There’s a stereotype that the reason people with ADHD have trouble sustaining attention is because they just have so many thoughts, they get distracted by their overly dynamic brains.

I do find this stereotype flattering. As in, I have so many cool ideas, I simply can’t stay focused on one of them for very long! It’s not my fault my brain is so powerful and creative!

Of course, the truth is more complicated than that. Those of us with ADHD don’t just have a problem with getting distracted by our thoughts – we also have a problem with getting distracted by our lack of thoughts.

BlankI’m talking about the “mind blank” phenomenon. Your train of thought goes off the rails not because it gets interrupted by an exciting new thought but because your mind just … goes blank.

You see, those of us with ADHD do get distracted, but not always because we get distracted by something. Sometimes, our brains just check out. Enter careless mistakes, zoning out, drawing a blank, brain farts – whatever you want to call it, the result is that your mind ends up doing nothing when it should be doing something.

Like a lot of ADHD symptoms, this is a phenomenon that everyone experiences to some extent – it’s just that people with ADHD experience it a lot more. It happens when you try to tell your brain what to do, but your brain doesn’t listen. For people with ADHD, with the executive functioning impairments that come with the condition, our brains habitually refuse to follow orders.

Recently, a team of researchers ran a series of experiments looking at the “mind blanking” phenomenon, which they published in a paper titled Attentional Lapses in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Blank Rather Than Wandering Thoughts.

They studied both children with ADHD and adults with mild ADHD, finding that ADHDers in both groups reported more “mind blanking,” which they defined as “a mental state characterized by the absence of reportable content.”

They also showed that methylphenidate normalized the ADHD children’s experience of mind blanking – that is, meds made the children with ADHD blank out about as much as the children without the disorder. There was a catch though. Even after taking medication, the children with ADHD had a higher proportion of mind wandering to focused thoughts – it’s just that when they weren’t medicated, they had more blank thoughts and both less mind wandering and less focused thoughts.

The takeaway is that even though there’s an intuitively appealing image of people with ADHD simply being distracted because they bounce from one idea to the next, it’s important to keep in mind that both mind wandering and blank thoughts are associated with ADHD. Even if these seem like polar opposites, they both relate to having less control of your brain and less ability to focus your thoughts.

In the words of the scientists who ran the study on blank thoughts and ADHD, the study results indicate that “executive functions impaired in ADHD are required not only to sustain external attention but also to maintain an internal train of thought.”

To put it another way, people with ADHD tend not only to struggle with paying attention but with sticking to a coherent stream of thought internally. Sometimes we’re distracted because our brains move on to the next thing without being asked – and sometimes we’re distracted because our brains aren’t really interested in doing anything productive at all.

Image: Flickr/Wonderlane