A.D.D. comic book: Exclusive essay and excerpt by author Douglas Rushkoff

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Everyone seems to have A.D.D. these days. (In case you’ve been too distracted by your Twitter feed to remember, A.D.D. stands for Attention Deficit Disorder -- the inability to focus on any one thing for too long, the urge to do nine things at once, and the hyper, constantly shifting, unsettled feeling that goes along with it.)

Apparently, it’s an epidemic -- particularly among boys, and especially among those who love video games. And so video games are now blamed for destroying their brains, and their capacity to become productive members of society.

But, to me anyway, something never felt right about this line of reasoning. Even if playing video games and answering txt messages shortens the attention span, what if it broadens the attention range? What if the downsides of an A.D.D. approach to life were actually offset by some other, still unidentified advantage? Or in computer programmer’s parlance, what if A.D.D. weren’t a bug, but a feature?

In fact, this whole Attention Deficit craze really only began in the late '90s, a few years after the Internet business magazines unanimously declared we were living in something called an “attention economy.” The idea was that the Internet is essentially limitless in its ability to hold content. The only limiting factor on how much money media companies can make off us in an age of infinite bandwidth is human attention itself.

They came up with a new metric, “eyeball hours,” to describe the amount of time they could keep someone’s attention glued to the screen. Media companies arose to make websites more “sticky” so that people -- especially kids -- would end up spending more of their eyeball hours stuck on their web pages.

Over the next decade, prescriptions for Ritalin -- the leading A.D.D. drug, otherwise known as “speed” -- went up by about 5000%. Were real cases of the formerly rare sensory disorder multiplying at this rate? Were they simply being diagnosed more easily? Or was something other than A.D.D. now getting labeled this way?

That’s when I started to believe that at least this new breed of Attention Deficit Disorder may not be a sickness but a defense mechanism: an adaptation to a world where someone -- usually some corporation -- is trying to program us everywhere we look. Fast channel surfing and short attention spans are not deficits but strengths -- weapons, really -- in the battle for human consciousness.

When I think about kids being diagnosed by public school guidance counselors and then drugged to pay better attention, I can’t help but suspect we are no longer treating a child but repressing the messenger.

So I decided I wanted to tell a story in which A.D.D. was quite literally a bug that was being turned into a feature. Following the what-if structure of science fiction, all I needed to do was ask who would do such a thing to kids, and why? And what would happen if it worked? What would American, videogame-playing “new type” mutations look like, and how would they relate to the world in which we are living?

The story in A.D.D. may be fiction, but the war on our minds and against our resistance is as real as the mediaspace in which we live. They mean to occupy our reality before we occupy theirs.

Buy A.D.D. (Adolescent Demo Division) on Amazon

Read Cory's review of A.D.D.

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  1. “Even if playing video games and answering txt messages shortens the attention span, what if it broadens the attention range?”

    But it doesn’t. You should look up Clifford Nass, psychologist at Stanford, who has detected a measurable decrease in abstract reasoning ability. I recently saw a preprint of a forthcoming article in Science documenting a significant decline in GPA attributable to attempted multitasking.

    The truth is that humans don’t multitask. Period. Consciousness is unitary. We have a single attention. What we do is simulate multitasking by sequential single tasking, by task switching.

    The trouble is that the hardware of our brains is very poorly designed for task switching. If you unload a task from computer memory so you can load a new task, and you do it properly, no trace of the old task remains. That is decidedly not true for neurons, and leads to a phenomenon called retroactive and prospective interference, where the neural remnants of old tasks interfere with the processing of new tasks, and the processing of new tasks disturbs the still-plastic memory structures of old tasks.

    In short, the data says it makes you stupider, and that can’t be a good thing.

    Ritalin, by the way, is being pushed on parents by unethical schools as a means of classroom management. It happened to my sister, who had to fight for several years to get her child a proper education for a documented learning disability when the school held out for Ritalin first. It has also become something of the study aid du jour for college students.

    1. That is decidedly not true for neurons, and leads to a phenomenon called retroactive and prospective interference, where the neural remnants of old tasks interfere with the processing of new tasks, and the processing of new tasks disturbs the still-plastic memory structures of old tasks.

      Couldn’t this be useful if the task was a creative one rather than a narrow and procedural one, so having ideas from different domains circulating in the background might suggest novel connections and approaches? Look for example at this article on some psychological research suggesting a connection between “shizotypal” personalities and creativity.

    2. I have heard of lots of stories such as yours, and I am really sorry and concerned for your sister and scores of others like her. I have worked with spectrum disorder awareness groups to change some of those working biases, but it’s a tough road. 

      Cliff Nass’s studies are right on, in my belief, at least so far. But the question Cliff also continues to ask is about how these abilities change over time. The MIT students we worked with on Digital Nation – like Nass’s Stanford test subjects- had the subjective experience of doing better even though the research showed their test results were worse. At the very least, multi-tasking is not possible, at least not yet.

      But multi-tasking doesn’t represent the full range of possible compensations that people might make in the digital media environment. 

