On October 1st, 2021, I was introduced to Dr. Joe Dispenza. The introduction came in the form of a viral YouTube video (if there is such a thing anymore). I was not searching for this, which in many cases, are the key moments where we learn something. Dr. Dispenza’s video was forwarded to me by someone who could see I was suffering in a vicious and caustic pessimistic rumination cycle. The significance of the timing in which this video came to me was particularly special, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. First, a summary; Dr. Dispenza explains how daily life experiences create emotions that are then recalled the next day, which in turn influence the thoughts, decisions, and actions of the moment and the following day. This self-fulfilling cycle plays itself out for years and years of our lives. The cycle “programs” our brains to a point where our conscious decisions are far and few between. We largely become unconscious observers of our actions and lives.
In previous posts, I mentioned how the ADD brain pays attention to whatever produces an effective amount of dopamine in the moment and thus subverts logic for emotionally charged decisions. Now, having said this, the choices of an ADD brain appear to follow a cycle with various subroutines. The choices made and consequences of these cycles create behavior chains over years and they are incredibly hard to break.
It is conjectured that while certain important brain pathways are working normally, cortical regions involved in attention, impulse control, and stimulus integration abilities, have yet to become fully active.
Blum, K., Chen, A. L., Braverman, E. R., Comings, D. E., Chen, T. J., Arcuri, V., Blum, S. H., Downs, B. W., Waite, R. L., Notaro, A., Lubar, J., Williams, L., Prihoda, T. J., Palomo, T., & Oscar-Berman, M. (2008). Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 4(5), 893–918. https://doi.org/10.2147/ndt.s2627
*Kachink!*… * Ding ding!*… *Ding ding!*… You look down at your phone and see an alert. (oh joy). That pair of sneakers you were selling has been viewed yet again by another online shopper. Two seconds later, you receive two text messages, but you don’t worry about those for now, because you are waiting for a message from a friend. *Blurp-blip* Your friend says: “Hey, are you coming over for game night?” You roll your eyes for a second and reply, “of course!” and look at those texts you ignored a minute ago. One is from a local retailer sharing their weekly discount promotion and the other, a payment confirmation from your wireless carrier. Phew. No emergency. You think for a half-second why you haven’t replied “STOP” to the discounter because you’ve never bought anything from them anyway, but…*Ding ding!* Gasp!!! Another text. This time it’s the doctor’s office reminding you of an appointment. You think to yourself, “oh, that’s right”, and set your phone down. But wait! Why has it been 10 minutes?
Where did that time go? And… why did you even look at those messages in the first place? Oh, and what haven’t you sent STOP to the discounter? Curious questions indeed. Let’s start with the basics.
Your attention is intrinsically linked to what you want to do. In case you haven’t connected those dots yet, I wrote about what it’s like to experience this, here.
The feelings of pleasure, receiving rewards, and motivation are connected to the level of dopamine activity. (ref)
If you have ever felt like time was flying when you were having a good time, that’s dopamine. (ref)
New things are exciting because they feel fun. Yes. That’s dopamine too. (ref)
I know, I know, only providing one reference article for #2, 3, and 4 hardly justifies the points above, however, those articles lack context for the rest of us. They lack perspective. What perspective? Why lived experience, of course. In fact, any scientific or clinical article is going to lack something important. You.
If you have ADD, I am here to tell you about YOUR experience with technology. How? Because the concepts here apply to everyone. They are based on a fundamental understanding of how the ADD brain takes in information, processes and decides what to do with it. The ideas shared here are based on my own personal lived experience, and I write this with the awareness that my experience, at a fundamental level, is not unique. The circumstances and activities in my life and your life are indeed different, yet we share a similar world view. Don’t believe me? That’s okay. It’ll make sense later.
Okay so. Here it goes. To illustrate the points above, I want you to imagine you are a young child, growing up in a country where the medium salary is less than $2 per day. You get around on barefeet, cook over an open flame, fetch water in a bucket and sleep on the ground. You do not have an email address, a phone number, and have never even touched a computer.
Sounds rough, downright hellish from our perspective. How could these people ever have fun or experience happiness? Oh, and how does this relate to ADD? Well… right now we’re focused on defining what it means to experience #1, 2, 3, and 4 from the perspective of someone other than yourself. A perspective so different, that you’ll understand how and why the fundamental concepts apply to everyone. So… Please be patient and read on. I promise we’ll get to the ADD stuff of today.
