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Spark by John J. Ratey

Spark by John J. Ratey

Author:John J. Ratey
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Published: 2008-01-09T16:00:00+00:00


6

Attention Deficit

Running from Distraction

“I SUSPECT THE first time I realized I was not like my peers was at the early age of three when I discovered no one else in my family or neighborhood was forced to wear a child leash,” wrote Sam, a thirty-six-year-old venture capitalist who came to me in hopes of understanding his lifelong disorder, which was starting to manifest itself in his young son. “I have always been known in the family as the troublemaker and spent most of my childhood in the doghouse and the ‘dunce’ corner. My teachers felt that I had the ability to be a good student but never fully applied myself. I am able to express myself well and organize my thoughts, but often procrastinate.”

Sam is no dunce, but like so many others with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), his erratic behavior led everyone around him to label him as stupid or stubborn or spoiled. He didn’t want his son to suffer the same shame, and he was now seeking help at the encouragement of his business partner and his wife. “Neither quite understands how I can function with so much chaos in my life,” he told me.

Chaos, high drama, deadline pressure—acute stress of any form acts like a drug for Sam’s brain. His letter to me outlining his history acknowledges that he had disciplinary problems because he didn’t deal well with authority figures and that he got into drugs at age fourteen. Yet he wasn’t exactly a delinquent. When he turned sixteen, his parents forbade him from getting his driver’s license until he shaped up, and he boosted his GPA from 1.5 to 3.5 almost overnight. Proof, many would argue, that his teachers were right: he just needed to try.

But the problem with Sam wasn’t his attitude. ADHD stems from a malfunction of the brain’s attention system, a diffuse linkage of neurons that hitches together areas controlling arousal, motivation, reward, executive function, and movement. Let’s take one element of the attention system: motivation. While it’s true that people with ADHD “just need to get motivated,” it’s also true that, like every other aspect of our psychology, motivation is biological. What about the child who can’t pay attention in class but can sit perfectly still for hours playing a video game? Or the woman who “spaces out” when her husband is talking but has no trouble focusing on magazine gossip about Brad and Angelina? Obviously, they can pay attention when they want to, right? Not exactly. If we were to look at functional MRI (fMRI) scans of the brains of these people—and scientists have—we would see distinct differences in activity at the reward center in each situation. The reward center is a cluster of dopamine neurons called the nucleus accumbens, which is responsible for doling out pleasure or satisfaction signals to the prefrontal cortex, and thus providing the necessary drive or motivation to focus.

The sort of stimulation that will activate the reward center enough to capture the brain’s attention varies from person to person.



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