  2. As a programmer, I find my A.D.D-like focus definitely makes writing object-oriented code easier. I’m all over the place. As I’m working on methods in one class, I switch over to another and work on it. My predecessor (Who now does something else for the company because he could not grasp the concept of OOP/Classes.) , seems more organized and focused than myself. The guy is anal about everything. He’s on top of things and gets back to people’s emails in a timely manner. However, he absolutely hates object-oriented programming and can only follow procedural code, regardless of the task/goal…sometimes producing scripts with hundreds (Or thousands) of lines of repetitive code…..and an unnecessary number of files….*gag*. I hate troubleshooting his old code.

    Take that for whatever its worth.

    1. Well, to be honest, I think the first poster’s comments are worth more. ‘I think I have ADD’ = awesome code is kind of  a cliche….does anyone know if there have been any studies to at least correlate those two things?

    2. I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about but I do know you rule! Just for you, I say his old code SUCKS!

    3. Sequential does not equal abstract, nor does being organized and “on top of things” have anything to do with writing ( or being unable to write ) object oriented code.

      Object oriented code requires a different relationship to information, and a different way of assembling and processing it. Good object oriented code generally requires a larger working memory than spaghetti, and a much more disciplined and consistent approach to implementation – which is rarely present in people with real ADD. 

      Put a different way, people with ADD do NOT index and return, they topic shift, and whatever they were doing is generally long gone.  You cannot do that and have any prayer of creating useful or consistent objects. If you have ADD or ADHD, it is ALMOST certainly an impediment to your coding, not a benefit.

      In all honesty, thousands of lines of repetitive code is much more likely to come out of someone with ADD – when they return to a task, they are unable to stay focused long enough to “page in” all of the object model, so they pick up in mid stream, and often do the same work many times.

      Your coworker is likely over 40, and was taught programming long before OO ( or information architecture as a science ) existed.  If you want to know just how different his education was, get a 1st or 2nd edition of the Turing Omnibus and try to read it – it’s painful. 

      He was taught structural, sequential thinking and certain patterns ( not like you know them ) to solve most problems.  You, on the other hand, were probably taught about objects in high school ( if not younger ), and if you took a programming class, it was almost certainly in a language that has at least some form of object model. 

      1. “Put a different way, people with ADD do NOT index and return, they topic shift, and whatever they were doing is generally long gone. ”
        Yes, I have ADD (without the H part), non diagnosed, but pretty classic. When I get something done and start on the “next”, I do a complete core dump. I cannot help it, it is what I do. So, when somebody asks about something I did the other day, I have absolutely no idea… I might as well have done it a couple of months ago. So, I do _a lot_ of code re-reading, and have to name especially the classes very clearly. Every now and again I manage to be stupid and name classes way too close to each other, and I get _totally_ mixed up on what class did what, and I have to refactor everything to get myself going again.

        Yes, I can do OO with ADD, and I absolutely love OO, but I’m _much_ slower than what I know I could be. When I’m in my zone I’m on fire, but it’s hard to get there and heaven help me if anybody interrupts me in any way (please stop having “meetings” in the corridor close to my room!!!!)… I have to start all over again to claw me back there.

        1. So, when somebody asks about something I did the other day, I have
          absolutely no idea… I might as well have done it a couple of months

          oh my god yes, the way my mind wipes itself when moving from one project to another is EXASPERATING, i can’t tell you how many times someone has come to me to ask how project x is coming and i have NO idea what they’re talking about.  core dump is a great analogy, that’s just what it feels like.

  3. Dexedrine is what was commonly referred to as “speed” as it was an over the counter product, used by people who wanted to lose weight, stay awake or just vibrate. Methylphenidate (trade name Ritalin) has never been an OTC drug, as far as I am aware. They are both stimulants, though Ritalin is often blasted as a sedative by the ignorati. Yes, it calms down AD[H]D sufferers but it doesn’t do that for everyone. 

    I don’t like over-medicated or misdiagnosed kids any more than anyone else but I get a bit irked at the mention of “unethical schools” pushing meds on kids. I see plenty of kids whose parents are in denial about their learning issues, vision problems, behavior, and overall preparedness for school and refuse to get them any treatment, pharmaceutical or just counseling/therapy. 

    Kids arrive to live with their parents (in most cases) at age 0. Schools see them for the first time 5 years or so later. That gives parents, families, and pediatricians some time to evaluate that child before he arrives at school. 

    While it may be wonderful to let Johnny to follow his chaotic bliss at home for those early years, classroom management isn’t possible with one or two of them, let alone 25. Maybe there are schools that try to circumvent parents and medicate kids without their approval. Seems like a stretch to me, outside of some isolated case that someone will pull up. But families who ignore violent, disruptive kids because they are more concerned with how it makes them look than about their kids’ wellbeing? All too common. 

    1. I think speed is any amphetamine – dextroaphetamine (dexedrine), adderall (amphetamine + dextroaphetamine) or methamphetamine.

