ADHD Hyperfixation Controversy: ADHD Superpower or Hidden Curse?

With ADHD, we have the power to focus intensely while the world slips away….. Learning how to control hyperfixation is a key to success with ADHD.

What is ADHD Hyperfixation?

Many people with an ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) brain describe experiencing hyperfixation. This is the ability to focus intensely on a task while losing track of time.

There is a real lack of research into hyperfixation (researchers use the term hyperfocus) despite it being recognized as a feature in ADHD and autism for years.

Hyperfocusing is not mentioned in DSM-IV [with respect to ADHD], but it is known from clinical work and can be described as intensive concentration on interesting and non-routine activities accompanied by temporarily diminished perception of the environment.”

Diminished prefrontal oxygenation with normal and above-average verbal fluency performance in adult ADHD

A recent review gave a this new definition of hyperfixation/hyperfocus (although I think it misses an important aspect – task switching).

  1. Hyperfocus is characterized by an intense state of concentration/focus.
  2. When engaged in hyperfocus, unrelated external stimuli do not appear to be consciously perceived; sometimes reported as a diminished perception of the environment.
  3. To engage in hyperfocus, the task has to be fun or interesting.
  4. During a hyperfocus state, task performance improves.

Is Hyperfixation a Symptom of ADHD?

The idea that people with ADHD can’t pay attention to anything is a common misconception

A better way of thinking of it is that the control of attention is managed differently in people with ADHD or VAST (Variable Attention Stimulus Trait) a term for people who have ADHD traits but do not quite fit the diagnostic criteria for ADHD

There are differences in how the ADHD brain responds to neurotransmitters (chemicals that make our brains work) like dopamine and serotonin, and this affects the way the brain controls attention.

It is the regulation of attention, the way the brain shifts and holds attention that is different. ADHD brains can have a harder time filtering out distractions.

Such as:

  • Thoughts ‘You’re such a Spacecadet!’ ‘Stop daydreaming!’
  • Visual distractions ‘Squirrel!’
  • Noises ‘Wow, you really startle easily!’

We are more easily distracted if we find something boring, even if it is important.

Attention easily shifts unless the current activity is really captivating, and that is where hyperfixation comes in….

For some unexplainable reason people who can be distracted by seemingly any sound or smell often also can tune out the world around them and become completely enthralled in their activities.

We become mesmerized when the distractions seem to disappear and something becomes so clear and moving. Its sort of like the effect 3-D Magic Eye pictures have on some people. Once you see the mystery picture the vision captivates all of your attention. It is not until you are interrupted that you become aware again that the world is still spinning.

Attention Deficit Disorder In Children And Adults:
Strategies For Experiential Educators

ADHD and Hyperfixation

Hyperfixation is the flip side of distractability. When something is interesting, we can really pay attention.

We lose track of time, and now we are not easily distracted at all. It is actually hard to pull ourselves out of our focus on the activity.

Hyperfocusing is defined as a clinical phenomenon of “locking on” to a task in patients with ADHD who have a difficulty of shifting their attention from one subject to another, especially if the subject is about their interests

Attention Deficit Disorder In Children And Adults:
Strategies For Experiential Educators

This is a core issue with ADHD and VAST mindsVariable Attention related to Stimulus. We can shift attention a lot (distractability) or not shift at all, getting stuck in an activity or thought (fixation).

When I understood that a main issue of the VAST/ADHD mind is the control of switching attention between activities, I noticed how it had affected my life in many ways.

For example: I suddenly understood why my husband’s nickname for me is my last name. He says it like a football coach would say it, but with a smile.

Kind of unusual right? Well, I think he started doing this because I just don’t answer to my first name. It is not enough to pull me out of what I am doing. I don’t even hear it sometimes, even when it is said by someone I love.

It looks like I’m not alone:

Many children with ADHD have the ability to hyperfocus on certain tasks. This trait can confuse parents, as they see their highly distractible child engrossed in a video game, for example.

They call his name but he has tuned them out, along with every other stimulus in the room.

Navigating ADHD: Your Guide To The Flip Side Of ADHD

So why do I respond to my last name? Being called by my last name in the past meant that something serious was happening.

My brain labeled hearing my last name as more important than hearing my first name. It is stronger signal that can break through my focus. So I respond to my husband’s nickname for me, and the joking way he says it.

He hacked my ADHD brain.

FYI – One of the DSM-V criteria for ADHD is “often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly”. My husband laughed out loud at that one when we went through the list together as I was getting diagnosed.

So while the DSM-V doesn’t recognize hyperfixation as part of ADHD, they do recognize what is a known symptom of hyperfixation.

Is Hyperfixation an ADHD Superpower?

Many adults with ADHD feel their ability to hyperfixate or hyperfocus is the reason for their greatest successes. Some people love this trait, as it helps them get a huge amount of work done in a short amount of time.

So is hyperfixation actually an ADHD superpower?

One small research study (Sklar, 2013) looked at the hyperfocus state of ADHD.

