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ADHD: How to Improve Focus and Attention

Haitham is a student living in Gaza and studies effective tactics for managing ADHD. Here are his findings.

What is ADHD? How can you deal with yours?

What is ADHD? How can you deal with yours?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes dysregulation of attention and hyperactivity in children and adults. Current estimates are that one in ten children have ADHD. Around 50% of these children will grow out of ADHD.

ADHD has a strong genetic component. If someone in your family has ADHD, there is a chance you also may have it.

People with ADHD are five times more likely to be depressed, and three times more likely to commit suicide. There is a strong correlation between ADHD and depression. ADHD treatment reduces depression by 20%.

A common misconception is that people with ADHD are dumb, but that is simply not true. ADHD has nothing to do with your intelligence or IQ. You can be anywhere on the intelligence spectrum and still have ADHD.

People with ADHD struggle in society because they fail to do normal and basic tasks, but their brains are literally wired to function in a different way. They have to try extra hard where most people don’t even try, just to be normal in a world that is not designed for their minds.

ADHD: It's more than four letters.

ADHD: It's more than four letters.

ADHD Symptoms

ADHD symptoms are wide-ranging. Here are some common symptoms individuals diagnosed with ADHD experience.

1. Dysregulated Attention

Before we talk about the attention problems in ADHD, we need to know what attention is. Attention is perception. It’s how we are perceiving the sensory world. We only pay attention to some of the things in our surroundings. If you hear a sound, you are perceiving that sound and not paying attention to most of your other senses.

It’s a common misconception that people with ADHD have poor attention and just can’t focus on things. They just have dysregulated attention, meaning they can hyper-focus on things they enjoy and are intrigued by for extended periods of time, but they struggle to hold their attention on things that do not interest them and they are easily distractible while doing them.

2. Higher Than Normal Levels of Negative Emotions

In people with ADHD, the volume of the amygdala and insula are actually smaller, meaning they have small emotional circuits. The volume of the amygdala is inversely correlated with depression.

The nucleus accumbens (NACC), which is a dopaminergic area in the brain that governs behavior and reward, in people with ADHD is different in that their emotional circuitry has a large positive effect on it. The influence of emotional behavior is stronger in the ADHD brain than in the normal brain.

The anterior cingulate cortex in people with ADHD is weak. The ACC mediates conversations between our emotional circuitry and our control functions.

In the brain of an ADHD person, there is a greater reinforcement from emotional decisions.

3. Impulsivity and Hyperactivity

People with ADHD tend to move around a lot and find it really hard for them to sit still in the same place for a long time. They often have above-average premotor activity.

Top-down control is deficient in people with ADHD, meaning their ability to suppress or control impulses is impaired. Top-down control comes from the frontal lobes.

4. Time Perception Challenges

People with ADHD often procrastinate and arrive late to meetings, but if they are given a deadline and the consequences of not completing it are severe enough, they can hyperfocus and perceive time better in order to complete the task.

In simple terms, low dopamine, which controls our time perception, causes people with ADHD to experience time differently.

5. Poor Spatial Awareness

They struggle to keep their workspace or desk in order, so they often use something called “the pile system” where they take any object or belonging and pile them up according to a categorization system that makes sense only to them. This system often does not work for them in terms of the tasks they need to perform.

6. Working Memory Problems

People with ADHD can have a great memory of past and future events, but they have problems with their working memory. Working memory is the ability to keep information online in your brain so that you can use it in the short or immediate term.

They have severe challenges with small batches of information over small periods of time.

For example, someone gives you their phone number verbally and you try to write it down a few minutes later. A person with ADHD will have a really hard time remembering the number.

7. Executive Dysfunction

Executive dysfunction is a name that sums up most of the symptoms above. It is the inability to plan and execute tasks. It can manifest as trouble setting and meeting deadlines, trouble regulating emotions, challenges following through with simple tasks, and difficulties organizing school or work materials.

Now most of the symptoms above are all things we have trouble with and we can relate to most of them on some level, but people with ADHD struggle a lot more because of them. That does not mean you should jump to conclusions and self-diagnose yourself with ADHD. The real and clear diagnosis of ADHD should be carried out by a licensed professional, like a physician or a clinical phycologist.

Excessive smartphone use can actually induce ADHD in adults. The human brain does not handle constant context switching very well. The brain can do it, but it diminishes our ability to do meaningful work of any other kind.

There are two networks in the brain pertaining to attention and focus. The first one is called the default mode network (DMN). DMN is a network of brain areas that are active when we are not doing anything, or not doing a specific task.

