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All right. Hey everyone. Welcome back to The Testing Psychologist podcast.
Today is another episode in the ongoing ADHD series. If you haven’t checked out the ADHD series, this is a 2 to 3-month series coming out on Mondays about different topics related to ADHD. These are meant to be relatively [00:01:00] bite-size episodes where I touch on some of the major topics, but also some of the more nuanced questions, random questions related to ADHD that have popped up over the years for me and for others that I know.
Today’s episode is all about hyperfocus. I’m going to be talking about, well, what is hyperfocus. That’s a big one. The definitions of hyperfocus, the relationship between hyperfocus and flow states, which you may have heard of, hyperfocus in the context of executive functioning and ADHD of course, and some pros and cons of hyperfocusing.
Before I get to the episode, I want to invite you to think about a Testing Psychologist Mastermind Group. These are group coaching experiences with psychologists who run testing practices. So if you’re [00:02:00] looking for support, connection, and accountability to actually get some things done in your practice and level up your practice, it could be a good fit. You can get more info and schedule a pre-group call at thetestingpsychologist.com/consulting. I would love to have you in a group, but we’ll talk and see if it’s a good fit.
All right, let’s jump to this episode on hyperfocus.
Okay, y’all. I’m going to say right off the bat that this is a tricky topic to talk about because, like many things, we are having a little bit of a hard time agreeing [00:03:00] on what hyperfocus is. And that’s partly why I named this episode. What actually is hyperfocus? That’s probably the biggest question out there right now related to hyperfocus.
Hyperfocus, big picture view, is a characteristic that we often hear discussed in relation to ADHD. Now, it’s not an official symptom of ADHD listed in the DSM-5 or anything like that, but this is a phenomenon that you often hear folks talk about when they’re discussing ADHD, like getting hyperfocused on topics of interest or getting so lost in a Wikipedia rabbit hole that they were late for an appointment, things like that.
So hyperfocus is out there. It has [00:04:00] lived at least colloquially in the ADHD discussion for a long time, but is not an official symptom. So I thought it would be helpful to spend a little bit of time on this topic.
I wanted to start with just a brief attempt at defining hyperfocus. As I said at the beginning of the ADHD series, this is meant to summarize the literature that I could find. I’m not doing a deep dive necessarily. So I don’t know that this is everything to be said on this topic, but hopefully enough to get the wheels turning for you.
When we talk about a definition of hyperfocus, when I started to dig into this, I found a lot of comparisons to flow. Many of you may have heard of flow or flow states. Flow has [00:05:00] a really positive connotation. Flow is a state where you’re in this intense state of focus, external stimuli are completely blocked out or not perceived. The activity is fun. It’s engaging. Your task performance improves. So this is a really nice place to be. Some folks would describe flow states as the highest level of functioning that we could be at. It’s the intersection of attention, focus, motivation, and ability, all these things overlap and we’re just in that perfect zone; that zone of genius.
A lot of the information that I found compared hyperfocusing to flow. And there is some research out there that tries to equate hyperfocus with flow. [00:06:00] I’m not saying that that’s incorrect necessarily, but I think that the hyperfocusing that we’re talking about when it comes to ADHD is different than being in a flow state for one main reason, maybe two main reasons.
I think that the folks that are comparing hyperfocus to a flow state are using it in a more general way and not thinking about hyperfocus in the context of ADHD, not that individuals with ADHD can’t experience a flow state. I just don’t think that’s what we’re talking about when folks describe ADHD hyperfocusing.
Two of the reasons that I don’t think those are the same or the literature doesn’t think they’re the same, these are not my opinions necessarily, are that the descriptions are [00:07:00] different. So hyperfocusing in ADHD, maybe it is an intense state of focus, and maybe the activity is fun and engaging, but the task performance is not necessarily improving, and individuals are not necessarily engaged in a task that is fun and highly stimulating necessarily. So just the definitions to me are a little bit off.
The other component is that, as best we can tell, there are significant differences in the neurotransmitter activity when people are hyperfocusing versus being in a flow state.
