Inattentive/Distractible ADHD

ADHD symptoms inattentive distractible

The Inattentive/Distractible symptoms of ADHD are lumped under the heading “Inattentive” in the diagnostic manual. They are the result of the same brain function and refer to the inability to control one’s attention. Typically, people will describe it as the inability to sustain attention (hypo-focus), however, this explanation does not account for the fact that these symptoms also lead to the inability to switch attention from one thing to another. (hyper-focus)

Interesting!

Everyone finds it easier to pay attention to topics and situations we are INTERESTED in. Also, most people find it easy to pay attention to areas that are IMPORTANT. When faced with two or more opportunities that are interesting or important, the typically functioning brain takes a split second to prioritize it’s options: 

  • INTEREST: “Which opportunity captures my attention more right now?” 
  • IMPORTANT: “How valuable is this opportunity to me?"
  • EXPIRY: “Will I lose the opportunity if I don’t act now?”
  • REWARD/CONSEQUENCES: “How may each opportunity positively or negatively impact me?”
  • DURATION: “Which opportunity will truly provide greater value over time?” 

I’m sure there are other filters through which we analyze our options; but the point is, our brain makes a selection from the list of opportunities by pausing for a split second to consider our options. With ADHD, the brain only gets small fraction of that split second before choosing which option gets the attention.

This results in either Hypo-focus or Hyper-focus.

      Hypo-Focus

“Hypo” simply means insufficient. 

The easiest way to explain how the ADHD brain results in hypo-focus is to provide an example of how a non-adhd brain functions when deciding where to invest its attention, then comparing that to an ADHD brain. 

You’re at a wedding reception with 200 people mingling randomly in a large auditorium. During a conversation with a microbiologist about the various quirks of a dung beetle, you hear someone mention your name in a conversation nearby.

A normal brain may assess the mention of your name this way:

INTEREST: “Does the mention of my name capture my attention more than a dung beetle conversation with Dr Whocares?”absolutely.
IMPORTANT: “Is the other conversation that is about me more valuable to me than this one about dung beetles!” … I hope so.
EXPIRY: “Can I wait until later to find out why someone over there mentioned my name?” … I suppose I can, but I’ll quickly glance over to see who said it so I can corner them later.
CONSEQUENCES: “What would happen if I just walked away from this microbiologist mid-sentence?” … he would think I'm rude.
DURATION: “Which opportunity has greater value over time?” … I don’t want to insult this guy, after all, he is the bride’s father, and I am engaged to his other daughter.

In a split second, the typically functioning brain has preserved both opportunities; it identified the person who mentioned your name so you can follow up with them later, and it maintained your attention on the current conversation with your future father-in-law. This non-ADHD brain found a way to preserve both the “interesting” opportunity of that other conversation, as well as the “important” opportunity in front of you. 

As I mentioned, with ADHD brain function, the usual split second decision that controls your attention is reduced to a much smaller fraction of a split second. The result is, the ADHD brain doesn't fully consider the entire list of criteria that a typical brain would before subconsciously committing to whatever INTERESTING thing captured its attention. Left to freestyle on its own, this INTEREST dominance is where the majority of ADHD brains commit attention; therefore, whatever captures the ADHD person's attention, captures them. (Imagine how the above example would go if you abruptly abandoned your future father-in-law’s discourse on the dung  beetle in favour of your curiosity at the mention of your name in a nearby conversation)

This very real example of brain function is why ADHD is often boiled down to a brief description: the inability to inhibit.

Whatever is more INTERESTING (captivating) is rarely ignored in favour of something that may genuinely be more IMPORTANT… even to you! It is much more difficult for ADHD people to inhibit the impulse to respond to whatever captivates them in the moment.

     Hyper-Focus

The same impaired attention control process described above also accounts for the common ADHD trait of hyper-focus (excessive focus). 

Hyper-Focus is the opposite of Hypo-Focus; whatever the brain is currently focused on is so interesting that another topic can’t even get considered before being subconsciously filtered out.

A teenager is playing video games when mom calls downstairs, “Supper is ready. Come eat.” 

His ears hear the words, but the idea of supper doesn’t even make it into his conscious thought before being discarded.

Five minutes later, a frustrated mother yells down the stairs, “Johnny, did you hear me? Supper is ready. Get upstairs now!” 

His head turns to the side as if he’s trying to go up the stairs in his mind or to answer her, but his eyes remain locked on the screen.

