ADHD News & Research

New Study Links Hyperfocus and ADHD

A new study of 623 adults shows a strong correlation between symptoms of ADHD and experiences of hyperfocus, lending scientific credibility to a phenomenon that is commonly experienced but not well researched.

October 10, 2018

A newly published study has pried the lid off the mysterious phenomenon of “hyperfocus,” tying it inextricably to symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) in adults.

Though not included in the official DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ADHD, hyperfocus is a condition familiar to many individuals with ADHD who report becoming intensely focused on activities they find rewarding or interesting.

Anecdotally, we have known that, when a person with ADHD experiences hyperfocus, his or her attention becomes laser-like. They lose track of time, and distractions fade away. Switching to other tasks becomes difficult. But from a scientific standpoint, we’ve known very little about hyperfocus, most notably whether it is truly more prevalent among people with ADHD.

A new study from the University of Florida and University of Michigan changes that. The study’s researchers developed a questionnaire, comprising 68 items in six sections, for assessing people’s tendencies toward hyperfocus when engaged in activities like schoolwork, hobbies, and video games. For example, the questionnaire asked participants how frequently in the last year they had “completely lost track of time” when doing something related to their favorite hobby or “felt totally captivated by or ‘hooked’ on” work for their favorite college course.

According to Kathleen Hupfeld, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at University of Florida, the inspiration for the study came from the gap between anecdotal and scientific evidence on hyperfocus in ADHD. “We were quite surprised to see that there was virtually no research that formally tested whether hyperfocus is actually more common in those with ADHD than those without ADHD,” she says.

[Common Symptoms of Hyperfocus]

Hupfeld and her coauthors, Tessa Abagis and Priti Shah, administered their hyperfocus questionnaire first to a pilot sample of 251 adults, 23 of whom met the symptom threshold for an ADHD diagnosis on the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale Screener, then to a replication sample of 372 adults, 162 of whom met the cutoff for ADHD. The results showed that, in all the settings the questionnaire asked about, adults with more severe ADHD symptoms, as assessed by the Conners Adult ADHD Rating Scales, reported experiencing hyperfocus more often. Correspondingly, adults who met the threshold for ADHD diagnosis had higher scores on the hyperfocus questionnaire.

By demonstrating that hyperfocus really is more common among people with ADHD and that this tendency toward hyperfocus can be captured by a short questionnaire, this study lays the groundwork for learning more about a phenomenon not previously researched in depth, its architects say.

“We know that hyperfocus is related to ADHD and ADHD symptoms,” says Hupfeld. “We do not know the cognitive mechanisms of hyperfocus – that is, we don’t know what causes folks with ADHD to engage in hyperfocus more frequently than other individuals.”

Also unclear is the extent to which slipping completely “in to the zone” on one activity at the expense of all others is helpful or harmful. “We don’t know the conditions under which hyperfocus is productive, and when it might be unproductive,” says Shah, a professor at University of Michigan.

As with many ADHD symptoms, context is key. “For instance, someone could hyperfocus on creating an art piece and produce something incredible,” Hupfeld points out, “but they could also hyperfocus on watching a TV series and feel as though their time was wasted after the period of hyperfocus ends.”

The fact that people with ADHD experience hyperfocus with higher-than-average frequency reinforces the idea that individuals with ADHD do not have an attention “deficit,” but rather a unique way of allocating their attention, the research suggests. Hupfeld also suggests that clinicians and teachers should be aware of hyperfocus as a symptom of ADHD, and that it should be considered for inclusion in official diagnostic guidelines.

Ultimately, learning more about hyperfocus has the potential to shed light on what it means for people with ADHD to thrive. According to Hupfeld: “I think the take-away message is that the cognitive profile of ADHD includes components that, if given the appropriate channels for expression, could be beneficial for the individual and for society.”