In a flow state, you get increases in lots of neurotransmitters; all the big ones: dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. Those are all increasing. [00:08:00] With ADHD though, what we think is happening is actually a lack of dopamine going on. So in broad strokes, I know there are neuroanatomy folks out there who are probably screaming right now, but in broad strokes, we’re talking about very different things happening in the brain.
Definition-wise, when you get into the ADHD literature, the hyperfocus involved with ADHD is not really a positive thing. It doesn’t have a positive connotation. It’s more associated with poor self-regulation; that overarching difficulty with self-regulation that could describe many facets of ADHD. And this is just another manifestation of that.
So it’s on the same [00:09:00] continuum as not being able to sustain attention. It is just on the extreme end of the spectrum where an individual is not able to pull themselves away from an activity that they might want to pull themselves away from. So, it’s just another variety of poorly regulated attention that’s out of the control of the individual to a degree. And so I think just definition-wise, again, we’re having a hard time really zeroing in on what this is. And that makes it difficult to describe and identify.
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All right, let’s get back to the podcast.
So, the research in general is mixed on hyperfocus.
There’s this question that is floating around out there and that question is, is hyperfocus actually a defining characteristic of ADHD? To measure something, well, we have to agree on what it is, which we haven’t totally done yet, and when we can’t agree on what it is, it makes it hard to develop scales to measure it. And so there are two attempts out there to develop hyperfocus scales, but they have different vibes.[00:11:00] One does focus more on the positive aspects and is closer to measuring flow state. One of the others though that is out there that’s being developed focuses more on the other side of things where it’s more of an undesirable state to be in with more downsides.
So we haven’t really figured that out yet, but for the research that’s out there, it seems mixed. I could only find two studies that actually looked at hyperfocus in ADHD individuals compared to neurotypical individuals. Their findings were somewhat different. The biggest one was probably that there were no differences in hyperfocus experiences between [00:12:00] those diagnosed with ADHD and those without. That’s a pretty big point to disagree on.
But the most recent research that I could find, that’s where things landed. There wasn’t any difference in hyperfocus prevalence, at least, in that about 80% of people with or without ADHD report having hyperfocus experiences a few times a month. And there weren’t too many differences there. I mean, there was a small positive association for non-diagnosed adults with higher scores on an ADHD screener, but otherwise, in terms of the prevalence and frequency of hyperfocus experiences, they’re actually pretty similar between individuals with ADHD.
Let’s see. Small [00:13:00] differences. Some ADHD individuals reported fewer hyperfocus experiences in educational and social settings. These authors posited that, which makes sense, that hyperfocus may be situation-dependent; environmental factors can influence that. And the rationale is that educational and social settings are less engaging for individuals with ADHD.
Another random finding here is that higher education level and age were associated with lower frequency and duration of hyperfocus.
So there’s not a lot out there. I think there’s a lot of room here for any of you researchers to really dig into this. I’m sure folks are doing it, but it’s an interesting phenomenon. I think that we can [00:14:00] continue to look into it and try to define it. It does make sense that it’s not a formal symptom of ADHD in the DSM because there’s a lot of disagreement around it thus far.
So just something to think about as you’re doing your ADHD evals. The hope, I suppose, if you just take away one thing from this podcast is that there is still a fair amount of debate around hyperfocus and that it should not necessarily be considered a defining feature of ADHD, at least based on what we know up to this point.
That’s my thought. I welcome anyone who might want to disagree. In fact, if you’re out there and you totally disagree, please get in contact. I would love to have you on the podcast and we can do an interview around hyperfocus and really dive into it in a deeper way.
Thank you [00:15:00] for listening to another of these ADHD series episodes. The next one in the series will be talking about… What are we talking about? I am going to my content calendar. We are going to be talking about the overlap between executive functioning and ADHD. So look for that next Monday and look for a business episode in the meantime.
If you are a practice owner, like I mentioned at the beginning, and you’d like some support and accountability in building or growing, or managing your practice, you can go to thetestingpsychologist.com/consulting and book a pre-group call for a Testing Psychologist Mastermind Group. We are continually enrolling cohorts and just starting the groups as they get full. So don’t hesitate. There should be a spot for you. I would love to talk with you and see if it would be a good fit.
Okay, until next time. Bye. Bye.
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