What It’s Like to Have an ADHD Brain

Before I learned how to manage my time, deadlines would appear out of nowhere, and at the 11th hour I would find the motivation to churn out a final product in record time. I’ve often felt like the hare keeping up with the tortoise — aimless wandering punctuated by frantic spurts of focused energy.

I’ve learned to channel a common but counterintuitive feature of ADHD called hyperfocus. I sit down to work at 8:30 a.m., and suddenly it’s 3:45 p.m. Normally this only happens to people with ADHD when they’re doing something they enjoy, so it’s a good sign that I like my job. Of course, it also means that my house looks like it was hit by a tornado and I often forget to eat lunch.

When I do get out of “the zone,” all of my unfocused thoughts clamor for attention. The brain’s reward pathway has a built-in executive team in the corpus striatum, which helps filter the constant influx of thoughts and emotions and file them in their proper places. Some items should be addressed right away, some can wait, and many go straight to the trash. Occasionally, the team sends the single most important item on the agenda up to the prefrontal cortex for attention.

In the ADHD brain, the team is short-staffed. Everything — including the trash — goes into one big pile of equal importance. Dodson writes that stimulants work by providing support to the team — helping the striatum choose the single most important task, rather than half a dozen at once.

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