      Ritalin however is definitely not speed.

  4. “When I think about kids being diagnosed by public school guidance counselors and then drugged to pay better attention, I can’t help but suspect we are no longer treating a child but repressing the messenger.”

    Regarding the above, my son has ADD. School is one of the most difficult challenges for ADD kids, they can do well but the one size all educational approach does not work. ADD kids often require expensive testing and accommodations which sometimes include tutoring (or helpers) or special classes (my son’s school paid for testing, a math tutor, and a councilor, he was taught to type (keyboard) in the 3rd grade. I was very involved in his education and I also did volunteer work at his school. In my experience, the above oft heard statement is a myth. If fact, the schools are filled with undiagnosed kids with ADD and the schools do not want to ‘see’ them because they are then obligated to provide help. The kids get help to the extent that parents or others advocate for them. Many kids fall through the cracks (especially the girls who tend not to be hyper like some of the boys), some are thought to be of low intelligence or poorly motivated. I suspect that there exists subtle or not so subtle pressure on teachers and guidance counselors (are you aware how few schools even have guidance counselors anymore?) not to identify kids who ADD because nobody wants to pay for it.

    I know Ritalin helped my son, he is in college now and I don’t think that he would be there without it (it does not act like ‘speed’ for him).

    1. “especially the girls who tend not to be hyper like some of the boys”

      Yes, yes to that! I think ADD (without the H part) is underdiagnosed overall, as it is not as obvious to the environment as somebody who is truly hyper, but especially girls!!! The text above by mr Rushkoff is pure… crap… in my opinion, spouting off work clichés about AD(H)D that has absolutley _nothing_ to do with reality. Yeah, I have had undiagnosed ADD my whole life, yeah it is still a major problem for me… and yeah, I should get myself diagnosed. But to get myself to a doc… um, yeah… tomorrow, or maybe next week… or…

      “Bug, but a feature”… my… butt! Do you know what my 8 yo daughter does? “Mommy… …. … mommy?” *claps her hands hard* “MOMMY!!!!” Me, snapping out of what I was doing: “Oh, sorry honey!” And to have lots and lots and lots of good ideas and a million projects _started_, but never _ever_ to actually get one finished?

      Oh, and yeah, video games are probably popular among people who have ADD, it’s easy to concentrate on, never heard it being blamed for causing AD(H)D before this article, though (causation and correlation and all that). And since when has Ritalin been known as “speed”??? Grumble grumble. (Yea, I’m majorly pissed off by that “article”.)

  5. The idea of schools or counselors “pushing” drugs on kids is a seriously overhyped media myth. IF your kid has A.D.D (the real kind), you can only see medication for the blessing it is. It allows a child to slow down and focus, and the difference is dramatic and immediate. I nearly cried the first time my son was able to sit down and put together a LEGO car without interruption or tantrums.

    Also, the idea that A.D.D. is “brought on” by exposure to television/media/computers/video games is as stupid as it is scientifically incorrect. It is a genetically-transmitted defect in the brain and affects the way a person produces and utilizes certain chemicals. It does not go away in adulthood (although some adults do create their own coping mechanisms that help, depending on the severity of the defect) and it is a real, relevant and debilitating disorder when left untreated.

  6. i have ADD and my childhood predates hyperactive video games and the
    internet.  it is definitely not a feature, and as much as i wish it were
    so, i don’t think it enhances my creativity or gives me any special way of looking at the world either.  or if i do, it’s more a function of the way my personality developed around my ADD and the coping mechanisms i created to deal with its shortcomings that gives me a different spin, perhaps, than people who don’t have it.  but honestly, on balance — ADD sucks.

  7. Sorry Douglas, your post just reeks of folk-science and mainstream understanding of both pharms and actual, real science-defined mental health diagnosis.  Nobody can *truly* multitask.  Not ADHD people, not Bipolars, not anybody.  Everytime your brain switches tasks there is an overhead cost.  Heck, I’m pretty sure I read an article about that from a BoingBoing link a couple years ago!

    I’ll tell you one thing, I am ADHD and yet I was not diagnosed as a kid because I did not have the behavioral problems that the hyperactive kids do.  I just sat the fuck down in class and tried to pay attention, but got bored.  Luckily I had particularly helpful parents and family to support my education and emotional growth.  I am diagnosed ADHD – “primarily inattentive”.  I am extremely happy that I wasn’t diagnosed as a child as well, because stimulants are EXTREMELY difficult to deal with and theres an entire ‘identity’ that kids have to have spoken over them when they are diagnosed ADHD.

    I’m sorry, I’m ranting a little bit but this post really just represents all the negative assumptions people have about ADHD and mental health in general.  Is it over-diagnosed?  Sure.  Is it diagnosed in children who are simply being children and make problems for teachers?  Hell yes it is.  But goddammit, it’s not like the internet is something new.  There is REAL RESEARCH available for everybody to read.  Please do so before making silly posts like this in the future.