Okay, where was I? That’s right. $2 a day.
Today was a good day. The seven-mile walk from your village to a nearby river is familiar, but today something different happened. Your very first memories are of your mother singing to you as she carried you on this path when she was fetching water. Every time she would sing, you felt warm and happy. When you learned to walk, your mother showered you in praise. You felt warm, safe, and happy. She now holds your hand and you both walk. Life was simple. Life was good. She held your hand tightly. One day, she asks if you can carry the bucket. You know the bucket brings water, but you are scared you might drop it. Your mother reassures you and you pick up the bucket. The moment you touch the edge of the bucket, a funny sensation takes over your body. This is new but familiar. You have never felt the bucket before. As you begin to walk the path with the bucket in hand, you feel warm and happy once again. Life moves on and so does the feeling. You grow older. Now when you fetch water you are far ahead of your mother, running down the path with the bucket in your hands. The feeling of warmth and happiness is more when she says you can carry it, but you know you are helping, so it’s okay. A year later your mother asks you to take the bucket on your own. Oh, joy! The feeling of warmth and happiness rushes over you again, just like a year ago. You grab the bucket and take off. The sensation is wonderful and you are beaming. A few days later, you see something different on the path for the first time. You see a discarded bucket just off the beaten path. What luck! Perhaps if you bring two buckets home, you can rest the next day. The idea excites you. The excitement is warm and encouraging. You have never had a day off. You take the bucket. When you get back to the village, your mother rushes over to hug you and says tomorrow you can do what you want. Your heart leaps. You feel warmth and happiness. On your day off, you decide to visit the village. You have been to the village before, but today was different. The villagers are talking with a man from out of town. You get close and hear the man talking about digging a deep hole. The villagers are excited. Some people are crying. Everyone is happy. You are not sure why. Your mother walks up behind you, gets down on one knee, and tells you. She says the man is going to help the village dig a well so they can have fresh water and no one will have to walk to the river for water ever again. Your eyes tear up, you are overcome with joy. Warmth and happiness fill your body. Today was a good day.
Okay, so perhaps I pulled on the heartstrings a little, but it will do for now. If we look back at the mother in this story, we can see she paid attention to her child, which reinforced the actions both were taking at that moment. When the mother or the child paid attention to each other, it increased their desire to pay attention in the future. Why? Because it feels good! Things that seem benign or boring to many of us reading this are actually highlights of someone else’s day or year!
The feeling you get when you receive attention from someone that you desire, feels good, right? This is true, especially for the first few moments when you receive the attention. The curious part is, whatever action you took to get the attention you wanted, is now something you want to do again. Part of you knows that if you repeated that behavior, you’ll likely feel good again. Circling back to point #1, you can see how closely linked “attention” and “want” truly are.
As for #2, imagine for a moment that you were that child. As an infant, you are highly aware of your surroundings, although you do not know what to do with the information around you. When your mother sings to you and walks down the path, your dopamine increases and you pay more attention to your mother, which reinforces the desire to repeat the same behavior, to walk the path and pay attention. Studies have shown when a mother is disengaged or neglectful, the opposite occurs. In this story, as you grow older and more capable, you begin to experience more “new” situations. Which ties into #4. When the chance of having a day off comes along, you get excited because you’ve experienced novel things before and they felt good. This is cyclical in nature as you grow older. You want to do new things because they feel good, so you seek out opportunities to try new things because they feel good.
Now, I know what you are thinking. There are always exceptions. Very true.
Sometimes you experience novelty and something bad happens. So, what do you do? Well, initially there is a burst of dopamine (and probably serotonin), then neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid would shortly be released in bulk to produce disappointment.
Here’s where it gets interesting (and kind of depressing). When your brain experiences the highs, it reinforces those pathways and behavior chains. When your brain experiences the lows, it reinforces the anti-behavior of those behavior chains and sometimes, it gets it wrong! If you’ve ever met someone who “doesn’t like trying things new,” its likely and anti-behavior chain has been running rampant for years. Its really hard to get out of.
I’d like to touch on this more later, but for now let’s move on to #3. Do you think our perception of time is changed by how we emotionally percieve it?
Good question. And the answer is: Absolutely yes. (ref)
If you’ll excuse my reference to an article from 2008, just think about it for a moment. Here’s an exercise.
