Hyperfocus, not focus deficit
For children, the object of "hyperfocus" might be playing a video game or watching TV. For adults, it might be shopping or surfing the Internet. But whatever holds the attention, the result is the same: Unless something or someone interrupts, hours drift by as important tasks and relationships fall by the wayside.
"People who think ADD means having a short attention span misunderstand what ADD is," says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the author of ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life. "A better way to look at it is that people with ADD have a disregulated attention system."
Instant rewards: Like distractibility, hyperfocus is thought to result from abnormally low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is particularly active in the brain's frontal lobes. This dopamine deficiency makes it hard to "shift gears" to take up boring-but-necessary tasks.
"Children and adults with ADD have difficulty shifting attention from one thing to another," says Russell Barkley, Ph.D., a research professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. "If they're doing something they enjoy or find psychologically rewarding, they'll tend to persist in this behavior after others would normally move on to other things. The brains of people with ADD are drawn to activities that give instant feedback."