  8. As an aside to the discussion of drugs for/and/or un/diagnosable cognitive situations, I would like to point out that the art team of Sudzuka and Marzan Jr. is excellent and long-missed; comics are better for artists like these.

  9. It’s about a comic book. If you want the science on ADD and attention span, check out my Frontline documentary Digital Nation, in which I interview Cliff Nass and show how he does his studies indicating our inability to multitask. 

    The piece above makes a distinction between the clinical diagnosis of ADD and what I believe is a defense mechanism of ADD-like behaviors and approaches. 

    I still do believe the latter is a reaction to media and marketing, that it is being over-diagnosed, and that it is a defense mechanism. If you want the science on that, check out the section of the Frontline documentary with the interview with the South Korean psychiatrist who has a clinic for ADD-HD-diagnosed gamers. His studies, and those of Chinese psychiatrists, draw a similar distinction between the organic and behavioral types of A.D.D.

    In any case, comics are a place to explore what-if scenarios based on things that are happening or even not happening. 

    1. Does that mean that I shouldn’t bother calling Stan Lee to complain that radioactive spider venom is unlikely to confer super-strength?

      1. Last I checked Stan Lee didn’t make a long bs intro to his comics about how spiders are influencing the kids in our society.

        To mr. Rushkoff… if you write crap then expect people to call you on it. And what the heck is “The piece above makes a distinction between the clinical diagnosis of ADD and what I believe is a defense mechanism of ADD-like behaviors and approaches. “? You yourself were talking about clinical diagnosis of kids and some mumbo jumbo about how they get ADD from video games. It is fine to do “what if”, but don’t spout it off as actual science.

    2. It’s fine if you want to explore all sorts of off the wall ideas in comics or other forms of fiction. But before introducing your imaginative exercise, you have 8 paragraphs of bullshit social commentary presented with a veneer of science and statistics designed to add a sort of ‘real world’ relevance to your comic.

      You can’t use that sort of appeal to legitimize your fiction and then say  ‘hey it’s just fiction dudes’ when people object to your analysis.

    3. Also, compare:

      In any case, comics are a place to explore what-if scenarios based on things that are happening or even not happening

      The story in A.D.D. may be fiction, but the war on our minds and against our resistance is as real as the mediaspace in which we live.

      1. I didn’t write about my reaction to Wired’s “attention economy” article or the subsequent increase in ADD publicity and diagnosis as a way of “legitimizing” my fiction. Mark wanted me to write about the genesis for the story, and I wrote about it.  

        And I totally stand by the thoughts and feelings I had, because I am sure I had them. 

        I still find myself thinking that ADD is both over-diagnosed *and* potentially a reaction or adaptation. (“Find myself thinking” just like “can’t help but suspect” – the phrase I used in the above post – is not equivalent to “science shows” or “the fact is.” It is the admission of a subjective sense.) 

        And I think it’s an interesting parallel to the sorts of “new type” abilities we find in the fictional characters of manga and anime. As far as social satire and commentary, it’s the thoughts and feelings one has that provide great platforms for what becomes serious statements, absolutely. Stories and folklore about organ donations lead to Never Let Me Go, or Handmaid’s Tale. 

        When William Gibson described his first inspiration to write Neuromancer, he said it while watching two kids playing handheld video games that were somehow connected to each other, and he got the sense that the two kids’ brains were connected. There wasn’t any real science behind the sense that he had, nor was he arguing that his observation somehow justified the story – only that it inspired it. He wondered where all this was going. 

        1. It’s obvious you’re being subjective.  The problem is that your media “defense mechanism” “ADD-like” theory is a fantasy, while medical  theory is based on objective evidence.   It is the differences between medicine and homeopathy.  It is the difference between Tom Cruise ranting about modern medicine being a conspiracy theory with Ritalin being over prescribed for non-existent ADD (sounds familiar) and peer -reviewed physician-scientists saying they don’t know if it’s being over or under prescribed, but hey – we can objectively measure that these kids diagnosed with ADHD have twice the glutamate than those without, the catecholamine  excretions in ADHD patients are very peculiar, and countless other metrics.  It is the difference between effectively treating real people with real diseases and spreading psuedo-medicine bs that causes more suffering.  

          If you want to understand the very complex topic of ADD/ADHD, why don’t you do a basic review of the wealth of  medical research that has been conducted instead making up your own quack theory?

    4. I get that it’s “just” a comic book, but your belief that “ADD-like behaviors and approaches” are “a reaction to media and marketing, that it is being over-diagnosed, and that it is a defense mechanism,” is a radical thesis that ignores all of modern medicine. Your general understanding of of ADD/ADHD seems very shallow and your personal beliefs are dismissive to the point of being offensive.

      The science you cite isn’t valid. Cliff Nass is a sociologist who has done no science regarding ADD, nor does he appear qualified to. You also cite an unknown South Korean psychiatrist and random Chinese psychiatrists who “draw a similar distinction between the organic and behavioral types of A.D.D.” I really have no clue what this means. Can you rephrase this using standard biological terms? And please link to the research that makes a distinction between organic and behavioral ADD.