They saw interesting differences in the brain readings between ADHD and neurotypical participants playing an online game.

The ADHD game players showed reduced alpha and beta levels in the frontal lobe while playing for the ADHD players, but increased levels for the non-ADHD players.

This was interpreted as evidence that ADHD patients required less cognitive effort to play the game, in line with the reported experiences of hyperfocus.

It is one really small study, but the results suggest that people with ADHD may have enhanced attentional control when in a hyperfocus state.

ADHD Hyperfixation and Psychology

Flow state’, or ‘being in the zone’, is a term used in positive psychology.

It was popularized by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  He became fascinated by artists who became utterly absorbed in their work

Here are the components of being in the ‘flow state”:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
  • Immediate feedback
  • Feeling the potential to succeed
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

It has been found that being in the ‘Flow state’ has numerous benefits that can be long lasting.

Experiencing the ‘Flow state’ can lead to a long lasting sense of happiness and fulfillment.

It sounds similar to hyperfixation doesn’t it?

I think that at its best, hyperfixation can become a ‘flow state’, but notice that 4th component – A sense of personal control or agency over the activity. That is not always present with hyperfixation.

Is ADHD Hyperfixation a Curse?

Hyperfixation has also been described as feeling more like a compulsion. Being unable to pull yourself away from an activity, even when they know you should.

Hyperfixation in ADHD is very common. In fact Dr. Amen of the Amen Clinics includes ‘Over-Focused ADHD’ as one of his ‘7 types of ADHD‘.

A person may neglect sleep and important responsibilities which can lead to very negative effects on their health and life.

Someone may get upset when pulled out of their hyperfixating state. People have described it as ‘feeling like I’m coming out of a trance’ and it being ‘painful to come back to reality’.

When a child is hyperfocused and you force them to change their focus they may become surprisingly angry or hostile. You’ve just taken from them one of the few joys they may feel, the ability to hyperfocus and turn off all that extraneous stimuli.

Attention Deficit Disorder In Children And Adults:
Strategies For Experiential Educators

When someone is hyperfocused, it feels like time falls away. So if there isn’t something to break the fixation, it can go on for a very long time.

Which can mean not even feeling what your body needs while you are in this state. Not pausing to eat, go to the washroom or stretch your body…. for hours.

Hyperfocused individuals neglect things other than the condition they are already focused on.

Patients with ADHD are reported to be stuck in the activities that they are interested and they keep on doing these things for hours while they lose interest in their surroundings

The patients with ADHD usually report that they cannot understand how the time passes. During hyperfocusing, the individuals state that they are aware of the things that they ignore, however they cannot give up what they are doing

Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults

In Adventure in Fast Forward, author Kathleen Nadeau tells the story of a woman who was working so intently she did not realize her house was on fire! Her neighbours noticed and the firemen responding to the call had to break down the door.

They were shocked to discover her still working at her computer, not even smelling the smoke or hearing their arrival. This is obviously an extreme example (and I do have to wonder if it is actually true), but it highlights that hyperfixation poorly controlled can be a curse.

How to Stop ADHD Hyperfixation

Hyperfixation is caused by a different wiring in the part of the brain that controls attention.

ADHD brains have existed for millenia, we are a natural and important part of the human condition. In fact it is very likely that many people you admire have ADHD or brains that they have used very effectively.

Hyperfixation in the right situation can be a powerful force. ADHD brains exist for a reason and have several benefits including creativity, innovative problem solving and a perseverance for projects that excite us.

So I think it is less about stopping hyperfixation, and more about controlling hyperfixation. Remember the definition of the positive ‘Flow state’ that most people find productive and desirable? The difference between hyperfixation and ‘Flow’ is control.

The first step to gain the ability to control hyperfixation is recognizing how your brain works and and what triggers hyperfixation for you.

A lot of concentration and mindfulness techniques will help you to recognize and control hyperfixation, but not Immediately. By regularly doing meditation, breathwork, or NSDR protocols like yoga nidra or self-hypnosis you will improve your self-awareness and self-regulation over time. These are extremely powerful techniques when you use them regularly over the long term.

I find I have a much more functional day and can control my hyperfixation much better if I have meditated and slept well the night before.

There are also specific techniques to use in the moment to help you from falling into hyperfixation and not being able to get out.

You can use the pomodoro technique (set a timer to go off every 20 minutes while you are working) to regularly stop and assess what you are doing. Break free from the task and ask yourself ‘Am I focusing on the right thing right now?’.

I’ve used the Focus@Will music service in this way to help me control my hyperfixation. Not only does the music help me focus, you can set a timer to remind yourself to check in with yourself.

I have a tendency to go down a rabbit hole and research something adjacent to what I actually need to work on. Stopping, getting up to stretch, go for a bathroom break or whatever gets me out of the hyperfocus. Then I can assess if I am doing what I really need to do and redirect myself.

I wrote about how using my ADHD hyperfixation in my talent for planning amazing vacations has given me some clues as how to best use the ADHD superpower of hyperfixation.