If you make a mistake and don’t realize you’ve made a mistake, is it still a mistake? The answer is pretty clearly yes. In fact, sometimes a mistake becomes an even bigger mistake if you don’t catch it early enough.
Most people with ADHD are probably familiar with this principle. We have a way of making inattentive mistakes that glide under our awareness, unnoticed. Until, of course, they eventually are noticed: “what the hell was I thinking?” we ask at that point.
In recent years, ADHD researchers have become interested in the idea that differences in error processing are an essential part of ADHD. Trouble monitoring errors seems to be part of the reason people with ADHD struggle with self-regulation, and it could explain some of the ways certain brain differences relate to ADHD symptoms. Beyond that, ADHD meds apparently normalize some brain regions involved in faulty error processing.
When psychologists and neuroscientists study error processing in people with ADHD, they don’t follow these people around and watch how many times these people put the milk in the cupboard without noticing. Rather, they usually set these people up to do laboratory tasks and watch for certain patterns of brain activity that are associated with recognizing errors.
Generally, they’ve found that these patterns of brain activity tend to be weaker in people with ADHD, at least for some types of tasks. On top of that, it appears that ADHDers struggle with error processing in at least two different ways: first, with recognizing that they’re making an error in the early stages of doing so, and second, with reacting to that error and learning from it once it becomes clear a mistake has been made.
One reason researchers believe impaired error processing might be an important feature of ADHD is that error processing relates to more general aspects of ADHD like inattention. Think of it this way: someone who’s less attentive is also going to be less attentive to errors, and someone who doesn’t pick up on their own mistakes is probably paying less attention in general. In many situations, inattention and impaired error processing are two sides of the same symptom.
Differences in how people with ADHD react to errors also seem to relate to another key feature of ADHD: differences in how people with ADHD react to rewards. Overall, motivating people with rewards makes them better at recognizing errors. This is even more true for people with ADHD.
So, a general pattern that’s present for many ADHD symptoms holds for error processing deficits as well: differences in how people with and without ADHD process reward apparently play a role in other types of cognitive differences, and adding rewards can help normalize some of those other cognitive differences.
We don’t yet have a simple answer to the question I posed in the title about what the role of error processing in ADHD is. But researchers increasingly believe that role is important. Inattentive mistakes often seem like trivial annoyances, but to researchers, these blunders could turn out to be a key piece of evidence in unraveling how the brain differences we’ve observed in ADHD translate into ADHD symptoms.
Image: Flickr/Jurgen Appelo