      There’s a lot researchers don’t understand , but they do know that the brain physiology and biochemistry of those diagnosed with ADD/ADHD is different from that of those without the disorder. This has been measured objectively in thousands and thousands of studies. There’s no controversy in the medical community about ADD/ADHD being a genuine disorder. The focus is on finding the best ways to detect and treat it.

      Creating and spreading medical misinformation is dangerous b/c it encourages people to neglect the very real medical issues they or their children are facing. Spreading some myth that kids are over diagnosed and are just displaying “ADD-like behaviors” as a “defense mechanism” makes you no better than vaccine opponents. I don’t really care if you sit around philosophizing about ADD being a social construct or greedy big pharma being after the children, just don’t pretend your opinions are backed by science. You’re ignoring a huge community of experts who dedicate their lives to performing the real work of diagnosing ADD/ADHD patients, looking at brain slides, and developing better treatments. Stick to media theorizing and comic books, and leave medical advice to people who have a clue.

      1. Oh – that’s not actually true. There’s major controversy in the medical literature about ADD over-diagnosis and mis-diagnosis. Better stuff from Holland, South Korea, and China than the US (or at least more literature suggesting an inappropriate clustering of diagnoses that would be better parsed). 

        Agreed that my participation in ADD-HD advocacy, research and treatment does not count as anything but anecdotal. And I do happen to believe that homeopathy works, and that there are some real drawbacks to vaccines, so you should be able to dismiss me on those grounds alone. 

        But I’ve read more medical literature on ADD-HD than most, and interviewed more real scientists in more places than most people. I would consider myself informed on this issue (you would consider me misinformed).  

        I happen to believe that the redefinition of spectrum disorders for DSM is evidence that there is some amount of controversy and questioning about the categorization and labeling of these conditions. The names and justifications for sensory processing disorders change every year. 

        But in the end, my own suspicions about the sudden explosion of attention-related diseases in the wake of the internet industry deciding we live in an attention economy is not science but more of a “hey, that’s weird.” It led me to think about some rather fun what-if’s that I do believe end up serving as a good starting place for a story about a youth revolt. 

        1. “And I do happen to believe that homeopathy works, and that there are some real drawbacks to vaccines, so you should be able to dismiss me on those grounds alone. ”
          True enough.  I can’t take anything you say regarding medicine or science seriously  now.  It also makes wonder whether you can understand all this medical literature you claim to read even on a most basic level basic.

          You believe “homeopathy works.”  Prove it. There’s no evidence.  The entire sum of scientific evidence shows homeopathy to be no better than placebo, and in some cases it’s worse.  On a side note, alternative/natural medicine (homeopathy not included – it’s a joke) that works is researched and becomes what we call medicine.

          And you’re still spreading medical misinformation. “There’s major controversy in the medical literature about ADD over-diagnosis and mis-diagnosis” – um, no there isn’t – at all.   At least not among medical authorities, academics,  clinicians, and researchers.  ADD/ADHD research is very complex,  there is much progress to be made, and there are many open debates, but this “major controversy in medical literature” regarding mis/over diagnoses only exists in your head.  

          You now claim to  participate in ADD/HD research and treatment?  Wtf?  And better medical research is coming out of China and North Korea than the US? Lmfao. On my current project we’re researching new methods to provide immuno-protection for allografts, among other things, and over half  of my colleagues at a biotech powerhouse are from China or Korea.  Those countries don’t exactly have a decent reputation for reliable or valid medical research. Their best and brightest scientists and physicians go elsewhere.  

          “I happen to believe that the redefinition of spectrum disorders for DSM is evidence that there is some amount of controversy and questioning about the categorization and labeling of these conditions. ” Nope, redefinition of spectrum disorders does not mean what you think it means.
          Sadly, I don’t think we’d even be able to agree on what the words science, research, and medicine mean. 

          p.s.  Since you ignored all my questions and concerns, can you at least post show links to the studies that support your extraordinary thesis by “draw(ing) a similar distinction between the organic and behavioral types of A.D.D.”?

  10. Re: stimulant meds: I was diagnosed with inattentive-type ADD as an adult and have an Rx for Adderall. You know how people always say “Just buckle down and get it done” when you’re faced with a tedious, difficult task? Adderall lets me do that when I want to. It doesn’t force me to; I can (and do) still procrastinate when I take it. But when I say to myself “OK, you’ve really got to just sit down and get this done,” I can actually do that. Without Adderall, I can plant myself at my desk all day, unplug the TV and internet, wear earplugs and blinders, and still not be able to concentrate for long periods of time on something tedious.

    Re: concept of ADD described in this post: Another side to ADD is hyperfocusing on something that does capture your attention. So it’s a bit weird to me to conceptualize ADD as a defense mechanism against people trying to capture your consciousness. In my experience, it’s more about lack of control over your attention. It would probably be easier to capture the eyeballs and attention of someone with ADD than someone without it — as long as you picked the right thing to show them, the thing that they hyperfocus on.