Finally, mom stomps downstairs, bends down, grabs Johnny’s jaw and glares into his eyes. “That’s it! No more video games for a month. I’m tired of you disrespecting me. Now get upstairs and eat your cold supper.”

“I never heard you!” Johnny responds sheepishly in defence. To him, that may be the truth.

Implications

Since the ADHD brain is prone to invest attention too quickly in whatever is most INTERESTING at the moment, the actions (or inaction) of an ADHD person are often misjudged by people with typically functioning brains. They are given labels which seem suitable for the type of person who would act that way after making a conscious choice to do so… but is the choice conscious if the brain is not registering all of the “obvious” information?

About the time that people with non-ADHD brains would be saying, “Tell me more about the dung beetle, Mr. Future Father-in-law”, the ADHD person has already made his way through the crowd and is interrupting the other conversation saying, “I heard you say my name. What were you saying about me?”

Also, it is understandable why Johnny’s mom became so frustrated when Johnny seemed to dismiss her beckoning as though she was unimportant. But is he truly being disrespectful if his brain never even got to the IMPORTANT criteria before unconsciously deciding to keep his attention locked on what was INTERESTING?

Apply this Inattentive/Distractibility to a dozen scenarios happening every day of your ADHD life, and you can begin to see why ADHD people can find LIFE difficult, and why others find THEM difficult. 

This is where a little understanding goes a long way. 

     Attitude or Action?

People around the ADHD person have to be able to inhibit their own tendency to judge the ADHD person’s attitude based on the social norms of their actions. Is the son-in-law rude if he leaves the dung beetle conversation to find out why his name was mentioned in the other conversation? If his brain had provided that split second to answer the last socially acceptable criteria first, and if he still decided to walk away from his future father-in-law, then we may say it is rude. But what if his ADHD brain literally made the subconscious decision to pursue what was INTERESTING before it gave him the necessary time to consider all of the IMPORTANT criteria? Is he still a rude person? 

This is where distinctions between the person’s attitude or character and their actions must be stressed. If someone with ADHD is distracted (like the future son-in-law) or is hyper-focused (like Johnny), is it fair to judge their attitude based on their action/inaction?  If we are Inattentive simply because the brain is unable to inhibit an immediate response until more thought can be applied to the decision, are that person's actions an accurate reflection of their attitude?

     Reason or Excuse?

So far, I’ve explained the reason that ADHD brains lead to Inattention/Distraction beyond the acceptable limits of social norms, and that actions are not always a fair indication of attitude or character; but I don’t mean to imply that these are excuses.

Saying that ADHD people may not be purposefully choosing to act the way they do, allows some room for understanding their actions separate from their attitude and some compassion is helpful. However, saying that ADHD people have no responsibility to address their actions, is not so cut and dry.

Simply put, the older we become, the more we are expected to accept responsibility for our actions without asking others to make accommodations for us. “I didn’t know”, may exonerate us when we are 8 years old, but society increasingly responds, “Well, you should have known”, as we mature. Something to keep in mind is that the ADHD brain matures more slowly in the areas which typically link choice and action so that even in the mid-20’s this area of the brain may be functioning at what is expected of a teenager. Full development may not take place until the mid-30’s, or not at all.

Regardless or our spontaneous actions, whether we consciously intended to act a certain way or not, once we become aware that people consider our actions unacceptable, we are presumed to have some responsibility for making it right if we can, and for altering our future actions. Obviously, the very explanation that I am providing on this page can impede our ability to control future actions and reactions, so compassionate understanding is still welcomed.

I suppose that all of this would be an excuse if there was nothing that could be done about our Inattentive/Distractibility, but there is plenty that can be done. Somewhere between blame and excuses there is a balance: 

  • On the one hand, it is helpful if people hold off making judgements about the attitude or character of the person with ADHD until they understand that just because actions may speak louder than words, doesn’t mean those actions are saying what you think they are saying. 
  • On the other hand, ADHD individuals can seek to understand how ADHD impairs their ability to live from the Inside Out, seeking whatever help may be available to them, so that their actions increasingly represent their true intentions, attitude, and character. 

For a podcast explaining this page’s content, go to … Attention, Interest and Importance in ADHD

See ADHD Inside Out for a more thorough explanation of how ADHD symptoms effect the life of an individual with ADHD, and for an explanation of how coaching addresses symptoms and the implications of ADHD.

ps- for those who really do care about the dung beetle, my apologies for using it disparagingly in my example. Check out these humorous and true facts about the dung beetle…


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