Going by the label, we have an attention deficit. But you know what they say – don’t judge a psychiatric disorder by its cover.

There are two different ways of thinking about why the term “attention deficit” doesn’t really capture what ADHD is all about.

One way is to say that no, we don’t really have a deficit of attention exactly.

BouquetThe other way is to say that yes, we do have an attention deficit, but we have so many other deficits too! Saying that we just have an attention deficit is selling ourselves short.

Let me start with the first idea: that we don’t have an attention deficit per se. What I mean by this is that while we do have problems with inattention, it’s not just that we have a deficit of attention. It’s more than we have trouble controlling our attention.

It’s not that we can’t pay attention to anything. Rather, our attention is automatically drawn to whatever is most rewarding, interesting and stimulating, even if that’s not the thing we want to be paying attention to.

I like to call this magnetic attention, since our attention is automatically attracted to some things and repelled from others without us having much say over it. That’s why, despite struggling to sustain attention on some tasks, people with ADHD can get stuck hyperfocusing on others. And it’s why I think it’s more accurate to say we have trouble allocating where our attention goes than to say we have a simple deficit of attention.

The other way of thinking about the term “attention deficit” is to say, OK, maybe we do have an attention deficit, but we have quite an impressive array of other deficits too. Most importantly, we have a deficit in our ability to control our brain and tell it what to do. This leads to a lot of more specific deficits.

It leads to a deficit in motivation, and forcing ourselves to do things we aren’t intrinsically excited about. It leads to a deficit in stepping back from our impulses and saying “yes, X is what I want to do, but wouldn’t it be a better idea to do Y instead?” It leads to a deficit in regulating our emotions, a deficit in staying organized, a deficit in managing time, a deficit in self-discipline, and a deficit in planning ahead. And, yes, it leads to a deficit in sustaining attention.

Of course, it might be a little discouraging if our disorder was called attention-deficit/motivation-deficit/impulse-control-deficit/emotion-regulation-deficit/organizational-skill-deficit/time-management-deficit/self-discipline-deficit/planning-ahead-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But it’s worth remembering that our “attention deficit” is just one flower in the abundant bouquet of psychological deficits we can lay claim to, and keeping in mind how inattention ties in with all these other aspects of ADHD – as part of a more general problem with self-control and executive functioning – is important to understanding the disorder.

Image: Flickr/Petra Bensted