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What does ADD feel like?

John E. Cox j.e.cox at Cranfield.AC.UK
Thu Nov 23 14:25:37 EST 1995

Through consideration of other people's posts and my own personal
experience, combined with a little latteral thinking, I've come
up with a discription (in the broadest possible terms) of what
might be happening to someone under the spell of ADD.

I say spell because I think there is a lot connecting ADD, dreams
and possibly hypnosis.  However, I'd like to start with a description
of the mind as I see it.

There are two fundamental 'modes' of mind inherent in the brain.
These modes are largely oposite in nature and complementary in
function.  The first is imediate 'here and now' awareness including
short-term memory and the five senses.  Secondly there is introspective
long-term memory associated asensory thought.

The way I see it, the interpretation of language, sight, smell
etc. involves the disection and dismemberment of the imediate, second
to second input from the external envirnoment into simpler states of 
mind.  As a sentence or gesture or image is processed, it gets broken 
down into componants systematically until the brain finds similar
componants deep within its memory.  For example, an image of a dog
would start as a complex set of colour, shape, movement, smell etc...
data. at the first step, this would break up into a consept of the image
as an animal.  The consept of 'animal' would then break down into
some sort of emotional response: if you'd been bitten by a dog when
you were three, you would get a very strong danger signal, an actual
adrenalin rush triggered off directly by the image.  Later on in the
process, the the image of the dog would have broken down into possibly
dozens of bits of information, a sort of bar code for the image which 
could then call up the word 'dog' from your linguistic memory.

In other words, the process of understanding what you are seeing or
what someone is saying to you moves from a highly specific and
'here and now' event at your senses and slowly permeates your
mind, becoming steadily more and more generalized and introspective
as it penetrates deeper and deeper into your memories and internal 

Now, when you are listening to some one speak, when you are paying
attention to someone elses thoughts, this progressive tendancy to 
'drift off' into a sort of day dream is cut short as soon as a 
satisfactory level of generalization is reached.  You constantly
snap back to attention just in time to catch the next bit of
dialogue.  In fact, your brain is probably subtle enough to 
cope with several of these waves of thought passing back into
your deeper mind at a time.  The illusion, therefore, is that
there is a continuous awareness of the stream of speech and
visual data that you are picking up from the other person.
In other words, you are totally unaware that you are repeatedly
'tripping out', having a short internal day dream in which you
are systematically relating the other person's speech to your
own experience and memory.

Suppose, by contrast, that you are affected by ADD.  Imagine that
every time you get a little sound bite from your senses, the fall
back into internal introspection carries you along with it.  You
get dragged along for a ride which lasts too long and goes far
beyond the minimum you need to catch the jist of what you're hearing.
You start day dreaming to the point that you start to have thoughts
which are so general that they no longer have much to do with
the message that you're trying to understand: you've lost
contact with environment around you slightly.
When the day dream finally does break down, you find that the world
has moved on, you've lost your place and have missed a bit of the
conversation.  You emerge from your inner thoughts into a world which
has changed and seems slightly disconnected from the one you were
trying to pay attention to: you feel highly confused and disorientated.
When you do calm down enough to pick up the next bit of speech data, 
you're imediately sent off on another internal fantasy.  It feels like
you're being held under water and being spun around: just as you begin
to feel you're drowning, you get thrown up for a quick breath
of air only to be dragged back down again.

This model has relevence to dreaming as well.  Every time during the
day that you can't work something out, everytime you fail to
interprete something because you are distracted or because
its is too vague or ambiguous to make a definite conclusion, the 
internal fantasy gets stuck travelling around in your memory with
no way to discharge itself.  When you fall asleep however, all
the processes which suppress these memories are turned off.  The
accumulated turbulence is released and, since it is no longer
associated with any imediate context, unfolds in a bizarre, but
non-random way as a dream.

I believe that many mental disease processes are caused by or
are related to the failure to properly internalize imediate
sense data.

This idea is by no means original, however, I hope putting it
into these terms has made it accessible to parents and friends
of ADD sufferers: I hope that if you can understand some
of the feelings ADD people experience, you will be able to
relate to them better.

John E. Cox
Biotechnology Centre
Cranfield University, UK

Please send comments to j.e.cox at cranfield.ac.uk

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