What It’s Like to Have an ADHD Brain

Yet there’s one thing ADHD brains are really good at: recognizing things they want to do and things they don’t.

Motivation is a chemical reaction. Ellen Littman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York, writes that the ADHD brain’s reward pathway is off-balance; it takes a lot more dopamine to make us feel happy or satisfied. Reward deficiency syndrome (RDS), a term coined by Kenneth Blum, PhD, makes it extremely difficult to muster the willpower to perform mundane tasks — even important ones — if they don’t pack a big enough dopamine punch. Novelty-seeking behavior is common. Some people with ADHD might become firefighters, drive recklessly, or abuse substances in their search for a boost. RDS is linked to procrastination and addiction, both common features of ADHD. Some might call it a lack of willpower. They’d be right, in a way, but it comes down to brain chemistry — not laziness.

Put simply, we’re the donkey, and dopamine is the carrot. The only carrot.

Yet not every ADHD brain is an adrenaline junkie. Littman writes that individuals with more hypersensitive ADHD may be living in a constant state of sensory overload. With so much stimulation and no way to compartmentalize it, these people might avoid crowds or loud venues. Many seek refuge in video games, where they experience dopamine boosts but have control over the amount of sensory input.

The world is full of endless possibilities to contemplate, and my brain has no idea where to put them all.

I seem to have feet in both camps. I’ll gladly jump off a cliff, perform CPR, ride roller coasters, visit new places, or drive a four-wheeler down a highway. But when the time comes to regain control over the level of stimulation, I extract myself and seek refuge in familiar, comfortable activities. Novel experiences during this time — Watch this YouTube video! Try ordering something fun for dinner! Take a different route home! — become less friendly, adding to a feeling of bombardment and stress. To escape the chaos and get my dopamine boost, I watch Lord of the Rings over and over again while I play Candy Crush. I work out to the same playlist of 20 songs. I play familiar piano pieces. I read Harry Potter for the dozenth time.

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