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The Science Behind Hyperfocus

Many individuals with ADHD experience a phenomenon not described in diagnostic manuals and barely investigated in medical research. This state is known as hyperfocus. It refers to an extreme fixation on an interesting activity – so much so that all other events and even physiological needs are disregarded.


Like many aspects of ADHD, “hyperfocus” is not the most appropriate name for the experience it describes. The term’s critics say it presupposes that hyperfocus is some sort of superpower, despite many ADHDers being vocal about the negative side of this symptom.


What is hyperfocus?


For some people with ADHD, being interested in a specific subject or task can transport them into a state of intense and uncontrollable concentration. For hours on end, they will continue tinkering with their interesting project, disregarding everything and everyone else around them.


While some ADHDers report being aware of their surroundings when they’re in hyperfocus, others seem to block out incoming information completely. A famous example of how powerful the fixation of hyperfocus can be comes from the book Adventures in Fast Forward by Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and acclaimed ADHD expert. The book contains the story of a woman with ADHD who became so hyperfocused that she missed a fire in her own home. “She had missed the sirens and all the commotion and was finally discovered by firemen, working contentedly in her room while the kitchen at the back of the house was engulfed in flames,” the author writes. But there’s no blame nor criticism in Nadeau’s tone; instead, she uses this example to illustrate how hyperfocus can be a double-edged sword.


The two sides of hyperfocus


ADHDers sometimes say hyperfocus feels energizing or even euphoric. For a person with an ever-busy whirlwind of ideas inside their head, it’s easy to see how focusing on one task and excelling at it far more than others can be rewarding. In fact, some individuals with ADHD hyperfocus on constructive activities, like studying, work, or relationships. For them, hyperfocus is a major asset.


But not all individuals with ADHD are so fond of their hyperfocus. When it activates only during recreational activities, such as video games or shopping, hyperfocus can become a burden on one’s schedule.


For most ADHDers, hyperfocus is completely unpredictable and out of their control. Sadly, loved ones often fail to understand this and may get annoyed with someone for only focusing on things they “want to do.” This conflict raises a principal issue of hyperfocus and ADHD in general – difficulty regulating attention.


One of very few experimental works on hyperfocus in ADHD is a 2013 article by Rony Sklar. In the article, which had a rather small sample size, Sklar measured participants' neural activity as they played video games, which were supposed to induce a state of hyperfocus. Her analysis showed that ADHDers had enhanced attention while they were in hyperfocus, dispelling a long-standing myth that people with ADHD are unable to concentrate. “It’s not about having an attention deficit, it’s more a maldistribution of attention. It’s not about not being able to concentrate; it’s about being able to concentrate in different forms and different intensity,” Sklar later told Science of Us.


In other words, hyperfocus fits within the current understanding of ADHD as more than just inattention. It’s a condition that makes it difficult for a person to regulate the depth of attention and switch from one task to another. The principal challenge of hyperfocus, then, is learning to control attention during hyperfocus. Fortunately, that is possible with proper coaching and setting up practical tools to redirect attention; but that’s a topic for another time.


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References:

1. Ashinoff and Abu-Akel (2021) Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention.

2. Flippin for Additude Mag. (2022) Hyperfocus: The ADHD Phenomenon of Intense Fixation

3. Nerenberg for Science of Us (2016) Hyperfocus: The other side of adult ADHD

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