In life, it helps to know when to do something and when not to do something. It’s this second part that people with ADHD sometimes struggle with.
Being able to override an impulse to do something, or to stop a course of action you’ve already started, is a skill that comes up in a variety of settings. So not being able to apply that skill can cause problems in a variety of settings too.
This symptom goes with the impulsive side of ADHD.
A classic example is saying things that you realize you shouldn’t have said, or interrupting people and saying those things at the wrong time. Here, the problem is that once an idea pops into your mind, it starts the process of verbalizing that idea, even when actually verbalizing the idea would be ill-advised.
Not being able to stop our automatic responses feeds into distractibility too, since it means we’re less likely to override the impulse to shift our attention to something more interesting than the task at hand. And it contributes to inattentive mistakes, in that we can perform some action out of habit, on autopilot, that isn’t the correct action for the situation we’re in.
Generally, the problem is that the ADHD brain, once it’s started a course of action, doesn’t necessarily pause and say “Is this what I really want to do? Maybe not. Put on the breaks!” Just like it’s prone to initiate actions impulsively, it’s also inclined to continue actions impulsively.
Psychologists talk about response inhibition, which is more or less what it sounds like: the ability to stop our initial reactions to things that are happening around us. It’s an executive function that is tied up with the brain’s ability to regulate and manage itself, and it tends to be impaired in ADHD.
Response inhibition is often tested involving some type of task where people see different symbols and have to react in some way, such as by pressing buttons (or not pressing buttons), depending on which symbols they see. In different versions of the task, some symbols will show up more often than others, or some symbols will change after you first see them.
The theory is that people with impaired response inhibition are worse at overriding habitual or impulsive responses, so they’ll be more likely to press the wrong button in certain situations, such as when a symbol changes.
Using these relatively simple tests, researchers have shown that response inhibition does tend to be impaired in both children and adults with ADHD. These findings have led some researchers to suggest that impairments in inhibiting responses are a core part of what ADHD is and why ADHDers have more trouble with regulating their actions.
This is part of the reason people with ADHD sometimes seem to have no “filter.” The thing is, the idea that people with ADHD lack a filter doesn’t just apply to what they say. In a broad sense, people with ADHD have a more porous filter for their actions, so more often actions that “shouldn’t” get through (such as initial reactions or impulsive behaviors that we’d like to stop) do get through anyway.
The reason I find this topic interesting is because understanding this one deficit in response inhibition can some shed light on a lot of ADHD-related behaviors in different areas of life. That understanding doesn’t necessarily make us any better at self-regulation, but it does help make us aware of behaviors in our lives where ADHD symptoms may be causing problems.
Image: Flickr/Terrance Heath