    I don’t think the internet, video games, etc. create ADD. But the internet is candy-coated crack to my ADD brain. It’s nonlinear, visual/verbal, absolutely endless links to new and interesting things.

    If ADD is a feature for me, it’s that my brain is driven to seek out new information all the time, and then keeps tossing all that information around in my head, so it makes intuitive links between seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

    1. Driven to seek new information, all the time; you’ve nailed it. I’m usually hard-pressed to find anything positive about my ADD, but all that distraction/information has to go somewhere. I like the idea that my distraction — my attentiveness to other things — leads to intuitive links. Comes in handy when I’m writing punchlines.

  11. Whoever claims that videogames cause ADD hasn’t sat down for a fourteen-hour Skyrim session.

  12. It should have been called “Attention Surplus Disorder”- the hallmark is an inability to direct attention, not insufficient attention- as my wife says, I’m “interrupt driven”.   

    I’ll second the many posters who object to the reenforcement of the over-diagnosis-by-schools-that- just-want-to-control-kids meme/ myth. It’s destructive in exactly the same way that repeating non scientific doubts about the value of vaccines is destructive.  

    Diagnosis for my daughter was difficult, time consuming, and expensive to obtain.  The school had no role whatsoever. From what I have seen, that experience is typical.  The school would have been fine to keep our dreamy, distracted daughter, who could never complete any tasks or assignments, classed as just a poor student.  But we knew what she read at home.  We also knew her frustration at being incapable of completing tasks or following instructions- this can be very difficult stuff for families to deal with, don’t trivialize it.  After getting medication and finding her feet, she topped out on the school’s standardized tests, and was given the SAT  (she had just turned 12 at the time). She tested in the 98th percentile alongside graduating high school seniors.  So yes, medication helped her a lot.  She’s now a student at a very academically demanding college, in the arts, and very happy. I hate to think what might have happened to her had she not gotten the help that a diagnosis made available.  Flip and thoughtless screeds like the above stir deep anger in my soul, because they could deter parents of kids who need help from getting it.  

    Video games or computers have nothing to do with this.  I was an ADD kid, and I’m 60, so I predate all that stuff by a lot.  Like many parents of ADD kids, I figured out that I had suffered through the same thing.  I wish I had had the help available now.  I was diagnosed as an adult, took meds for a couple of years, felt I learned a lot from that process but no longer take them.  

    ADD brains may have been very adaptive in traditional societies- the “hunter vs. farmer” theory.  If successful, lots of us end up in creative endeavors, or in design, making things, or owning our own businesses (all are true of me).   But typically we make lousy employees- I know I did.  Plenty end up failing without help, though.And that is a shame.

    1. Yep, there’s a significant amount of research into what you coin as “attention surplus.” It’s called hyperfocus, and is a often a symptom of ADD. They can focus intensely for long periods of time if the subject or activity interests them. If it’s uninteresting, they space out. For some, it is as if their attention and energy has a high power on/off switch.
      ADD can be more akin to the highs and lows of bipolar than the stereotypical image of someone who is always jumping off walls and can’t pay attention for a minute, but rarely do you hear this in alarmist media reports that don’t even recognize the significant differences between ADD and ADHD (they don’t even affect the same parts of the brain.)

      This post also stirs deep anger in me, not only because the author blows off medical science with his quack theory and promotes social stigma of ADD, but more so because I’ve also seen first hand effects of ADD and the life-saving improvement offered through treatment. As you mention, reading the above post some parent may be persuaded that the author has some authority (based on being an academic, referencing “science”, and being presented on a pro-science platform like BB) and ignore their children’s symptoms or refuse their physicians recommendations.

      You probably know that ADD can have a very strong genetic basis. Can’t look up journals atm, but you may find it interesting some studies found a significant correlation between the father having ADD and his children also having it. Something like ~ > 30% of fathers with ADD had a child with ADD.

      It’s important that you got your daughter help when you did. The problems created by undiagnosed ADD can really blow up as kids reach adulthood and transition the to the daily pressures of the real world.

      A personal example: SWIK did fine all the way up through college. They had some social issues that were hidden with coping mechanisms, but were generally a happy, high performing student. Once the structured environment of formal education and the guided intellectual stimulation ended, their life progressively fell apart. Despite being a hardworking all A student, they could not hold a job after uni. For about five years, they didn’t work, they self-medicated the high and lows with drugs and alcohol, they relieved boredom with impulsive thrill seeking like crashing cars and being dangerously promiscuous, and they poured their intelligence and focus into mindless hours of online gaming or internet surfing. They became broke, lived like a hermit, sleeping/eating problems developed, lost all relationships, and eventually the depression and anxiety became so great that suicide was considered – so they sought professional help. They were diagnosed with adult ADD ~ age 26 and were prescribed Adderall. Life turned 180 after a couple months of medication and therapy. They got a decent job, became self-sufficient, reconnected with past relationships, emotionally leveled, and most importantly, they are optimistic about the future and no longer considering taking their own life.

