I remember back in the 1980’s when Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was beginning to ramp up, both the number of cases being diagnosed, as well the amount of general public discussion surrounding the nature and prevalence of ADD. What is ADD? How does it develop? And if one has ADD, how is it treated? These are just a few of the common questions asked years ago, and many people are asking the same questions today.
Split attention or multi-tasking?
Being attention-deficit implies that there is a lack or impairment of one’s attention. When I first came to learn about ADD as an undergraduate student in psychology, I remember hearing general lay-definitions that suggested that anything short of being 100% focused on one task at a time made one vulnerable to being “ADD.” An example of this might be casually watching a television program while also completing a crossword puzzle at the same time. Amazingly, with little to go on and an appetite by many to find reasons why they were not living up to their potential, this incredibly convenient mental illness not only emerged, but flourished.
One question I have always wondered about relates precisely to this question of being able to sustain 100% focus on one single stimuli — is the opposite of singular focus (multi-tasking) really a bad thing, much less a criteria to be used to detect mental illness?
Literally anyone can be “diagnosed” with ADD
While it may sound like I’m joking when I say this, I believe that just about anyone who wants to be ADD today can quickly become ADD by simply visiting their primary care doctor (or pediatrician if it’s a child). Once a self-report is offered centering around regularly being distracted (a normal challenge for even the healthiest of people by the way), all one has to do is answer in the affirmative to a series of questions (amazingly, this is a best-case scenario, as often medical doctors today don’t even complete this step). Without any physiological measurements or blood tests, the diagnosis of ADD is entirely subjective and ripe for human error (by both the patient and physician).
Interestingly, the ability to divide and sustain attention between objects or events can either be viewed as psycho-pathological (ADD), or an amazing life skill desired by most employers today (the ability to successfully multi-task).
What is “normal” attention, anyway?
As the number of ADD patients increases by the day, we might want to take a step back even further and ask ourselves what exactly are we calling normal and abnormal when it comes to human attention? For example, if you regularly experience challenges sustaining your attention toward life experiences you find boring, are you ADD, or instead simply a normal person with little interest in what is currently going on around you? When it comes to kids and their attention span, I would argue that, statistically speaking, you will find more youngsters challenged by paying attention than those who “lock in” with their focus. What this means, literally, is that if we are measuring attention it might well be the kids with high focus are actually the minority, and should be lauded for their achievements, but not at the cost of calling the rest of the kids who struggle with focus as “abnormal” (when in fact they are very normal).
I realize I am simplifying some aspects of the ADD conversation here, but the main points are that human attention span can be examined and critiqued in many different ways, and that we might be wise to refrain from immediately attaching “mental illness” to kids who simply have the attention span we would expect from, ironically, kids. In fact, kids who can do multiple things at once may not be deficient with their attention span at all, and instead viewed as talented for their ability to successfully multi-task.