comment! The “hyperfocus let-down” phenomenon is something I’ve noticed and didn’t realize had a name until I read this article!

  5. I was diagnosed with ADD about three months ago. My previous psychiatrist was adamant that I was Bipolar, as were previous experts, including a prestigious mental health clinic in London. I spent about 5 weeks at the clinic and despite the excellence of the team, I was still diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I was treated for this illness with loads of medication for some 15 years – an indescribable nightmare. Every expert I met, kept telling me that it was very difficult to reverse an official diagnosis and ignored the fact that even when I was not struggling with depression, I still could not focus, tackle tasks, was easily distracted and so on. I described it as a force that prevented me from “living” basically; or like driving a car with the handbrake on.

    It wasn’t until some 10 months ago, now living in Mexico, that I decided to move on to yet another psychiatrist. I was very apprehensive, expecting the same old script. But this was different and risky. He did not assume that previous experts were correct. All the Bipolar medication was dropped and moved on to treatment-resistant depression. It worked but did not deal with my inattentiveness and emotional dysfunctions. Three months ago he moved on to prescribing Lisdexamfetamine. Almost immediately, I was focusing on tasks like I never had ever in my life. The depression lifted and anxiety diminished.

    What is my point and what does this have to do with the article? I knew nothing about ADD three months ago, and I am still struggling to understand the physiological connection between ADD, depression and anxiety. I understand that Bipolar Disorder shares a similar profile as ADD, but we are in the 21st century, where neuroscience is advanced as never before. Yet mental health providers, even in first world countries, appear to be so dependent on their personal understanding and pride, that those who have been misdiagnosed can suffer for decades. This article is incredibly helpful – I had no idea that DMN and TPN existed and could explain how the ADD brain functions.

    I hope someone at ADDitude is reading this, because I am very grateful for the insight provided. I would suggest that the topic of “misdiagnosis” is brought to the forefront of the information provided. Why is there so much misunderstanding and lack of information amongst health care providers? Why do they insist that they are correct and that the patient isn’t? I regret the use of the word “client” as referring to patients. We are not clients, we are not consuming a product, we are desperately in need of relief.

    As controversial as this sounds, and because it is controversial, it needs to be openly discussed by the mental health community at length. Just in case you believe there is deep resentment and bias in my views, I am not unfamiliar with the complexities of this discipline – my father was an excellent neuro-psychiatrist.

  6. No wonder I feel more exhausted or depressed after long periods of boredom, or being uninterested, or worse, being unengaged. It feels litterally PAINFUL.

    But in the opposite state, I can work for 12 hours straight, and not even feel hunger, and by the time I am forced to stop working, I do not feel even an ounce of tiredness.

  7. This is interesting but it goes against the research I’ve read about the DMN. We need the DMN to process thoughts and problems in the background. It tends to be active when we do repetitive occupying tasks like coloring in a coloring book or crochet/knit. Anything that requires attention but not intense mental concentration.

    My understanding has been that the DMN is NOT responsible for ruminating. I have actually found that activities that allow my DMN to engage are more meditative in nature (not meditation) and turn OFF the ruminating. It creates a clearing in my mind that helps me find solutions. I know this author is well-respected as an expert but I’m sure about the arguments here.

    In my experience the pull to other tasks and ruminations that arise feel very different from what I experience when I’m engaged in activities that activate the DMN.

    Also agree with the commenter above about the shaming language. I get enough of that in mainstream culture. I’d like to think ADDitude could do better at watching the language.

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