The Relationship between Interest and Attention in ADHD
ADHD is a paradox in many ways. Here is a common one: The person with ADHD can struggle with paying attention to some activities while attending so much to other activities that they can’t stop. Here is my understanding of this paradox and some ways to handle it:
The "sweet spot" of optimal focus is much smaller in a person with ADHD.
The Goldilocks principle is named after the well known children's story, Goldilocks and the Three Bears It is used to explain the concept of “just the right amount” in many disciplines including biology, engineering, economics and developmental psychology (1).
“This bed is too hard”
If a task is inherently boring to someone with ADHD, they literally cannot get their brains going on the task. They can’t pay attention even if they want to. They are in a state of “hypo-focus”.
“This bed is too soft”
If a task is extremely engaging and stimulating to someone with ADHD, they literally can lose track of time and stay absorbed in the activity for hours. Now they can’t turn their attention off. This is a state of “hyper-focus”.
“This bed is just right”
This is the sweet spot between hypo-focus and hyper-focus where the attention of someone with ADHD is captured easily and they can pay attention purposefully and by choice.
While we all can be in a state of hypo-focus, hyper-focus or optimally focused, the range of hypo-focus and hyper-focus is much greater for someone with ADHD than someone without. On the other hand, the “sweet spot” is much smaller for someone with ADHD than someone without.
There is a neuro-biological basis for the deficit of Interest and attention found in ADHD
A research study by Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse supports this view. Her team studied 53 adults with ADHD who had never been treated or medicated for the disorder with a control group of 44 healthy people without ADHD.
Over eight years, the team collected detailed brain images that showed how people with ADHD
Process the chemical dopamine differently than others.
Display lower-than-normal levels of certain proteins essential for experiencing reward and motivation
Cannot generate the same degree of enthusiasm as other people for activities they don’t automatically find appealing or interesting. (2)
Strategies to deal with attention/interest challenges:
Get yourself into the optimal zone and build momentum with preferred activities.
Do an activity that gets your interest into the "zone" or optimal range right before starting on a boring/challenging activity, e.g. a chore or homework. Your attention will be easier to direct once you jump start your brain and build some momentum. You probably have to experiment a little to find out what works for you. But try to think of fun things you like to do - -something that energizes you and "wakes up" your brain but is not "addictive". Dancing, exercise, music, running, an interactive/active game, an art or craft, talking to a friend, something funny that gets you laughing etc. Start with your preferred activity for a set amount of time and then move into your less preferred activity. Be careful not to pick something that you will get too caught up in and lose track of time (like video games).
"Resparkalize" activities that have become routine/boring by changing things up.
Novelty creates interest for many people. That is why individuals with ADHD can often attend well to a new situation or task but lose interest over time. Instead of giving up on the task, keep the parts that are working well and add some sparkle or novelty to the task. It could be as simple as getting new materials (change up color, tools, designs etc.) or doing the task in a new setting, in a different way or at a different time.
Explore ADHD Coaching:
ADHD Coaching helps you to:
Increase your understanding of ADHD
Become aware of how ADHD is showing up specifically in your life.
Find the best strategies to optimize on your interests and set up your environment for success.
Help you take directed consistent action toward your goals.
1. Goldilocks principle. (2017, November 07). Retrieved November 11, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldilocks_principle
2. Giwerc, D. (n.d.). Research Reveals ADHD is a Deficit of Interest. Retrieved November 11, 2017, from http://addca.com/adhd-coach-training/ADHD-Blog-Details/research_reveals_adhd_is_a_deficit_of_interest/
*An excerpt from the book: Permission to Proceed, The Keys to Creating a Life of
Passion, Purpose and Possibility for Adults with ADHD, by David Giwerc, Founder/President, ADD Coach Academy, Master Certified ADHD Coach, MCAC, MCC, BCC
Listen to this podcast by Dan Duncan: Attention, Interest & Importance in ADHD. for a more detailed discussion on the topic of attention and interest.