The Neurology of ADD Symptoms

How Adults with ADHD Think: Understanding the Neurology of ADD Symptoms By William Dodson, M.D. Medically reviewed by ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel – Oct 2019

Easily bored, sensitive to distractions, creative, and intense.

If you grew up with ADHD symptoms, chances are you always felt “different.” Now here’s a scientific explanation of the neurological underpinnings of behaviors and feelings associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

I know that autism has been linked with EDS and it certainly sounds like ADHD could be as well because the highly sensitive and easily disrupted state of mind is analogous to the highly sensitive and easily disrupted body affected by EDS. 

It seems odd to call a condition a disorder when the condition comes with so many positive features. People with an ADHD-style nervous system tend to be great problem-solvers. They wade into problems that have stumped everyone else and jump to the answer.

They are affable, likable people with a sense of humor.

They have what Paul Wender called “relentless determination.” When they get hooked on a challenge, they tackle it with one approach after another until they master the problem — and they may lose interest entirely when it is no longer a challenge.

I can remember having such relentless determination when I was younger. When my interest was piqued by some subject, I immediately buried myself in it, starting with a trip to the library to learn as much as I could about it right away and find mailing addresses of any affiliated organizations from which I could request more information.

But in later years, beyond about 50, this one-sided focus was gradually replaced by an inability to hold my focus long enough to make significant progress on a project. I started out determined but then ended up distracted by everything else going on, both inside and outside of me.

The main obstacle to understanding and managing ADHD has been the unstated and incorrect assumption that individuals with ADHD could and should be like the rest of us.

God forbid!

More and more aspects of our lives are being standardized; my personal issue is with medical care, but the same thing is happening in many other areas.

Having people who think in standard patterns and react to events with standard feelings makes society more homogenous, predictable, and therefore prone to manipulation.

For neurotypicals and adults with ADHD alike, here is a detailed portrait of why people with ADHD do what they do.

Why People with ADHD Don’t Function Well in a Linear World

The ADHD world is curvilinear. Past, present, and future are never separate and distinct. Everything is now. People with ADHD live in a permanent present and have a hard time learning from the past or looking into the future to see the inescapable consequences of their actions.

Tasks in the neurotypical world have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Individuals with ADHD don’t know where and how to start, since they can’t find the beginning. They jump into the middle of a task and work in all directions at once. Organization becomes an unsustainable task because organizational systems work on linearity, importance, and time.

I recognize myself as “working in all directions as once”. Knowing where to start is also a tough one for me because, instead of focusing on the orderly progression of a task, my mind seems to flit among all possible aspects of it at once.

As soon as I imagine starting, my thoughts are already sifting through all my information on a topic and interrupting me with anything that strikes me as interesting or important, and then as I pursue that, I lose track of where I was going to start, so I have to deliberately pull myself back to the beginning, and then all those important aspects that had occurred to me to be are forgotten again.

It feels like my mental dog is chasing its tail.

Why People with ADHD Are Overwhelmed

People in the ADHD world experience life more intensely, more passionately than neurotypicals.

They have a low threshold for outside sensory experience because the day-to-day experience of their five senses and their thoughts is always on high volume. The ADHD nervous system is overwhelmed by life experiences because its intensity is so high.

The ADHD nervous system is rarely at rest. It wants to be engaged in something interesting and challenging. Attention is never “deficit.” It is always excessive, constantly occupied with internal reveries and engagements

Individuals with ADHD have their worlds constantly disrupted by experiences of which the neurotypical is unaware. This disruption enforces the perception of the ADHD person as being odd, prickly, demanding, and high-maintenance.

Strange, that’s exactly how I feel my brain relates to my thinking; my brain is an odd, prickly, demanding, and high-maintenance organ. Only by deliberate thinking can I extract myself from the awful muddle of my raw thoughts and perceptions.

If I “listened to” my brain without filters and responded without forced reasoning developed from long experience, I’d be jerked around endlessly by my constantly chattering nervous system.

Some people with ADHD create crises to generate the adrenaline to get them engaged and functional.

Lurching from crisis to crisis, however, is a tough way to live life.

Why People with ADHD Don’t Always Get Things Done

People with ADHD are both mystified and frustrated by secrets of the ADHD brain, namely the intermittent ability to be super-focused when interested, and challenged and unable to start and sustain projects that are personally boring

Mood and energy level also swing with variations of interest and challenge. When bored, unengaged, or trapped by a task, the person with ADHD is lethargic, quarrelsome, and filled with dissatisfaction.

Why Organization Eludes People with ADHD

The ADHD mind is a vast and unorganized library.

It contains masses of information in snippets, but not whole books. The information exists in many forms — as articles, videos, audio clips, Internet pages — and also in forms and thoughts that no one has ever had before.

For a person with ADHD, information and memories that are out of sight are out of mind.

Working memory is the ability to have data available in one’s mind, and to be able to manipulate that data to come up with an answer or a plan of action. The  mind of a person with ADHD is full of the minutiae of life.

I noticed my working memory shrinking in my late 40s and it accelerated in my 50s. Now in my early 60s, I can only hold 2, maybe 3 items in my head at once and, if I have to physically move from one context (reading from a book) to another (writing on a computer screen), it can be difficult to remember what I had read when I switch context/media.

Why People with ADHD are Time Challenged

Because people with ADHD don’t have a reliable sense of time, everything happens right now or not at all. Along with the concept of ordination (what must be done first; what must come second) there must also be the concept of time.

For individuals with ADHD, time is a meaningless abstraction. It seems important to other people, but people with ADHD have never gotten the hang of it.

William Dodson, M.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

Dr. Dawon’s full article, How Adults with ADHD Think: Understanding the Neurology of ADD Symptoms has more detail and the whole ADD website has loads of great information on this “mental disorder”.

Other thoughts?

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