‘Attention deficit’ is a misleading label.
… In fact it’s one of the worst labels for a mental health diagnosis.
Because there is no deficit
In fact, studies show that those with ADHD may even perform better than people without ADHD in certain neuropsychological tests that measure attention.
To see what I’m talking about, I’ll show you a study that (I admit) puzzled me the first time I read it.
A different ‘style’ of attention
This study was conducted by the team of Dr. Vladimir Lopez PhD, a senior academic at the University of Chile (with whom I was fortunate to have Neurophysiology and Cognitive Sciences classes).
The study compared brain activity in children with and without ADHD during a laboratory task.
The task was very simple.
The children had to pay attention to a computer screen where two stimuli were presented: the face of a woman and a man, as you see in the image below.
The only difference in the real task is that the faces would not come all together at the same time but consecutively at regular intervals and in different locations within the screen.
The instructions were as follows:
“Push the button when the woman’s face, and ONLY the woman’s face, appears in the center of the screen.”
And that was it.
The child simply had to press the button when the woman’s face appeared in the centre … not when the man appeared alongside, nor when when the woman appeared in other positions.
Next, the number of hits and misses were measured … And also the electrical activity of the brain during the task. The results were surprising.
Here are the results
Hits vs. Misses:
Both groups (with and without ADHD) had a 98% higher percentage of correct answers (hits) than wrong answers (misses).
That is, there was no difference between groups. Children with ADHD were able to correctly identify the target and responded appropriately and timely manner.
So if we were scoring this, we could say ‘1 point for ADHD’ and ‘1 point for the non-ADHD’.
Here is where things get very interesting …
But before we go on, so you can understand what happened, I have to briefly explain something called ERPs (Event Related Potentials).
ERPs are a measure of the brain’s response to certain stimuli and are obtained by an electroencephalogram (otherwise known as an EEG, as seen in the image to the right of this paragraph).
Now there’s one very special ERP that we have to consider when talking about ADHD.
The famous P3 (or P300)
P3, among other things, is considered an indicator of the amount of attentional resources dedicated to a particular task.
To see P3 in action, let’s look at it in a graph of ERPs:
Do you can see there are several ERPs in the graph?
Each represents the response of thousands of neurons firing together after the brain has responded to a stimulus.
P3 has this name, because it is the third in the series of ERPs and also occurs after 300 milliseconds.
Remember, P3 is considered an indicator of the amount of attentional resources directed to the task (ie how much processing is occurring in the brain from a given stimulus).
Now let’s see what happened to P3 for the children in the attention study we were talking about earlier…
Here is the P3 of the children without ADHD.
Here we see the comparison of P3 in 2 situations:
• To the left when the woman’s face appeared at the center (the correct signal to push the button)
• To the right when the woman’s face appeared on the periphery (non-correct signal)
Do you see the downward curve steeper in the image on the left?
That is P3, which in this case is well marked when the target appeared, but not in the picture on the right (when the face of the woman was in the periphery).
Now look what happened to children with ADHD
You notice the difference?
There is a well marked p3 in the 2 conditions.
What does that mean?
It means that the brains of these children allocated attentional resources to the face of the woman whether the face appeared in the center or not.
But remember … children with ADHD made no more errors than controls.
That is their execution (behavioral level) was as good as children without ADHD. But their brain (neurological level) “responded” to the woman’s face when she appeared on the periphery…
… Also notably:
If the man’s face appeared on the periphery, this P3 spike did not happen.
How do you interpret this?
Well, that I will quote to own Doctor Lopez:
“(…) ADHD involves a different distribution of attentional resources not an inability to focus attention initially in an area of the visual field.
It is important to note that the distribution of care is not the same for all stimuli from the periphery: T2 (wonen’s face) generated a larger P3 than S2 (the man’s face), and the targets in the center (T1) triggered the biggest P3.
This rules out the possibility that attention in ADHD is indiscriminate, that it is triggered equally by any disruptive stimulus. On the contrary, the distribution pattern of attentional resources shown by our participants more likely indicates a different style of managing attention.
This attentional flexibility could allow individuals with ADHD to have an occasionally faster response, as has been evidenced by some neuropsychological studies”
Do you realize the implications of this?
For me, there are two key findings:
1. There is no ‘deficit’ of attention in ADHD, but instead a different distribution of attentional resources (a broader focus and processing elements of the periphery that are relevant to the task)
2. In people with ADHD, it is not that attention is indiscriminately triggered by any stimulus, but rather that their focus is broad enough to process stimuli that may be relevant to the task, even when no behavioral response is issued (children did not press the button when the woman’s face appeared on the side).
How to translate these findings into real life.
It seems that in ADHD there is no real ‘deficit’ of attention, but rather a difficulty regulating and controlling the attentional focus so that it suits the needs of the context…
So the key question is, how can people with ADHD learn to better control our attention, and take advantage of this ‘broader focus’ that often captures things that others do not notice?
More precisely, how can we learn to distribute our attentional resources more deliberately, so that we can avoid distractions when you need to focus on what we are doing?
And here again I quote Dr. Lopez who says:
“The characteristics of attentional processes in ADHD could also represent a different approach or implicit strategy to analyze the environment rather than a real deficit of attention. The ability to modify these characteristics through training should not be dismissed. Children with ADHD seem to use their attention differently, but this may not be enough to explain the cause of all your problems in real life.”
For me that’s the key.
We can modify these characteristics through training.
And the training that aims directly to strengthen our attentional control is the practice of Mindfulness.
This has been the focus of my own research and my professional work over the last 6 years.
I will not go into the subject of Mindfulness in this post because it would take too long, but suffice it to say that scientific research has shown that this type of mental training can help improve concentration and can indeed improve the distribution of attentional resources , allowing optimal attentional processing during laboratory tasks.
And now, I want to know your opinion.
Leave me a comment and tell me what you think this study.
Are there situations in which you can recognize this broader attentional capacity than other people?
Tell me and share your experience. I’m curious to see what examples have their own attentional style.
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If you have a question or comment, please post below – I’m always interested in hearing from you and I love answering your questions.