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The Elements of Hyperfocus

Concentrating with ADHD isn’t always easy, but when the ADHD gods smile on us, sometimes we’re able to enter that special state where we become fully immersed in the task at hand – hyperfocus.

I think of hyperfocus as being somewhere in between a rumor and a symptom. It’s not on the standard lists of ADHD symptoms because there are relatively few scientific studies on it. But it’s more than just a rumor because it’s so commonly reported by ADHDers, and there have been some studies on it.

ConcentratingLast year, I wrote about a study that came out providing evidence for the idea that ADHDers really are more prone to hyperfocus than non-ADHDers.

Now, there’s a new paper out reviewing that study and the relatively few other studies that have been done on hyperfocus – both in ADHD and in other conditions, like autism.

One reason hyperfocus hasn’t been researched much, according to the authors of the paper, is that there’s no reliable way of actually getting people into the state of hyperfocus.

This point will be familiar to ADHDers from personal experience. We know that hyperfocus is something that just happens, not necessarily when we’re expecting it. If we could choose to activate hyperfocus whenever we wanted, or if we could pick the tasks we were capable of hyperfocusing on, we wouldn’t have any problems with sustaining attention!

Still, researchers can learn about hyperfocus by asking people to report their experiences after the fact. Looking at the various studies that have been done, the authors of the review paper identified four main elements of hyperfocus that are consistently mentioned:

  1. Intense concentration: This one is pretty much a given from the name, of course! Hyperfocus involves having a laser-like focus on the task at hand.
  2. Distractions disappearing: Everything other than the task in question fades out of awareness. Hyperfocus can lead people to lose track of what’s happening around them or of time’s passage.
  3. Rewarding task: Hyperfocus doesn’t usually happen when you’re doing that boring task you’d give anything to escape from. It happens when you’re doing something engaging, stimulating and interesting.
  4. High performance: When you’re hyperfocused, you also tend to be performing at a higher level. That’s why, in the right context, hyperfocus can lead to great productivity.

To me, point three seems especially important. In reviewing research on this topic, the authors of the paper mention the possibility that hyperfocus-like states are “the result of synchronization between attentional (particularly alerting and orienting) and reward networks” of the brain.

That idea fits with the experience of ADHDers – that hyperfocus is a special state of attention that is activated by tasks that offer an ongoing reward.

My guess is this is also why people with ADHD are more susceptible to hyperfocus. Since our behavior is more determined by immediate rewards, we’re also more likely to enter this state that can be triggered by immediately rewarding tasks.

Of course, how exactly that happens is for researchers to figure out. Hopefully we are at the beginning of hyperfocus becoming a more popularly studied topic, which would surely give new insights into how we think about and treat ADHD!

Image: Flickr/Valerie Everett

The Elements of Hyperfocus


Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.


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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). The Elements of Hyperfocus. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/adhd-millennial/2019/09/the-elements-of-hyperfocus/

 

Last updated: 24 Sep 2019
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