The second network is called the task network, which is an area in your brain that makes you goal-oriented. It’s active during attention-demanding tasks.

Both of these areas communicate with each other and are synchronized in their activity, meaning if one area is active the other one will be active as well. In the brain of someone with ADHD, these networks are not synchronized due to an impairment in the dopamine system, which is supposed to control which network should be active at any given time.

It turns out that if dopamine levels are too low in the particular circuits in the brain, it leads to unnecessary firing of neurons in the brain that is unrelated to the task one is trying to do and unrelated to the information one is trying to focus on.

People with ADHD have reduced function in certain parts of their brain.

People with ADHD have reduced function in certain parts of their brain.

How Can People With ADHD Increase and Improve Attention?

ADHD tools are wide-ranging. There are a number of ways individuals deal with ADHD.

1. Drugs and Substances

People with ADHD tend to use substances that increase their levels of dopamine in the brain, and in particular in the areas that regulate attention. They do this in order to gain heightened levels of focus and attention.

ADHD medication drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, and Modafinil all increase levels of dopamine in networks that control our task-directed behavior, and coordinate the default mode network and the task-related networks.

These ADHD drugs are structurally and chemically very similar to some street drugs like cocaine and meth, and their net effect on the brain is essentially the same, which is to increase the levels of dopamine and epinephrine and to some extent serotonin. All this leads to an increase in motivation, drive, energy, and feelings of relaxation.

These drugs are not without their negatives though, as some repercussions of abusing them may include:

  • Constricting the veins
  • Increased heart rate, which can lead to heart problems
  • Pupil dilation
  • Less blinking
  • Abnormal and heightened levels of attention

People tend to crave and abuse these drugs because of the euphoric feeling it gives, but that feeling decreases less and less with each subsequent abuse.

The best use for ADHD drugs is to combine them with behavioral exercises that activate the circuits in the brain you are trying to enhance, and then perhaps tapering off those drugs so that you can efficiently use these circuits without the need for chemical intervention.

2. Elimination Diet

A study that manipulated the diet of 96 children, where 50 children were in the special diet group and the other 50 were in the control group. Some time into the study the two groups did a crossover, where each group switched with the other to produce a more accurate result by eliminating individual differences.

The study's P-value (Probability value) was less than 0.0001%, meaning that the effect observed could not be due to chance. The highest P-value that an effect could be due to chance is 0.05%.

The diet was oligoantigenic. Each child took a test to determine which foods they had antibodies for, meaning they eliminated foods that the children were allergic to. Eliminating foods that children are allergic to can massively improve their symptoms of ADHD. Also, it is a good idea to eliminate sugar from your diet.

The effects observed from the elimination diet group are as follows:

  • Enhanced ability to focus
  • Less impulsivity
  • Less tendency to move when sitting still

Consuming anywhere from 300–1000 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids can have antidepressant, mood-elevating, and cardiovascular system protection effects. This is due to their EPA component. They allow people with ADHD to function on a lower dose of medication.

3. Meditation

Attentional blinks are a phenomenon that reflects temporal limitations in the ability to deploy visual attention. If people must identify two objects in quick succession, accuracy for the second object is poor after identifying the first object. New research suggests that people with ADHD experience attentional blinks more often.

Meditation for about 17 minutes a day can significantly reduce the number of attentional blinks in a near-permanent way. Meditation works by reducing and restricting visual information and only focusing on one’s own internal state. It can rewire the attentional circuitry in a powerful way.

4. Focus training

  • Open monitoring: Open monitoring is also called open-gaze analysis, or open-gaze thinking. It consists of consciously dilating your gaze to see and perceive your surroundings. This process is mediated by a set of circuits that don’t just give you a wide-angle view, they are also better at processing information. They essentially give you a higher frame rate. Doing this can help people focus on multiple things better.
  • Blinking: Blinking can actually change your time perception. A study has found that after blinking we reset our time perception. The rate of blinking is controlled by dopamine.
  • Focusing task: A study made kids focus on a single object for a minute after the kids did some physical activities to release some of their energy. The object can be a point across the room or their hand. It allowed these children to greatly increase their focus on other types of information.

5. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

It’s a non-invasive tool that is placed over a particular location in the brain and then sends magnetic stimulation into the brain. It can lower or increase the amount of activity in certain brain areas.

It can engage certain neural circuits and therefore certain behavior, thought, and emotional patterns in the brain, making it an extremely potent and powerful tool.

In ADHD it is used to stimulate portions of the brain that engage the task network, and combined with a focused learning task.

© 2022 Haitham Al Bairouti