Hyperfocus: The other side of adult ADHD

Writers, entrepreneurs, and creative leaders of all types know that intense focus that happens when you're "in the zone": You're feeling empowered, productive, and engaged. Psychologists might call this flow, the experience of zeroing in so closely on some activity that you lose yourself in it. And this immersive state, as it turns out, also happens to be something that some adults with ADHD commonly experience.

It sounds like a contradiction in terms: You think ADHD and you think of a spaced-out, scattered kid, right? But by definition, ADHD is a "maldistribution" of attention -- that is, people who have it often oscillate between splintered and hyperfocused attention. The latter is what Brandon Ashinoff, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham who studies hyperfocus, has called an "interesting paradox" -- it's too much focus, as opposed to a scattered attention span. "You're focused so intently on something, no other information gets into your brain," Ashinoff has said.

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In other words, ADHD shows up in different ways depending on the person; the goal is to help people regulate their attention and harness the kind of attention necessary for the task at hand. (And recent research from Brazil and King's College London, by the way, has suggested that despite its reputation as a childhood problem, it's more common than you might think for the condition to show up for the first time in adulthood, even among people who never showed signs of it in childhood.) Generally speaking, ADHD is classified into two broad categories: inattentive type, and hyperactive/impulsive type. Hyperfocus is seen among both of these types -- and yet it's been largely neglected in academic research.

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That's surprising, especially considering the significant impact -- both positive and negative -- hyperfocus can have at work and at home. Hyperfocus is great for engaging in longer tasks which require intense concentration -- but it's not so great if that means that the more mundane tasks, chores, and assignments fall by the wayside. When composing a song or coding a new program, the tendency to lose sight of all else proves beneficial; when failing to get laundry or dishes done for days on end, the tendency becomes a potential problem.

One of the few pieces of research on the hyperfocus piece of ADHD is from South Africa, and was the subject of a University of Johannesburg master's thesis by researcher and writer Rony Sklar -- indeed, much of her work has raised the question of why hyperfocus isn't being looked at in the literature, since her own work was limited by sample size. "The field is wide open and people really need to start researching it," Sklar told Science of Us. "It's not about having an attention deficit, it's more a maldistribution of attention. It's not about not being able to concentrate; it's about being able to concentrate in different forms and different intensity." Put another way, there is a spectrum along which attention gets channeled for human beings; those diagnosed with ADHD don't have less attention than normal -- it's more accurate to say that their attention can be splintered or hyperfocused, or it can swing between the two. Their challenge is to learn ways to distribute their attention more evenly, by regulating it or even manipulating it to serve their purposes according to the task at hand, often through the use of practical tools like timers, calendars, reminders, alarms, and breaking tasks into concrete steps.

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