What you’ll need:
Pen or pencil
Okay. This should be pretty straight forward, but it serves a point.
Set a timer for 3 minutes and write down a list all of the bad things you experienced. You don’t need to have a complete list, just stop at 3 minutes.
Yes, you guessed it. Now take 3 minutes to write down all of good things you experienced.
Great. You did it!
How long was each list? Did you find yourself reminiscing on the bad things more than the good, or vice versa? Did you find it took longer to come up with as many good things as bad things?
Okay. For my next trick… write down the relative amount of time you believe each “experience” took.
Alright, no more exercises, but thanks for playing along. You will not be graded and everyone deserves a A+.
For many participants in similar studies, they remembered more bad things and the good things took less perceived time.
Still don’t believe me? That’s okay. Let’s finally tag-team in ADD and technology into the conversation. Perhaps everything will click. (pun intended).
Living with ADD is frustrating because we pay attention to what we want… in the moment that it is happening. If we feel good about the experience, the experience is reinforced and the desire to repeat the same behavior builds. The tricky part about technology is point #4. Novelty. There’s always something new happening. A notification hits your phone, you get a text message, an email comes in, a new image pops up on the screen. Every single *Ding ding!* is a tiny dopamine hit from the novelty of that moment. Boom goes the behavior chain… and there goes my 10 minutes.
Where did my 10 minutes go?
Whatever you were doing before you heard *Kachink!* was interrupted and context-switching took time.
You spent several seconds looking at the link about your shoes.
Your brain had to process the text messages and decide what to do with them. Because you were waiting for your friend, it only took a half-second each to ignore those texts.
You scrolled through previous text messages to get caught up with your which took several minutes. (you were not counting, because… dopamine).
Your phone sent you a notification about your friend on Facebook because they mentioned #gamenight in a post.
You replied to your friend moments after the text came in.
You re-process the previous text messages and begin to think about why you even have them.
You get interrupted and have to context switch to another text message which takes a little more processing time because you had to remember the scheduled date and confirm it was the right date.
Every single context switch and notification to your brain is a tiny hit of dopamine. These interruptions not only make you feel good because they are “new”, but they also stifle your perception of time and make you feel like those context switching events were shorter than they actually were. Now here’s the kicker. The horrible, ugly truth. This behavior chain reinforces itself because it feels good… initially. The novelty of the moment keeps the notifications interesting. Engaging. Addicting.
In my other article, I termed “attention wanting attention,” as a better replacement for ADD. Now I’d like to take a step back and present a darker acronym. AAD. Attention Addiction Disorder. Sounds like some celebs we know, right? Fortunately, this already exists and the term is a little less sinister. It’s called Histrionic Personality Disorder and it’s literally a disorder to seek too much attention. I’d like to differentiate this real disorder from my new version, AAD.
Attention Addiction Disorder (AAD) can be explained like this; If a behavior chain is self-actualizing and reinforced by the outcome of the chain, then it could be considered addicting. Let’s think about this another way. If an action reinforces the choice to take the same actions, and the decision-making process produces an outcome that reinforces the process, you’ll make the same choices, perform the same actions, and choose the same process.
For the ADD brain, unrestricted technology in our lives seems to be a battle we can’t win. And we often have no idea we’re fighting in the first place. Why? Because the battle itself feels good! And so do the actions we take. How would we know we are fighting a losing battle if every swing of your sword feels amazing and the very choice of choosing to swing made you feel good.
Hell, you look around you, and almost everyone immediately around you is swinging their swords, which further reinforces the desire to swing yours. And you do it. Because it feels good!
Living with ADD in today’s modern “level 4” world (you make at least $32 a day) is like living in a stew of dopamine-ridden distractions. Throw in your emails, your phone calls, your TV shows, your video games, add a pinch of instant messenger and you get one utterly addictive soup that tastes oh so good… For a while.
Then the novelty wears off.
Then you watch more YouTube, read more Reddit, write blogs, take online classes, watch the news… anything you can do to get those tiny hits of dopamine back, but it all starts to feel the same. The ADD brain continually searches for the next “hit” and enjoys them in incrementally smaller doses. It’s a flipping nightmare. An oddly enjoyable nightmare.
And… there goes another hour… but boy oh boy did it feel good.
ADD and technology do not mix well folks.
