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

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


click on image to see complete slide

For the stimulus-driven, it may take the promise of a virtual heaven or hell to keep attention in place...


The failure to activate so many ADDers experience even in the presence of strong desire is often blamed on not "caring" enough, which is extremely invalidating. It's not that they don't care; it's that they find it so hard to turn focus on and keep it going unless they are highly aroused, while acceptable sources of high arousal are not always easy to find. I used to tease my son when he was young that he wouldn't overlook his homework if he knew the teacher would chop off a finger when he forgot. He readily agreed. But clearly we can't attach heaven or hell as a consequence to every task they confront, even if the promise of a virtual heaven or hell is what it may take to hold the attention of the stimulus-driven.

It is the degree of stimulation it takes to hold focus steady that unites people on this spectrum, along with the "attentional inconsistency" that results when they can't keep arousal raised.In clinical terms, when understimulated, people with ADD have especially labile attention spans.

This "Spectrum of Thought Intensity" shows how ADDers differ from more "modulating" minds who can direct their attentions at will, applying focus  evenly in the proper amounts in the right places at the right time, detaching and redirecting as desired. These "Modulating" non-ADDers are symbolized by the smooth curves in the middle of the spectrum. (Click on image to view full size.) Again, this representation is a metaphorical model, a heuristic, not a literal representation derived from any measuring instrument or clinical data. It simply contrasts, in a symbolic way, the variations in states of mind and mood that can result from combining over and underfocusing with over and underarousal.

As noted, the waveforms equate attention with amplitude, or strength of thinking, and arousal with frequency, or strength of attachment, which in turn conditions  how long attention is likely to last. (For detail about what these waveforms depict and how they combine to create a spectrum of focusing styles see the supplement Beats of a Bouncing Brain Outlined ) To look at ADDers alone, with reference just to each other, means omitting the modulating middle and putting more labile attention spans side by side. That is exactly how this spectrum was derived.

It is also, in effect, what I suspect is actually happening in the brain. For whatever reason (and those reasons are probably many), people with an attention difficulty spend most of their time shifting between states on the outer edges of this spectrum. Some of them bounce around and other may bounce in place, but they rarely land or linger long in the more modulating middle space. The whole continuum of attention difficulties thus consists of people who think too much or too little and feel too much or too little, as if the levers and gears in their brains had fewer notches or speeds in between, leaving them especially prone to the extremes.

The All or None Attention Span: X Except Not
For another convenient piece of shorthand, think of all the above as variations on the theme of an "All-or-None Attention Span."

Just as "All-or-None" has three variants -- Mostly All, Mostly None, and All+None -- so does this spectrum of attention difficulty. The hypofocused Type 1 on the left has attentions more off than on. The hyperfocused Type 3 at the opposite pole has attentions more on than off. And the mixed, or alternating, Type 2 cycles between over and underfocusing.

In the all-or-none vein, we have a joke on the ADD Forum on CompuServe, courtesy of Joe Coleman, who has captured in one pithy phrase what may be the one true thing we can safely say about everyone with an attention difficulty:

I am so (X). Except when I am not.

X may stand for whatever you want, as in, "I am so disorganized. Except when I'm not." Or "I am so intense. Except when I'm not." Pull out this punchline anytime around an ADDer, and you will only have to wait a beat for peals of laughter (for related humor, see also the Mind Memes at this site). But such jokes are also a sobering reminder of how painful the contrasts between these stark attentional highs and lows can be for people plagued by them chronically.

In more technical terms, as a group, people with ADD wrestle with under and over activation in tandem with their inconsistent attention spans. Where some are "underesponders," chronically sluggish and hard to turn on, others are "overeactors," persistently hyper in body and/or mind and too turned on too much of the time.

As described in other exhibits we will soon see in more detail, both overeactors and underesponders exist in all three types, but in different degrees. Those who are relatively more prone to low arousal are especially dependent on the environment to provide the stimulus push they need to turn focus on and hold it. On the other hand, overeactors who are predisposed to high arousal may have an easy time remaining stimulated, but then they feel pulled in too many directions at once and often become "overstimmed" into exhaustion, shutting down from the overload.

When focus is this acutely sensitive to arousability, it's not hard to see why people with attention difficulties run the gamut from underthinking to overthinking without much in between.

. This presentation was obtained from the Internet beginning at


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copyright 1996, 1998; Carla Nelson
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