ADD and the Distraction Crisis

“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will." – William James

My sophomore year of high school I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I was told that my ADD was simply the result of genetic determination mixed with adolescent irreverence. But could it possibly have been related to my constant Snapchat sessions and YouTube binges? Was it a coincidence that all at once, armed with a MacBook and iPhone, the ADD symptoms seemed to appear out of thin air?

In 2010, social media was tightening its grip on millennials and beginning to suck up large swaths of my attention. Impulsive phone checking quickly filled moments that were previously spent with my thoughts alone, wiring my brain to seek constant novel stimulation. 

ADD is not something you’re born with. Although there can be a genetic vulnerability to the disorder, it is not inevitably expressed. Evolution didn’t select for a stable attention since it was beneficial for your ancestors to have a wandering mind, always scanning for the next potential threat or bit of useful information. But it also didn’t select against a stable attention, which is a result of the prefrontal cortex’s ability to intentionally direct and maintain attention. This is a skill we must train.

The concept of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” tells us that however your mind interacts with its environment shapes your brain in each moment. As the common refrain goes, “neurons that fire together wire together,” and neuronal genes even get turned on and off according to how you use your mind. As neuroscientist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., puts it in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.” It’s easy to see how, given this fact, many Americans are wiring their brains for ADD.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 10% of U.S. children are diagnosed with ADD. And how are we treating the problem? By giving out medication that’s essentially meth (it differs by a single molecule and has a nearly identically effect on the brain), synthetically increasing dopamine levels and creating a chemical dependence.

In the past, I’ve worked with clients who have ADD. I always begin by asking them, “How are you directing your attention throughout the day?” The answer usually comes back with some mixture of social media, hours of phone time, and Netflix shows (the average clip time is 2.5 seconds before the camera changes angles). I then propose an alternative solution to drugs. We can train our brains like the plastic organs they are by using both experience-dependent neuroplasticity (i.e. paying attention to how we pay attention) and self-directed neuroplasticity (i.e. meditation). By combining these two principles, I was able to reprogram a stable attention that’s under my command and get off the medication.

If you’re someone who has a short attention span (and I think we could all probably work on this area), then try this:

  1. Stay present throughout the day, performing a single task at a time. If you’re eating, just eat. If you’re listening to someone, give them your full attention.

  2. Practice concentration meditation for 10 minutes each day, repeatedly directing your attention back to the breath each time it gets lost in thought.

Easier said than done, but well worth the effort.

PS - Claim a free trial of the FitMind meditation app here.