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Part 2.7

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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Context becomes key once you agree that attention is intrinsically tied to arousability


Even more than its multiple hues of hyperactivity, what has confounded consensus about "ADD" is its context-dependency.

I can't tell you how often I've heard something like "Johnny must not be ADD. Look at how well he can focus for that video game." One rather respected physician even said to me "You write too well to be ADD," conveniently overlooking what I am not attending to when I get lost in mental hyperspace and find it very hard to come back to earth.

How attentive one will seem to be depends on where you stand when you ask, as expression of these traits will vary in intensity relative to conditions. We can't put attention in a vacuum, we must look at what the person is focusing on. Context becomes key once you agree that attention is intrinsically tied to arousability.

My models were designed to demonstrate differences in duration and intensity with a range of states across which people shift as engagement ebbs and flows, through nine degrees of attentional lability between hypo and hyperfocusing. As we have seen, that continuum can be portrayed horizontally, in a spectrum that reads from left to right, or in a matrix comprised of columns and rows. In a horizontal spectrum view, it may be easier to conceptualize how one might "slide" along the scale from one state to the next. But the matrix view, by placing attention and arousal on separate axes and viewing their variations in a "spreadsheet of attention" with columns and rows, permits a closer look at the dynamics of activation beneath these behavioral changes. Thus you will continue to see me toggle back and forth between the two.

A Spectrum Sandwich
Here is another form of a spectrum view, this one depicting layered continuums rather than graphing curves as we saw before. This perspective is meant to underscore the concept that each type has spectrums of its own within, and that those spectrums in turn overlap as one type shades to the next. I think of it as a "spectrum sandwich" because the traits are layered salami style, just as I think of this paradigm as a whole as an "onion" given its layers, each of which, as I keep discovering, can be peeled back to reveal another.

The "sandwich" representation is handy for demonstrating that I am comparing traits both within and between each type, relative to the characteristics of that type as a whole, as well as from one type to the next. For example, the entire Type 3 band is intrinsically more excitable than the Type 2; an overaroused 3.2 is in a higher "frequency" state, more excited than his overaroused counterpart at level 2.2. So the meaning of "level 2 arousal" as we saw in the matrix will vary from one type to the next, relative to the excitability of that group as a whole.

Returning to a matrix view, we can see again some of the dynamics I posit may underlie these shadings across the spectrum. A similar relativity applies to the other traits. Terms such as "impulsivity" need to be viewed within the context of each band, compared to characteristics of that cluster as a group. For example, a 2.1 is prone to be more impulsive than a 2.2, but less impulsive than any Type 1 or 3.

If anyone else has ever offered a way to illustrate the dynamics of context dependency with symbols and graphics, I sure haven't seen it. That is a big part of why this heuristic excites me; it offers some very novel ways to "think out of the box" that typically frames this sort of theorizing.

But I also know it may be difficult to find more empirical minds going "aha!" along with me right away, especially not the first time. That's why I am providing this overview, and making a "sandwich" out of this presentation too, before I delve deep into too many details. What you've seen so far are only multiple angles on the tip of this conceptual iceberg, but even that is a lot to absorb at first sitting.

More "dimensional" modeling of this kind represents a large shift in perspective for those who have been schooled to split, dissect and compartmentalize. They may not easily flip to this more convergent "meta" view of symptomology, since it bends and blurs the dividing lines empiricists typically use to keep one level of analysis separate from another.*

But as noted in my synopsis, my aim here has been the reverse -- to synthesize instead of divide. I am hunting for patterns in how traits may combine, which perhaps, in the end, just might suggest some new kinds of dividing lines.

(* For a witty parody of how the empirically trained do their analyses, click here to see a short essay by behavioral neurologist Mike Matthews on "Twitchology.")



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copyright 1997, 98; Carla (Nelson) Berg and The Professional Resource Group
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