One of my favorite people, Joey Schweitzer touches on some of this in his YouTube channel, Better Ideas, in the episode “Why it’s so hard to be happy.” He also talks about the overall human condition and suggests a few ways we can be happy, find motivation, and feel fulfilled through being grateful.
When it comes to living with ADD, its almost seems like everyone has a tiny amount of it, right? Some just choose to stick with their long term goals in the moment, and some choose to do what they want in the moment.
Why do some of us feel so empty, yet completely overwhelmed with too many thoughts and ideas? And why do some people have a laser-like focus? Is it something to do with the way the brain translates and stores information or do we all feel like this at times? What about attention? Why do some things get more attention than others, and how do we decide which things we pay attention to? Better yet, what does more attention really mean? And can we control it? Can we create more of it? Where does it come from? How do you or I decide which thoughts or ideas we pay attention to and why is it so hard to even grasp that we have them?
First of all, thank you for reading this blog. Hell, thank you for reading something. Anything for that matter. Thank you for doing whatever you had to do to get here, because it would have been so much easier to mindlessly scroll through and leave. In fact, it’s still easier to leave. To mentally “check out.” But you persist. Why? Why stay? Why give this or that any attention at all when the polar opposite is infinitely easier to achieve? The fact that you have read this far is a testament to your curiosity, which I’ll salute and say thank you, but the question remains. Why are you here? The answer is surprisingly simple yet inconceivably complex. Oh, and it’s entirely personal. So, what is it? You. Want. Something. We’ll get into the “thing” later, but for now, the fact you want “something” sounds simple enough. But is it?
You want something. Let’s break down that statement for a moment before moving on:
For those of you scratching your heads already, keep at it. The concept of wanting something is more abstract than we understand and inescapably linked to attention.
Imagine you are watching a TV and your attention is turned away. Would you know what is going on in that moment? While in theory, yes its possible to remain contextually attached to the previous moment, but with your attention turned elsewhere, its more likely that you have no idea what is happening in that moment.
So, you turn your attention back to the TV and a commercial about your favorite meal starts playing (for the sake of argument, let’s say its Lasagna). With your attention fixated on the commercial and your mouth watering ever so slightly, you experience a craving, one of the many versions of “want.” The interesting part about this moment, is that you want to pay attention. However… the act of giving something attention is an expression of wanting something.
Okay wait. Huh?
You had to pay attention to the TV… at least for a moment… to turn that “want” switch on in your brain (I see lasagna, I want lasagna). We’ll call this an external stimuli. If we take a step back, prior to watching anything, you had to want something from turning on the TV? A distraction? White noise? Whatever it was, it doesn’t matter. Its a similar concept. You paid attention to an external stimuli, or you wanted a thing and you turned the TV on. And now you see the lasagna, you pay attention to the lasagna, you want lasagna.
So. What you want and what you pay attention to are closely related. You have to pay attention to something to experience the condition of want. You have to want something to experience the function of paying attention. This includes the inverse of want, such as dislike, hate, etc. Think of the inverse like this: “I do not want lasagna.” Wherein, not wanting something is the experience of desiring the absence of your attention to lasagna.
I imagine people saying: “I can want something and not pay attention to it and I can pay attention to something and not want it.”
What do you want right now?
I can guarantee you it’s not your list of to-dos, otherwise, your attention would be on that list. This is a subtle concept. How about another way.
What are you paying attention to right now? This blog obviously. Do you want to read this? Maybe not strongly, but you want something or at least the inverse or absence of something or perhaps just a nugget of wisdom to enhance an imagined future state.
Oh, and before yall get snappy and leave comments, yes, you can indeed want some sort of future event to happen and even have a long list of desired future states, but the literal act of “wanting something in the future” is happening in the present moment and you are paying attention to your desire of that present state.
Can you actually experience the desire, the craving, the yearning for something, if you are not paying attention to those stimuli? Think about it. Its impossible. They are intrinsically linked by our brains limited perception of the current moment and our individual and personal experience. If perhaps you were a collective inter-dimensional being that existed across all space-time and could simultaneously and perpetually remain in many cognitive states, then yes, the collective could have one part that wants something and the other part could not be paying attention to it, however, even then… it get’s iffy. In the context of a collective, do you consider the individual components… individuals, or the collective as the individual? It could be both. But guess what. We are human and we are limited by what we pay attention to in the present moment.
