REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News, p. 18. [edited with title change]
As a therapist, I find the diagnostic definition of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) really discouraging. It’s all about whatever the ADD person does that’s wrong. In fact, it’s considered a disorder. That’s wonderful if you want special assistance in school (such as sitting at the front of the classroom and getting more time for tests—both of which are required by law when a child has proof of this “disease”), but it’s not so wonderful for the people who now must view themselves through the filter of this negative label.
For this reason, I’d like to define ADD more accurately, by presenting the powerful and positive aspects of ADD/ADHD.
The definition that you are perhaps familiar with, the negative and depressing one, looks at ADD as a difference in “wiring” of the brain from those of non-ADD people. It is distinguished by a lack of ability to concentrate or focus on tasks, a lack of ability to set a pattern which can be followed in the future (such as deciding where to always place keys so you don’t lose them and then repeating that sequence of steps), and a lack of conscious awareness of this process (which results in not noticing yourself place those keys down, so that later you cannot retrace your steps to find them).
ADHD—the additional element of “hyperactivity” that puts the “H” in the ADD definition—may have the added features of impulsiveness (such as blurting out whatever comes to mind without thinking about possible consequences like hurting someone else’s feelings or looking ridiculous oneself), lots of extra energy getting dissipated through activities that are either goal-directed (like sports) or not (like pacing), skinniness due to this expenditure of energy and unwillingness to sit still long enough to complete a meal, and (in very young children) poor bowel control due to the impulsiveness.
What’s Good: Efficiency
Now, here is another way of looking at these same symptoms. God built into the human brain a brilliant economy. This economy means we do not have to “notice” and consciously process how we walk, breathe, or even think. We don’t have to remind ourselves, “Oh, that’s my dad right across the table.” All this becomes automatic so that our unconscious or subconscious mind knows most of what we have to know and does it without our awareness. Conscious awareness is left to take in, catalogue, and respond to the truly new information. The more we can do automatically, the more efficient we become. When we apply this concept to the ADD person, what we see is that ADD is an efficiency of consciousness.
While it’s true that this may lead to great inefficiency when one ought to have been consciously aware of things that went unnoticed, let’s look at what ADD people accomplish with this efficiency that other people don’t. To do this, a little more background on conscious process is needed.
How The Conscious Mind Works
The conscious mind is (a) linear, (b) organized, (c) limited, and (d) slow. These qualities are both good and bad; they each serve a purpose.
(a) Linear thinking means that one step must precede the other without branching out to include alternative possibilities. Examples would be following directions, writing this article, doing your checkbook.
(b) Organized means that a set of rules is—unconsciously, automatically—invoked which we then, consciously, follow for grouping, cataloguing, and connecting the information we must deal with. When we see an item, we know how to categorize it; even when we deal with an emotional experience, the conscious mind feels better, more in control of that experience when we can connect it to something familiar. For example, as we watched the news of the devastation in New Orleans, our conscious minds needed to explain how this devastation happened. Some people created political explanations; others, scientific; and others, spiritual. The point is, we needed to make sense of it, sense that our conscious minds could neatly place in a container with which we were familiar.
(c) Limited means that the conscious mind’s capacity to retain, process, and draw conclusions about information is just that, limited. For example, if solving a problem requires proposing alternatives, some research shows that beyond a matrix of seven alternatives, one must write down and see on paper the entire chart or map of information before the mind becomes overwhelmed.
(d) Slowness is a relative matter. Computing, remembering, and analyzing are slower processes than the intuitive, gut-feeling, creative processes of the subconscious. A fascinating study some years ago went like this: Four people were given a poker deck to play poker with while being hooked up to monitors that measured their heartbeat, pulse, respiration rate, and sweat response. After four rounds, these measures started to look abnormal on all of the players, but it took 99 rounds before one man angrily threw his cards down and said, “This deck is rigged!” Well, it was, and that was what the experiment was all about. Their subconscious “knew” something was amiss by their autonomic nervous system responses but it took way longer for that information to get past the filters set up by the conscious mind to keep out miscellaneous data that could reduce its efficiency.
These points are important in order to appreciate the amazing capacity of the subconscious mind.
How The Subconscious Mind Works
In reverse order, the subconscious is speedy, unlimited, disorganized, and networked. The disorganization is specifically a result of being unlimited and networked, or non-linear. Imagine that every piece of information you ever knew about the world was not stored in a proper category, but rather, loosely associated with many other pieces of information which, to your conscious thinking, you would never have thought of putting together.
This ability to loosely associate diverse pieces of information makes for amazing creativity. Combining the creativity with speed is powerful. Whether we are talking about science, art, politics, learning, or teaching, the creative ability of the subconscious mind is what infuses that spark of genius to the orderliness of the conscious mind. Bursts of unexpected connections bubble to consciousness in the form of intuition or “ah-ha” experiences, much to the enrichment of the person who experienced them and those around him.
Now, getting back to our revised definition of ADD—an efficiency of consciousness—it becomes apparent that what the ADD person lacks in organization, she gains in creativity and speed. What he lacks in finite logic, he gains in use of the unlimited resources of information stored in his subconscious mind. Although she would rather not plod through logic and calculations, the ADHD individual can be sharper and quicker than many others in making those same calculations subconsciously.
In fact, Henry Ford, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Emily Dickinson, John F. Kennedy, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Salvador Dali have been said to be ADD or ADHD. People with this diagnosis tend to have a higher IQ than the general population.
The common diagnostic label, very useful for getting school accommodations and realizing what measures could help in school and at work, tells only half the story; it leaves out the energy, creativity, and quickness of the ADHD person. As is the case with all gifts that God gives us, there is always a cost and always a benefit. It’s never a wise idea to look only at one side of the equation.