      1. Thanks.  Yes, hyperfocus sounds right. Neither I nor my daughter fit the pop culture/ media image of ADD- we were the perennially spaced out, absent-minded kids who just couldn’t ever get anything done- except when we focused intently and were able to blot out external reality for extended periods.  My daughter’s exceptional intelligence enabled her to perform at an “average” level in school pre-diagnosis, despite missing much of her work, and she wasn’t at all disruptive, so could have easily slipped through the cracks if home life hadn’t been so difficult.  

        The idea promulgated in this post that school guidance counselors diagnose kids and push Ritalin on them- “When I think about kids being diagnosed by public school guidance counselors and then drugged to pay better attention” – well, I’m not going to say it has never happened, just as I won’t say there aren’t adverse reactions to vaccines- but I will assert it is bloody rare.  Our journey to diagnosis involved several specialists, extensive leaning ability testing (we were not covered by insurance), and medical tests, all before anyone said one word about any medication.  Ill-informed and off the cuff remarks about over diagnosis and medicating kids to calm them down really frost me. There is much ignorance in the first part of this post- “formerly rare sensory disorder”- did the author even bother to check any credible research before writing that? I think not. 

        And I’m very aware of the genetic ties- I suspect my own father had ADD- which probably was not so much of a disadvantage in his youth as a subsistence farmer, but after the WWII and GI bill when he became an engineer and researcher, and worked on the Space Shuttle and the GPS satellites, it must have been a challenge. 

        ADD is a physical condition, every bit as real as diabetes or nearsightedness.  It has nothing to do with video games- you can’t “create” it or catch it from some activities. Like most differences, it has some pluses and minuses- I am very good at picking anomalies out of patterns, and finding objects- I was a great fossil hunter as a kid. My daughter is a great artist and sees things most people miss. Without a diagnosis, I doubt she would have gotten the opportunity to do what she is capable of.  Learning strategies for working with the way my brain operates has helped me personally, and the meds were a part of that learning process.

  13. I still see a connection between the invention of an attention economy and the sudden explosion of attention-based diagnoses – as well as with the use of ADD drugs by non-ADD sufferers as a way of coping with hi-tech society. 

    If we refuse to distinguish between the real disease you describe and the other syndromes and behaviors being confused with it, we end up making those we so clearly care about less likely to get help. Ritalin works for some of them, while voodoo non-science evil boing mutant mumbo jumbo like cranio-sacral therapy helps others. 

    But as I keep reading and re-reading what I’ve written, trying to see the truly objectionable claims, I think you are responding to some other obstacles you have encountered and not what I’ve written. 

    1. Cranio-sacral therapy…I just had to look this one up.  They claim to manipulate cranial bones with their bare hands (using a soft touch too!).  The non-surgical method to move cranial bones would require a strong sledgehammer whack to the pterion. 

      Sure, CST helps some people;  much in same way we can measure how inert tablets, placebo surgery, and false information also “helps” people.

  14. I’m going to start out by saying I haven’t read the book yet so I’m limiting my comments to this article and the comments that have followed them…

    The disconnect I keep finding here boils down to what’s happens at the descriptive level of the process. I had to dig up an abstract from a talk a colleague of mine gave at an interdisciplinary conference back in 1998 to untangle what I’ve read here…    

    Sean Hagberg, Ph.D. – Medical Anthroplogist
    The Emergency of Psychiatric Diagnosis: ADHD – This paper describes the emergence of a specific category of psychiatric diagnosis as a complex phenomenon. Drawing on specific ideas from social theory and anthropology, this paper contextualizes the notion of scientific psychiatric diagnosis as an emergent cultural phenomenon. The paper describes and applies a specific complex model to the emergence of what is now called Attention Deficeit/Hyperactivity Disorder. That emergence is traced through the medical, academic and popular literature that surrounds the diagnosis. The paper demonstrates the utility of non-linear models in approaching complex phenomenon, in this case ADHD. http://www.societyforchaostheory.org/conf1998/Abstracts98.html

    Sean’s talk detailed how ADD/ADHD is perceived with a different set of criteria by school nurses, clinical psychologists, parents, teachers and of course MD’s. At the time, I related it to the struggles within the chiropractic profession to deal with the same issue with the 296+ definitions of the term subluxation cited in the literature.

    All I can tell from reading these comments is that there’s a similar clash of ‘maps’ occurring depending on how the person commenting categorizes or experiences ADD/ADHD.  The ironic part for me, as someone who would of been given an IV drip of Ritalin had I been in the public school system in the last 20 years, is that from the inside-out subjective experience of it, ADD/AHHD is more about SUBtext than CONtext so all of the 3rd person labels ascribed to it from the outside chase the shadow of it, much like the 296+ definitions of subluxation chase it. Let me explain.

