ADHD: The Neurological Mechanism

One of the hardest things about having ADHD has been trying to explain it to anyone. “Yeah, man… I’ve got ADD, sometimes too,” they say. “Oh, yeah, it’s hard to pay attention sometimes.”

A lot of people misunderstand what ADHD really is. The name doesn’t help clear up any confusion. Attention Deficet Hyperactive Disorder, also known as “ADD” or “ADHD” causes people who are neurotypical (or those who have neurological experiences closely adhering to what’s deemed “normal”) to immediate focus on the simple fact that we don’t pay attention to the things we’re expected to.

Let’s begin by acknolwedging the inherent the arrogance it takes to stand over a group of thirty kids or a meeting room of ten mid-level managers and actually believe if they aren’t hanging on your every word for eight hours or thirty minutes that it must because there’s something wrong with that individual.

It’s a way of life in our world to have people tell us what room to be in and for how long, regardless of what we want for ourselves. We’re put in the crib, the classroom, the office, the morgue. And if you’re reading this saying, “tough shit, that’s the way it is, get in line…”

Some brains simply can’t do that. If you doubt it, simply consider the millions of children who spend elementary, middle school, high school, acting out in some way. Whether it’s drawing in class, blurting out, getting in fights, failing to do reading, these behaviors are typical of brains that inherently struggle to regulate their emotions and thoughts, which leads to impulsive behavior. If it were possible for these individuals to stop this behavior, they probably would. You might not believe that if you think people are inherently evil or flawed in some way. I try to approach every thing from the perspective of our sameness, if not our outright similarities. And I don’t believe I’m evil or nefarious, so I have to give people that same benefit of the doubt.

So, accepting these kids aren’t actually bad, we have to realize that punishment is not an effective means of curtailing ADHD behavior. I appreciate the role experimenting plays in the scientific process. But at this point, we’ve proven beyond all scientific reason, yelling at a child doesn’t make them listen, keeping a teenager after class doesn’t keep them from getting in a fight. That we continue to employ these means of responding to these situations with these means is cruel.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. But not everybody’s got ADHD. Are you saying we shouldn’t punish them but we should keep punishing the neurotypical kids?”

No, but thanks for that reduction. Actually, ADHD isn’t an alien state seperate and removed from the experiences that neurotypical people have. It’s just less regulated. Imagine driving to work, or home at the end of the day. The highway you are on might have a bit of traffic, maybe occasionally an accident on the side of the road. For the ADHD experience, that highway has deep divots, unexpected speed bumps, ramps, flaming rings set slightly adjacent to the ramp, detours, ogres, and eclipses.

That sounds very different. It is. But they represent the different disruption that kids and adults can experience. If you don’t focus on how they’re different, but merely view them as disruptions, eliminating punishment as a means of curtailing unwanted behavior is still my preference. We can do far more for the happy, healthy development of all children, perhaps reducing the rates of neurodivergence in the process, by creating systems that reinforce good behavior.

I’m sorry, my ADHD is already leading me down another path. Before we get into any of that, we have to establish what ADHD actually is.

The idea that ADHD is just a “short attention span” is a gross oversimpllification.

The neurological mechanism of ADHD

ADHD is a product of prolonged trauma. Prolonged trauma can take many forms. Physical abuse, emotional neglect, being unable to speak the native language, being a racial, ethnic, or religious minority, even being non-binary, non-heterosexual in areas hostile to you for those reasons, are all examples of prolonged trauma. This trauma arrives from the state of helplessness and fear the individual’s experienced in these moments, like scar tissue in their minds, that prevents their state of attention from shrinking back down to it’s unalerted state. The reason for this “scar tissue” is this state of alertedness, or “hypervigilance” is rewarding so frequently and for so long.

This alerted is a state of increased intensity in the cognitive experience, capable of more quickly drawing things together from memory, the environment, and whatever they perceive as a threat, to construct a means of addressing this stressor. This may help account for why people with ADHD are commonly known for being “unique”, “inidividualistic”, and perhaps why many are inherently driven to stand out. If their motivations and internal narrations are constructed of logical connections made in their alerted state, it may be very hard for anyone else to truly understand that individual perspective.

This prolonged alerted state fashions a neurological mechanism that routinely processes mass amounts of information in a speedy and desperate search for relevance. This window, due to the energy that it requires to stay open, does not last long. A teacher has only a few minutes to hold a child’s attention, maybe only a few seconds if they’re routinely dull or overly technical. Without connecting to relevance, the neurological mechanism, which happens so quickly it bypasses the cognitive experience, determines it’s failed in its singular purpose, to keep that person safe. When that mechanism fails, the brain assumes danger is everywhere.

That’s why boredom to the ADHD brain can trigger self-defense mechanisms like avoidance and aggression, it can also overwhelm the brain into utilizing our evolutionary instinct to “play dead”. In our cognitive experience, this sense of paralysis, depression, or anxiety that comes from long blocks of text like this one. (Sorry about that.)

The mechanism can’t actually determine if something is of threat, only if something is of interest. It’s left to the brain to determine what to do with the subject of interest. But that’s why the ADHD brain will sieze certain things and not others, and why if they’re not interested there’s nothing they can do about.

The magnifying glass

Everybody takes in stimulus, for the most part. Sights, sounds, texture, taste, scent, all being received at once. On top of that, your mind has to process all that stimulus, rank it’s importance, and push the most relevant things to the front of your mind for you do with as you please. This may be simple, like looking at the clock on the oven and seeing the time, or hearing a knock on your door. Your mind pushes those two things to the forefront of your consciousness. Here the stimulus is contextulatized using recent information, and you realize, “Oh, this is the package that was supposed to be delivered this morning. I need to sign for that.”

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This a regulated process of stimulus and interaction with memories and experience. It’s very much like a magnifying glass, which brings into focus only select subjects, gives them greater clarity, and helps to block out everything else with its curved lens and wooden frame. It’s an ideal tool for examining the world. But for those who have been exposed to prolonged trauma, their hypervigilance has forged something much more vast.

The telescope

The telescope not only takes in far more than a magnifying glass, if any of those things are too close, they may appear entirely blurred. Imagine looking at the oven clock and not noticing the numbers any more than than dials that release the gas. You hear a knock on the door. You don’t know who it is. Your alerted state is closely connected to your sense of being in danger, so the part of your brain that houses your trauma is now lighting up. There’s a second knock on the door. Now you’re really in trouble.

This scenario quickly goes poorly because the ADHD brain isn’t always functioning at its total, or “hyper acute” state. When it’s not, it’s likely not functioning with nearly the clarity of a person who is neurotypical simply because its operating at that state is overwhelming and unstustainable. That’s why doctors prescribe Adderrall, to provide the energy required to operate at that heightened state longer than can otherwise be achieved.

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But whether in the hyper acute state or not, these brains continue to consume large amounts of information, just as when they were in their alerted and endangered states. This is how the ADHD brain connects its “random thoughts and comments”. The problem is simply it can’t be made to focus on someting as simple as a knock on the door. Or a phone bill. Or small talk. It’s simply not enough stimulus to sustain the brain’s activity, and without the brain being active, it can’t become engaged.

That’s why people with ADHD not only lean so heavily on caffeine and sugar for their energy benefits, but why they also tend to prefer to take in multiple stimuli at once. It’s not enough to listen to someone speak, you also have to draw as they do. It’s not enough to draw, you also have to have music playing and the TV on in the background, while bouncing both knees.

Published by Patrick Healy

Writer. Artist. Menace.

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