Guest Post by Tessa Abagis, University of Michigan
“I get hooked into Netfix, and I’m not able to stop easily to get work done.” Sound familiar? Maybe you’re trying to catch up on Game of Thrones before the new season comes out or keep up with the seemingly infinite Netflix stand-up specials. For most of us, this engrossment never crosses the border from a few episodes of harmless binge-watching into missing out on much-needed sleep and forgoing personal and work responsibilities. But for some, a heightened level of focus on one task known as hyperfocus can occur. Often occurring in people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hyperfocus is a new area of neuroscientific research that would benefit from more attention from the cognitive neuroscience community.
Hyperfocus can involve intense concentration on the current task with complete disregard for anything else, such as hunger or fatigue. One person has described it as: “I can’t always tell when it’s happening…I think I’ve actually forgotten to go to sleep and missed meals.”
If, as it appears to be the case, people with ADHD experience hyperfocus more often than others, it supports the claim that ADHD is a case of attention dysregulation. In other words, people with ADHD who encounter hyperfocus experience a laser-focused level of attention in whatever has engrossed them; so while they may have the ability to attend to one task without being affected by distractions, they cannot easily control, or regulate, this attention.
The concept of hyperfocus is widely recognized by clinicians and people with ADHD, but the research literature up until now has been quite limited. It is unclear why this is the case. Many empirical studies of ADHD focus on negative symptoms that hinder cognition (such as problems with attention or working memory) and social functioning (such as missing school or work). Hyperfocus is a bit more nuanced and can be seen as a positive or negative consequence of ADHD, depending on the setting and task at hand. This makes it an exciting new area of research.
This new work coming out on hyperfocus is challenging the stigmas many people with ADHD encounter in day-to-day life. While hyperfocus could mean binge-watching TV and forgetting to eat lunch or pick up your dry cleaning, it could also mean becoming absorbed in a work project and achieving more than usual.
As part of a collaboration with the University of Florida, the research team I am a part of at the University of Michigan has developed a novel, comprehensive assessment of hyperfocus in adults. We first collected a pilot sample of 251 adults, followed by a replication sample of 372 adults from Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Our findings have confirmed that people with ADHD experience heightened levels of hyperfocus compared to those without ADHD.
Interestingly, another group has developed a separate hyperfocus questionnaire, published right around the time our group began data collection . This group also found heightened hyperfocus in 132 adults with ADHD as compared to 65 control participants without ADHD, although no differences between adults with ADHD who take stimulant medications and those who do not.
This new work coming out on hyperfocus is challenging the stigmas many people with ADHD encounter in day-to-day life. While hyperfocus could mean binge-watching TV and forgetting to eat lunch or pick up your dry cleaning, it could also mean becoming absorbed in a work project and achieving more than usual. Someone with hyperfocus might spend their whole day reading a book for class, becoming absorbed in a programming project, or creating a piece of art.
For example, a subject in our group’s study on hyperfocus stated: “This doesn’t always happen, but if I have a coding project for class that I am really interested in, I can focus on it for hours and hours at a time.” In many professions and hobbies, this level of focus would be envied and can be a huge boon to productivity. While folks with ADHD can feel discriminated against due to the expectation that they will not be able to tune in to work meetings or complete their work without complete silence from the external environment, the existence of hyperfocus and its potentially positive aspects contradicts these stereotypes.
Future work on hyperfocus will need to investigate the possible positive and negative consequences of the conditionit. The field is rife with important research questions and potential applications. As hyperfocus has not yet been extensively investigated, we have no concrete knowledge of neural correlates of the experience. However, with the assumption that neural mechanisms of hyperfocus and flow overlap somewhat, we can hypothesize that neural activity patterns associated with flow are also related to hyperfocus.
Flow is typically conceived of as a beneficial, productive state of heightened attention, an “optimal experience” during which a person’s skills are perfectly suited to efficiently complete the task at hand. People experiencing flow feel “in the zone” yet still in control of their actions. Hyperfocus certainly seems to relate to flow as they both involve a sense of all-consuming focus, but, critically, hyperfocus cannot be easily controlled or interrupted by the person experiencing it. Therefore, we might expect to see reduced activation in areas in the default mode network and increased activation in higher-order attention networks (i.e. the dorsal stream) during a hyperfocus experience as we do in flow.
If researchers are able to find ways to initiate hyperfocus in participants, we may be able to visualize associated changes in the brain and appropriately adapt current neural theories of attention regulation. Future research will allow researchers and clinicians use what we can learn about hyperfocus to better help people with ADHD succeed. For example, as we come to understand when positive outcomes attributable to hyperfocus are likely to occur, researchers might be able to find methods to encourage and even induce hyperfocus in people prone to it, to enhance their output and help them thrive.
Tessa Abagis is a PhD candidate in Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Michigan. She is currently investigating distractibility in healthy participants and those with ADHD as well as behavioral and neural correlates of working memory training and concurrent tDCS.
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