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Part 2.3 Hyperactive Hearts & Minds: Towards a Unified Model 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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To return to my "brain beat" metaphor, what separates ADD from non is the frequency (strength of arousal) and/or the amplitude (strength of focus) of what I model as "thought events." This what the waveforms you see in my exhibits represent, which again is one way of depicting length and strength of focused awareness..

The collection of symptoms we have labeled AD/HD is not just about a struggle to concentrate, but about the struggles of people who shift between extremes of under and over focusing. Everyone with an attention difficulty swings between bouts of distractible inattention and bursts of "hyperfocusing" where attentions are so intense they become very hard to dislodge. What distinguishes one from the next is not just how strongly they attend, but how much time they spend being more and less intent.

As we have seen, where some are primarily underfocused, struggling to turn attentions on, others are chronically overfocused, struggling to detach and switch. But either end of that continuum, inattention is a side effect, and this is the part we too often omit when we speak about ADD. We intuitively know that  inattention can be the result of thinking too little in general or thinking too much about one Very Engaging Thing, oblivious to everything else. Nonetheless most analyses  speak as if inattentive distractibility is the primary problem, and sporadic overengagement is only a consequence.

You only need to attend a gathering of adults with ADD to see it vividly shown that one can be habitually under or overfocused and still experience inattentive distraction as a continual challenge. This is why both ends of the spectrum see themselves in lists   of ADD symptoms, and why both ends of the spectrum have been successfully diagnosed and treated. Clinicians who see the spectrum whole understand that it is the inconsistency and the intensity of focal strength which separates ADD from non, and that these labile attention spans are intrinsically tied to arousability, which is, in turn, tied to stimulus dependency.

Everyone experiences both under and overfocusing and has struggles to keep their attentions where they need to be. But  people without an attention deficit are able to sustain and switch focus once they generate intention, while people with ADD can only hold focus steady when stimulation is strong, even if intention is present. To coin another metaphor, without enough "stimulus fuel" their brains sputter and stall, yet once it is found, they tend to overexcite, then find it hard to gear down. Hence the frequent paradoxes we see in people with ADD, in which an individual may be both especially competent  and especially inept, such as the example in a Newsweek piece: the business tycoon who routinely forgets to file his taxes on time.

The Catch 22  for everyone with an attention difficulty is that once arousal is strong enough to activate focus and sustain it,  then it becomes doubly difficult to dial it down and switch to something else. This inherent double bind often defines their lives, and frequently leads to demoralization, if not also desperation.

One of the ways I illustrate this continuum for non-technical readers is with my Bell of Attention Stability, specifically a version with illustrations to give a sense of the character types [click here]. The brain beat spectrum you just saw correlates with the baseline of this metaphorical bell which shows again how more modulating minds reside in between the two extremes of over and underfocusing.

No one yet has managed to describe all this in a reasonably simple way, and that is part of the problem I hope these models will address.

This presentation was obtained from the Internet beginning at



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