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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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Just as "inattention" may result from both extremes of focusing, other traits and states may mirror each other at their poles..


There are many reasons I suspect why we have been slow to let in both the under and overfocusing aspects of attention deficits. We will look at those more in a bit. For now, let's just grant the point, as it leads to the another that is even less often mentioned, perhaps because it's not often discussed beyond lectures in grad schools, to wit, the principle that both extremes can mirror each other such that both poles produce the same ends.

Just as "inattention" may result from both extremes of focusing, other traits and states may mirror each other at the poles of their respective extremes. Examples:

  • depressiveness can result from feeling over or underwhelmed
  • mania could be a low arouser amping up or a high arouser acting out
  • learning difficulties can represent seeing too much to filter and sort -- or from not grasping enough to comprehend

This "reflective effect" at times might involve different settings at the same neurotransmitter sites or on the same genes which could also explain why both poles are so often seen on the same families.

In effect, they have problems with the same "dial in the cockpit," but where one is too loose, the other is too sticky, or where one is running too high or too fast, another is going too low or too slow. [Note: this was written before more recent findings that long and short versions of the same allele may, for example, contribute to different forms of a given trait such as novelty-seeking.]

New word for the day: Antisyzygy
A neuroscientist friend of mine, Patrick Gunkel, who's worked on information theory with Marvin Minsky at MIT, gave my conceptual take on this a nice confirm even though he didn't know he was doing so, when he wrote:

"A very important cognitive and heuristic PRINCIPLE is that opposites - things or concepts that are opposite or which seem contradictory - always MEET. The dictionary even has a name for it - ANTISYZYGY - [anti-sizi-gee] "

He posted this on the Mind Sciences Forum on CompuServe, where I act as moderator, and soon a round of spectrum-making ensued along the lines of:

black <---- black/white (gray) ---> white

Coincidentally, that was exactly how my spectrum of attention difficulty lined up as well, from one extreme to the other with a mixed shade in between. Put in a more shorthand way, my spectrum could be expressed as:

OFF <---- ON/OFF ---> ON
Underthinking <-- Alternating --> Overthinking

The closer we proceed towards the outer sides of the focusing spectrum, the more we see the intensity of affect I've characterized as the "high frequency"* of overarousal. Both Types 1 and 3 can be hyper, but it varies in quality.

This slide suggests -- again hypothetically -- how traits might mix to produce such effects: On the left or hypofocusing side, where cerebral focus tends to be weaker, it makes sense that hyperactivity would be largely physical, i.e. kinetic, because this end of the spectrum depicts possible correlates of underthinking. Hyperkinesis comes up again on the on the right, or hyperfocusing, side where we see mental hyperactivity, i.e. focus that is again "stucky" (to quote a term coined by Dan Maust) but tends to get stuck ON rather than OFF. This excess cerebral intensity often combines with physical hyperactivity, but in this case it's hyperkinesthetic, i.e. kinetic and/or sensory, rather than hyperkinesis alone.

Compounding hyperkinesthesia with hypercerebration may be what sets up the propensity for "flooding" that is often seen in the Type 3, seeding pointers to the possible overlap between attention deficiencies and the autistic spectrum of NBDs first proposed by Marcel Kinsbourne in 1992.

Note, I do not suggest that every Type 3 possesses traits from the spectrum of NBD (neurobehavioral disorders such as Asperger's, Tourette's, or OCD). Even though such overlaps are frequently seen in the Type 3 band, I suspect this is but one of several skeins that may combine to produce hyperfocusing. Someone with a Type 3 attention difficulty who was not hypersensitive might have what John Ratey might call a "shadow syndrome" of hypomania, or even a dual diagnosis with bipolar disorder, underlying his Type 3 profile instead.

It is important to note that we are talking process, in this instance hyperfocusing, not its content. But by grouping these processes, then teasing out their differences, this kind of modeling offers a scheme in which multiple threads might be seen to weave in and out to create clusters of behavioral traits. In the process we may discover some physiological overlaps too, and those may help to explain why people of the same type often benefit from similar pharmaceutical therapies, even if the dosage of same might vary considerably. (Starting around Type 2.3, for example, you begin to hear frequent accounts of "med sensitivity." These people often report they take especially small and finely calibrated doses of stimulants if they take them at all. This appears to track with the traits of general overreactivity we start to see at this point in the spectrum as well.)

Since detecting this mirror effect, I've found when you line up other sets of opposing traits, spectrums of all sorts start popping out, even spectrums within spectrums as you began to see in my matrix and will see again in my "spectrum sandwich" exhibit in a minute. There are many hints in the clinical literature to suggest that the mirror efffect of opposites may contribute to variations in other conditions such as autism and learning disabilities (e.g. similarities in behavior between verbal and non-verbal forms of LD, both of whom may be extra-literal and concrete, but for different reasons). But for the moment, we will again leave this "both poles" point at its practical bottom line:

When analyzing any given trait, whether cognitive, emotional or physical, one needs to ask early and often whether the behavior stems from "too much" or "too little" activity. A great deal of invalidation has occurred for many ADDers from observers who equated their lack of attention or affect with not thinking or feeling enough -- when it actually represented the opposite.


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