Attention Deficit doesn’t always mean less focus — sometimes it means more
Mary was in the zone. She’d been online all day and didn’t realize her house had caught on fire until the fireman said she needed to get off the computer and leave.
Mary, of course, is an urban legend — an example of how people with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder can hyperfocus on a task for hours, losing all awareness of their surroundings. She’s a story the ADHD community tells itself so people with the disorder will feel less alone.
“We all hate the name ADHD,” says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, cofounder of Atlanta consultancy group ImpactADHD. Because of the word “deficit,” people often incorrectly assume that having Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder means you can’t pay attention. Instead, ADHDers often pay more attention than we should: It’s called hyperfocus.
Dr. Kimberly Gordon, a psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, explains the symptom as “an intense, deep concentration on a specific task.” Like our mythological Mary, Gordon says, “When individuals with ADHD hyperfocus on one thing, they tend to block out everything else going on around them. The brain sends off signals of activity, pleasure, and engagement as they are immersed in a task while hyperfocused.”
Attention Deficit stems from an underproduction of two neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine and norepinephrine. Both regulate focus. Stimulation activates the prefrontal cortex, triggering dopamine production and making it easier to stay on task. In order to create these neurotransmitters, people with ADHD latch onto activities that stimulate them, like playing a favorite game or reading about topics they enjoy. They then enter a zone where they’re lost to everything around them, surrendered to a single task.
“I see hyperfocus as a gift when applied well,” says Taylor-Klaus. “Think surgeons, ER doctors, actors,” she said. “My daughter [who has ADHD] is an amazingly talented actor, and I think it’s because she can tune out the rest of the world and be completely present in the moment. It’s amazing to witness.”
Gordon agrees: “When managed, being able to hyperfocus…is a strength that in many cases can lead to real life benefits, such as a successful career in…