Just one generation ago ADHD affected approximately one in 25 students. Today, one in five high school boys are diagnosed with ADHD1. In the United States, of the overall population of children aged 4 to 17, 11% are diagnosed with ADHD according the latest study published by the Center for Disease Control2. The increases in the rate of diagnosis don’t appear to be abating, which cause concern among parents and a valid debate.
Do we have a true ADHD epidemic in the United States (given that no other country on earth comes close to our rates) or is there an overdiagnosis epidemic? While accurate diagnosis matter for society in general, as a parent of a child who suffers from inattentiveness, it is important to understand which underlying issues can cause inattentiveness and what can be done to improve attention. Understanding the root of inattentiveness is critical to identifying a valid approach to improving attention.
WEAK COGNITIVE SKILLS LEAD TO SYMPTOMS OF INATTENTIVENESS
We rely on a host of interdependent cognitive skills to process new information, namely attention, working memory, and processing speed. Inattentiveness often masks another cognitive weakness and manifests itself as a symptom. For example, weak processing speed can lead to inattentiveness as can an auditory processing weakness or disorder. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and cognitive skills sometimes perform to the ability of the lowest common denominator.
When skills can operate more independently, we are able to circumvent a weakness by automatically creating sub-optimal compensatory strategies. If the gaps are too wide or relative strengths are insufficient to compensate, we fail to learn effectively. It is important that we take a holistic approach to understanding the real cause of inattentiveness.
FACTORS OF INATTENTION
Executive functions rely on automatic processing and conscious thinking to organize and integrate an individual’s actions and emotions in the same way a conductor dynamically unifies the distinct instruments of an orchestra. Attention, working memory, and processing speed are three interdependent skills and core components of automatic processing that sub serve executive functioning. Our cognitive skills can form a complex web of interconnected dependencies, many of which can affect attention or depend on our ability to pay attention. Without paying attention, we can sabotage our brain’s ability to capture and transmit information for problem-solving or to adequately retrieve learned information (recall).
WEAK COGNITIVE SKILLS LEAD TO SYMPTOMS OF INATTENTIVENESS
We rely on a host of interdependent cognitive skills to process information and learn. Where such dependencies exist, as is the case with attention, these skills sometimes perform to the ability of the lowest common denominator. When skills can operate more independently, we are able to circumvent a weakness by automatically creating sub-optimal compensatory strategies. If the gaps are too wide or relative strengths are insufficient to compensate, we fail to learn effectively.
Cognitive Psychologist and author, Diane McGuinness cites research showing that for many students, instead of attentional difficulty causing learning failure, failure to learn causes frustration, disinterest, and inattention3. This is a possibility worth considering, as treating children for a problem they don’t suffer from, such as ADHD, should be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, we fail to solve the problem, while needlessly altering chemical balances in the brain by attempting a pharmacological solution.
“Attentional control has become an important issue in American schools due to the belief that “deficits in attention” are causing learning failure. This overly simplistic notion seems immune to twenty years of scientific research showing conclusively that children diagnosed with “ADHD” have no attentional problems, at least none that can be demonstrated in a controlled laboratory conditions. Instead, research has shown the opposite: learning failure causes the inability to attend. The worse you are at something the harder it is to keep your attention focused on what you are doing. When we are bad at something, our brain burns more glucose in more brain regions. Burning glucose uses “energy” and high, continuous expenditure of mental energy is exhausting. Frustration also reduces mental energy, because it interferes with concentration.”
– Diane McGuiness PhD (Cognitive Psychologist)
MANY WAYS TO BECOME INATTENTIVE
Getting enough sleep and the right nutrition is critical for our bodies as well as our minds. If either is deficient, we can expect sub-optimal cognitive skills, including attention. The extremely prevalent use of technology in today’s society has been hypothesized to affect our ability to sustain attention. We constantly have information at our fingertips, and we have come to expect instant informational gratification. Drugs, both prescription and recreational, can also impact learning and attention.
Sandra Bond Chapman, Director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas, says, “Thanks to our technology-driven and uber-connected world, the sheer volume of information we are exposed to every day is nearly 200 times more than we were exposed to 20 years ago!”4 This “information overload” may also impact attention, independent of the technology that makes it possible. Inattentiveness is complex because there are many potential root causes. Often, inattentiveness masks another cognitive weakness and manifests itself as a symptom of these. It is important that we take a holistic approach to understanding the real cause of inattentiveness.
INATTENTION IMPACTS EXECUTIVE FUNCTION
Attention, working memory, and processing speed are three interdependent skills that form a complex web of dependencies, many of which affect attention or depend on our ability to pay attention. These core components of automatic processing serve as a basis for executive functioning. Without paying attention, we can sabotage our brain’s ability to capture and transmit information for problem-solving or to adequately retrieve learned information. In the same way a conductor dynamically unifies the distinct instruments of an orchestra, executive functions rely on automatic processing and conscious thinking to organize and integrate an individual’s actions and emotions.
Fusion partners with COGx at multiple campuses where students receive customized programs that target and enhance cognition to improve learning while students learn the scientific principles of successful learning. COGx programs are technology-free and delivered in-person by professionals trained and certified by COGx to deliver science-based programs that are also accountable to real-life outcomes. The result is a direct improvement in a student’s ability to focus and learn more independently. This personalized approach gives students the support they need to improve their learning. Learn more here.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): data & statistics. New data: medication and behavior treatment.
2. Visser SN, Danielson ML, Bitsko RH, et al. Trends in the parent-report of health care provider-diagnosed and medicated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: United States, 2003-2011. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2014;53(1):34-46.
3. McGuinness, Diane. Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading. Simon & Schuster, 1999.
4. “Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy and Focus.” The Real Estate Council, 18 Apr. 2016, recouncil.com/professional-development/increase-brains-creativity-energy-focus/.
This post was originally posted on the COGx blog, found here.
Javier Arguello is the Founder and Executive Director of COGx, a Washington-DC based research and development firm in applied neuroscience dedicated to implementing science-based programs that enhance learning outcomes.
Learn more about COGx at COGx.info