If you’re still paying attention to this blog, then you want something out of it. That much is crystal clear. At this point, your mind is likely desperate for some sort of extrapolation into something useful. I mentioned ADD in the title, it’s coming. First we need to think about the process of choosing (or not choosing) what we pay attention to. That’s right, I said it’s all about “wanting something,” and you’d be right. But where does that start? And don’t say its when you’re born.
Around 6 million years ago, at the dawn of humankind (yes it’s one of those blogs… or is it?), life was unimaginably simple. If there was a biological or environmental stimuli that you paid attention to, your rudimentary experience of what your body was telling you to do is exactly what you did. Seems simple enough. Let’s dig deeper. Why did those first humans experience “want” or “attention.” It was wired into them! Those first humans were compelled into action by what we know as the reptilian brain, where the responses of fight, flight, food, or….reproduction are rooted. For the sake of this blog, we’ll stop there before diving into a full-fledged psychology / anthropology lesson, but it’s safe to say our ancestors didn’t think much, however, they paid attention to their reptilian brain’s directions because it kept them safe. As we evolved, other parts of the brain gave us new abilities to think and act in abstract and ever more creative ways, however, we are still tied to the fundamental motivations of those first humans.
So, you could say “want” and “attention” starts at the beginning… or the beginning of beginnings. Either way, you’d be right. Congrats. You get a cookie. Or a slice of lasagna.
Alright we made it. It’s been a journey, but you’re finally there. At the home stretch.
I can hear it now.
“What about ADD?”
Let’s do it. Okay. This seemingly innocuous disease or affliction we so carelessly toss at kids and adults is actually our brains responding to the world around us. Let’s think about the definition. It’s kind of tragic.
Attention: What we pay attention to.
Deficit: Not enough of something, or a lack thereof
Disorder: Something that does not follow a societal standard.
We know “attention” and “want” are linked together. So in effect, the lived experience of having ADD is actually more like this:
Attention: The amount of attention time we give things
Wanting: Is determined and deterministic of what we want (or the inverse)
Attention: Which in turn determines what we pay attention to.
This is a hard one to conceptualize. For anyone reading this with an ADD brain, you’ll understand. We pay attention to the things we want to hold our attention. In the moment. The pure, raw, unadulterated moment. Do you remember the last time you were doing something and either an internal stimuli or external stimuli grabbed your attention and you wanted to keep paying attention to the thing that just distracted you? I say wanted in the lightest sense here, because the inverse is true and utterly annoying. For example, if you are reading a particularly confusing blog and your significant other walks into the house beaming with joy and asks you if they can tell you about their day. Assuming you want to listen, you shift your attention away from the annoying blog (something you did not want to do), and pay attention to your significant other, only to find some relief in the context switching? Was it easier to listen to someone else’s story about a good day? Is that something you wanted to do? Well, you’re doing it now, so the answer is yes.
This next bit here, is not easy for me to say… but the ADD mind, is really just a mind that spends its attention on what it wants in the moment. The ADD mind can want to plan for better future states, so it pays attention to the planning process, and during that time, it sincerely wants to get it right and puts forth considerable attention to plan out the future. Unfortunately, if that mind does not have the skills to plan effectively, when they finally reach the moment when it should be existing in that future state, the mind may not be paying attention to the plan it created because something else it wanted in that moment took it’s attention.
Living and working with ADD is very frustrating. We are more prone to letting our attention drift with our desires, versus following a plan or method. We get distracted by the moment we are in, whereby that moment creates a desire to pay more attention to that moment.
Still a hard concept. I get it.
Umm, how about this.
Normal person: When I am paying attention to something important (that I want to do) and something else I want to do distracts me, I focus on what is important.
ADD person: When I am paying attention to something important (that I want to do) and something else I want to do distracts me, I focus on the thing I want do more while I am in the present moment.
For some, this can be the more important thing, however, based on too many factors to count, more often than not, the distraction takes precedence because it captures our attention which then builds on itself.
I wouldn’t say we want more things, however, I would argue we place less importance on any one thing and treat all things relatively the same in the moment, based on our personal wants, needs, and desires.
Have you ever met someone with a TON of started and half-finished projects? They were doing one thing they thought was important, and they really wanted to do it. But something else came along and they wanted to do the other thing in that present moment.