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Hyperactive Hearts & Minds:
Towards a Unified View of Attention Difficulties?

Adapted from workshops presented by Carla (Nelson) Berg at the Midwinter Brain Sciences Colloquium in Palm Springs, February 1997 and 1998


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What distinguishes ADD from non is the amount of arousal it takes for attention to activate and be sustained


The ADD spectrum cannot be seen whole until we look at attention and arousal together and at the same moments in time. It is not enough to ask if thinking is weak or strong, or even to ask for how long. We also must ask what turns it on and then ask again what makes it last.

Mind sciences more often treat attention and arousal as separate and divisible rather than as interdependent variables, each of which impacts the other. I did a hunt through a medical database not long ago on the subject of arousal, and as you might guess, the cites weren't huge. Articles in which "attention" and "arousal" occurred within 5 words of each other were even more rare.

It is so habitual to split matters of mind from matters of mood, attention from affect, focus from activation, that we don't often question it, even though common sense tells us that both are required in order to concentrate.Without arousal, attentions fade, but once it is piqued, we engage.

What distinguishes ADD from non is the amount of arousal it takes for attention to activate and remain engaged.

What exactly do I mean by "attention" and "arousal"? If you're being global about the mind, such as in consciousness studies, attention is the locus of awareness. But in the more practical sense employed by practitioners, it is used to describe the "cognitive" side of mental activities, i.e. the act of concentrating. That is the sense in which I use attention as well, to represent cerebration, or intensity of thinking.

Arousal is an even muddier term once you move it out of the bedroom, but the bedroom is not such a bad metaphor for what it takes to excite enough to activate and then sustain engagement. Sustaining attention involves a similar sort of psyching up and shutting down, including sometimes being so shut down, you can't get it up, even when you are trying to respond. This sense of "activation impotence" may be the most frustrating aspect of an attention deficiency for those who deal with it; it is demoralizing to repeatedly have the desire to act, yet be unable to follow through.

In the metaphorical "brain beat" model I will shortly present, waveforms are used to illustrate the length and strength of attentiveness. In that scheme, I equate attention with amplitude and arousal with frequency.

In short, degree of focus predicts how strong our attentions will be, while arousal predicts how much we will be attached, and thus how long the attention is likely to last. At lower levels of arousal, focus fades and attention is quite disruptible. At higher levels of arousal, focus becomes intense and detachment becomes the struggle. What we are calling "ADD" cannot be clearly seen until and unless we discuss both factors together.

This presentation was obtained from the Internet beginning at Continued

copyright 1996, 1998; Carla (Nelson) Berg
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