ADHD and the Wisdom of William James
Last week’s post, titled ADHD and Psychiatric Name Calling, criticized the prevalent practice of converting concerns about a person’s ability to pay attention into psychiatric lingo. There was a great deal of interest in the post so I decided to present another for your consideration.
As I began to craft this, my thoughts went back to my most popular post, Teaching Children How to Deal with Criticism. Since the major reason for its great success is that its ideas largely relied on those of William James, I went back to the great professor’s writings to see what he had to say on the subject.
There is unquestionably a great native variety among individuals in the type of their attention. Some of us are naturally scatterbrained, and others follow easily a train of connected thoughts without temptation to swerve aside to other subjects. This seems to depend on a difference between individuals in the type of their field of consciousness. In some persons this is highly focalized and concentrated, and the focal ideas predominate in determining association. In others we must suppose the margin to be brighter, and to be filled with something like metric showers of images, which strike into it at random, displacing the focal ideas, and carrying association in their own direction. Persons of the latter type find their attention wandering every minute, and must bring it back by a voluntary pull. The others sink into a subject of meditation deeply, and, when interrupted, are ‘lost’ for a moment before they come back to the outer world.
The possession of such a steady faculty of attention is unquestionably a great boon. Those who have it can work more rapidly, and with less nervous wear and tear. I am inclined to think that no one who is without it naturally can by any amount of drill or discipline attain it in a very high degree. Its amount is probably a fixed characteristic of the individual. But I wish to make a remark here which I shall have occasion to make again in other connections. It is that no one need deplore unduly the inferiority in himself of any one elementary faculty. This concentrated type of attention is an elementary faculty: it is one of the things that might be ascertained and measured by exercises in the laboratory. But, having ascertained it in a number of persons, we could never rank them in a scale of actual and practical mental efficiency based on its degrees. The total mental efficiency of a man is the resultant of the working together of all his faculties. He is too complex a being for any one of them to have the casting vote. If any one of them do have a casting vote, it is more likely to be the strength of his desire and passion, the strength of interest he takes in what is proposed. Concentration, memory, reasoning power, inventiveness, excellence of the senses,–all are subsidiary to this. No matter how scatter-brained the type of a man’s successive fields of consciousness may be, if he really care for a subject, he will return to it incessantly from his incessant wanderings, and first and last do more with it, and get more results from it, than another person whose attention may be more continuous during a given interval, but whose passion for the subject is of a more languid and less permanent sort. Some of the most efficient workers I know are of the ultra-scatterbrained type. One friend, who does a prodigious quantity of work, has in fact confessed to me that, if he wants to get ideas on a subject, he sits down to work at something else, his best results coming through his mind-wanderings. This is perhaps an epigrammatic exaggeration on his part; but I seriously think that no one of us need be too much distressed at his own shortcomings in this regard. Our minds may enjoy but little comfort, may be restless and feel confused; but it may be extremely efficient all the same. (quote from William James’s Talks To Teachers)
Here we see a true master at work. His sublime summary of the concern, placed in the context of other faculties working together, always lead me to vivid images of the many students I worked with over the years who had little ability to sustain their attention on school work and yet far outperformed outstanding students in such areas as music, athletics, art, computer technology, business, etc. Rather than framing the concern as a disabling mental disorder, James paints a vision that inspires the hope of finding a way to create a life filled with substantial value.
The one assertion that I tentatively disagree with James is that a person’s attention span is probably a fixed characteristic of the individual.
I have regualarly seen children who had a below average ability to attend to school work who, as they grew older did much better. Some of them got over a particularly stressful period in their life. Others learned the value of more physical activity which tired them out, and they began to sleep more soundly. Others seemed to improve for no other apparent reason than becoming more mature.
From my own experience, I found that when I learned to meditate, my ability to sustain my attention on a number of subjects distinctly improved. There are some excellent research studies that back up my own personal experience. For an example, that also reviews several of the other available studies, check out “Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention” (Psychological Science, Jun 2010; 21(6): 829–839.) Readers of my blog can find a simple to learn, absolutely free, form of meditation in my post “Anger, Rumination and Meditation.”
Okay, so there are a few more ideas about concerns that come up about someone’s attention. I hope you find them to be helpful.
As always, I encourage readers to join the conversation by making comments in the “Leave a Reply” box at the very bottom of this page.
My very best,
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.