ADHD impacts the pathways in the brain and the nervous system. People with ADHD have brains with different wiring than their neurotypical peers. Their brains aren’t defective; they’re simply constructed differently and their best functioning doesn’t look like what neurotypical people expect. It’s important that people with ADHD (and those who love and support them) remember that, just because a person is wired differently, it doesn’t make them less. People with ADHD naturally do things differently, sometimes in ways that feel very much outside the social norms. But this doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
ADHD Brain Wiring and the Frontal Lobe
Understanding the ADHD brain structure can help put this neurotype into perspective. Those familiar with neurology know that the frontal lobe of the brain is in charge of executive functions. It helps people to plan, initiate tasks, organize spaces, pay attention, and make decisions. Think of it like a conductor of an orchestra.
The functions it controls are:
- Problem Solving
- Working memory
- Impulse control
- Ability to delay gratification
- Time perception
These are, coincidentally, things a lot of people with ADHD tend to struggle with. Difficulties with keeping things organized, making decisions, and controlling impulses make it hard to have an ADHD brain in a society made for and run by neurotypical people. Different wiring means different processes for living life. That can make it hard to fit in or operate within a structure that’s quite rigid and not set up to accommodate alternative methods.
One theory behind the ADHD frontal-lobe challenges is that this neurotype has difficulty processing dopamine, which is responsible for most of our motivation and stimulation. If dopamine levels are lower, it’s harder to get gratification from tasks. And, even after a task is selected, initiating doing it can still be paralyzing. It’s very easy to get trapped while making decisions.
There’s some debate about whether ADHD brains produce less dopamine or if they just don’t process it as well. Either way, there is a strong connection, which is still being researched so we can better understand the mechanisms behind ADHD.
The ADHD Nervous System: Interest vs Importance
So how does this play out in an ADHD nervous system? William Dodson, a doctor researching ADHD, proposed the idea several years ago that people with ADHD had an interest-based nervous system, while neurotypical people had an importance-based nervous system.
What Is An Importance-Based Nervous System?
People with importance-based nervous systems accomplish a task because it is somehow classified as important. It might be personally important or important to them because it’s important to someone else. It may be important because there’s a reward or consequence that comes from doing (or not doing), the task.
If someone with an importance-based nervous system sees that the kitchen needs to be cleaned, they will probably do it because the kitchen should be cleaned. It’s important to them to keep a space neat. They find it’s easier to find things. Perhaps they enjoy hosting friends. If their home is clean, if company comes over, the house is ready. They aren’t cleaning it because they want to, but rather because they believe it should be done. Or it might motivate them to clean because they know their partner values a clean kitchen. And if they still live with family, they might clean because they’d get nagged or yelled at if they didn’t.
What Is An Interest-Based Nervous System?
An interest-based nervous system isn’t motivated by theoretical importance. Someone with this kind of nervous system is motivated by their interest in or passion for the task. Saying they ‘should’ clean the kitchen isn’t motivating, and neither is knowing they’ll get yelled at if they don’t. Interest and engagement are what propel this kind of person forward.
But just because they don’t find cleaning the kitchen interesting doesn’t mean they don’t want to clean it; they probably do. No one likes getting yelled at, and most people prefer a room to be clean. But it’s not an engaging chore. It’s repetitive, sometimes gross, and it takes a long time. So, even if they want to do it, it doesn’t engage their interest. Both the importance-based and interest-based people want to clean the kitchen. But without some kind of engagement, the person with the interest-based nervous system will have a significantly harder time getting themselves to start cleaning.
Many neurotypical people misunderstand the interest-based nervous system. They assume that lack of interest also means that the person doesn’t find the job important. So neurotypical people feel the ADHD-er is lazy or doesn’t care about their needs. But a task can be important and uninteresting. The uninteresting part is what makes it more difficult to accomplish. Without interest, there is less dopamine. And without the dopamine, there is little to no motivation. This turns into an uphill battle that frequently gets compounded with external shame from people who don’t understand why the task is difficult.
Ways to Hack the ADHD Nervous System
It’s harder to get tasks done when importance isn’t a motivating factor, but it is possible. It just takes some creativity. Luckily, people with ADHD often overflow with creativity! Not all these hacks work for everyone, and they won’t work all the time. Even the brain-hacking has to stay novel and creative. But if someone with ADHD is struggling to get through tasks or deal with situations because their interest-based nervous system isn’t engaged, these methods are worth a try.
Make Things Interesting
Sometimes even simple things can make a boring task seem more interesting and tolerable. For example, not feeling that paper you have to write? Change the topic to something related to one of your passions or interests. Hate having to organize boring data? Use fun colored pens and highlighters with cute stickers and post-its to jazz it up a little.
Sometimes gamifying things can make things more interest. For example, for every hour of homework you do, you get a point. When you earn three points, you get a reward. If you have a lengthy to do list, split it up into levels. As you complete each “level”, you get to “level-up” your avatar. Rewards don’t always work for people. But, sometimes by doing a gamified version helps.
Make Things a Challenge
Turning the task into a challenge or a game works for many people. This can look like racing to see how many dishes can be washed in fifteen minutes. Hate folding laundry? Challenge your roommate to a laundry folding contest– let’s see who can fold their laundry the fastest!
Make Things Urgent
A less fun but often effective way to increase interest is by introducing some urgency. Many people with ADHD get a lot of work done when deadlines start looming. Students can suddenly write a ten page paper in one night. When someone’s coming to visit, suddenly the house has never been cleaner. This can lead to a lot of stress, so it’s a hack to be used carefully. But, in a pinch, it can help. If you want a less intense version to try, sometimes introducing fake deadlines partway through the project increases urgency without increasing stress.
Make Things Novel
Novelty is also a useful tool when trying to hack the ADHD brain. Finding a new way to do an old task can make it engaging again. Listening to a new CD while vacuuming the house adds some fun. People can sit in different places to get work done to break up the routine. It’s all about making the task seem new, and giving yourself a chance to use your creativity. This can increase dopamine and make the task more doable
Make Things Social
Many ADHD-ers find it nearly impossible to do certain things on their own. But if they’re doing it silently next to a friend (aka body-doubling)? They’re super productive! Try adding a social element to your tasks to help you get things done. You probably find it difficult to get to the gym if it’s just you. But if you have a gym buddy, you’re much less likely to flake on exercising.
Get Support for Your ADHD
The differences in the ADHD nervous system aren’t bad; they have a lot of positives. When people with ADHD lock into something they’re interested in, they can do amazing things. An interest-based nervous system lets passion and enthusiasm flourish. The problem comes in because our society is designed around the importance-based nervous systems that most neurotypical people have. Neither one of these systems is wrong, but they can have a hard time being compatible. The best path to self-acceptance comes with embracing the ADHD brain as it is, and trying to use the strengths you have to build something that’s functional for you.
If you’re struggling to implement these “brain hacks” for yourself or find yourself becoming overly self-critical as you try to navigate a neurotypical world, consider enlisting professional support. Our ADHD specialists can support you in a neurodivergent-affirming way so you’re working with your neurology instead of against it. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Abbene, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.