    They say if Einstein were around as an elementary school student in the 90’s he’d of been ‘diagnosed’ with some form of developmental delay and placed on the spectrum. As a failed academic, that label would of led to an array of tests, medications and interventions much like some of the people here chronicled. The ironic part is that it was BECAUSE he had the pattern, which was later described in the 1980’s literature on accelerated learning as lateral thinking, his cognitive style of conducting thought experiments facilitated much of his insights. Of course, he’s an exception. Or is he?

    And that’s where the ‘science fiction’ map Douglas proposed begins. What IF as he said ADD/ADHD was a way to offset the social conditioning that as he’s discussed this new ‘attention economy’ imposes on us? The perspective he speaks from includes his experiences with the dark side of the consumer driven world. His book ‘Coercion’ discusses how neuromarketers, casinos, strip malls and other ‘attention marketers’ use CONtext to direct and filter social behavior. On the mental health side, he also has discussed the way public relations emerged in the aftermath of WWI and evolved into modern mass media post-WWII in his recent work “Life, Inc.”. That same transactional bias has morphed with the advent of social media. Again, not having read this book yet, all I can speculate is that Rushkoff is using the poetic license of science fiction just as Orwell did with ‘1984’ and Huxley did with ‘A Brave New World”. He obviously struck a ‘nerve’ with it, as the clash of worldviews here testifies.

    What I can offer this thread are some bridges. One is more strategic. Robbie Woliver’s book ‘Alphabet Kids’ details the overlapping nature of the 70 childhood neurobehavioral disorders facing parents today. I had the opportunity to interview Woliver. He encouraged parents to get as many labels as possible so their child would have access to as many services as possible. In effect, he was advising them to exploit the system’s bias to label everything in such granular detail by effectively removing these redundant descriptions. I admire his idea.

    Crossing over from the ‘give me more pathologies’ strategy to a more functional medicine view, take the case of Cheri Florance, a speech pathologist, who took it upon herself to design a home-based program for her son Whitney. She ended up creating a program for other parents who seek options outside the system for their children. It really plays off of Rushkoff’s notion of classifying the behavioral side of ADD/ADHD as a coping mechanism a growing population of people must use to navigate the increasingly expanding visual culture we live in. Check it out.

    Along those lines, Robert Melillo’s book ‘Disconnected Kids’ offers a DRUG-free approach to dealing with all the spectrum disorders. The argument in this thread about ADD/ADHD being some kind of predisposed pathology to ‘live with’ is shattered in this book.One word – plastics!

    To sum up, what Rushkoff proposes is not misleading, unscientific, or misinformed. If you can accept the premise that if we truly live in an ‘attention economy’, which I don’t think anyone here has challenged, then given the work of Hagberg, Woliver, Florance and Melillo, is it too far fetched to think that the alliance that exists between public schools and Big Pharma is less than 100% pure-minded? If I tell you that 4% of children placed in Special Needs programs in NY ever get transferred into the mainstream, does that not demonstrate how ineffective these programs are at providing these families a way to overcome their circumstances as Florance and Melillo’s programs do routinely? Again, it’s a map problem. Some in this thread have just decided that any map that doesn’t honor the mainstream perspective is automatically invalid.

    I’m just glad you got upset enough to share that decision here. Hopefully, you’ll use that same skepticism to vet the references I posted. Good luck with that btw…

    Travel light, MRF 01.25 

    PS: One note about the whole multi-tasking/hyperfocusing debate…does anyone consider the FACT that the body does and is always multi-tasking/hyperfocusing? Given that reality, much of the noise the ADD’r experiences is from the ‘bottom-up’ since they lack the ability to ignore the incoherence they experience kinesthetically. That’s why much of the drug-free alternatives center on helping the individual regulate energy and/or their physical rhythm in the way they breathe, move and feel. The solution is somatic!

    1. “Hopefully, you’ll use that same skepticism to vet the references I posted. Good luck with that btw…” Thanks for the warning ;)

      1)Sean Hagberg, Ph.D Anthropolgy, The Emergency of Psychiatric Diagnosis: ADHD

      I can’t find where this was published. Regardless, I don’t see anything Hagberg has done related to ADD. The top hit I found is him commenting on some random forum that he believes “ADHD to be a “constructed” category, in the same way I understand neurobiology to be equally a cultural construct. ”

      Neurobiology is a cultural construct? Yep, that’s too far out for me, man.

      I’d suggest you and Hagberg volunteer at a hospital to see what something like cerebral arteriovenous malformation looks like with your own eyes. Maybe you and Hagberg could get permission into an OR to watch a neurosurgeon perform a craniotomy, removing the tangled blood vessels via microsurgery and preventing a life-ending stroke. Then the most junior assistant could explain why neuroscience is what makes diagnoses and treatments like what you would’ve witnessed possible.

      Can you see what I see in the image I posted? Is that what neuroscience “social constructs” look like?

      This is what recent ADHD research looks like: http://psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=181060 . Can you see how this study is different from Hagberg’s “paper”?

      You think “ADD/ADHD is perceived with a different set of criteria by ADD/ADHD is perceived with a different set of criteria by school nurses, clinical psychologists, parents, teachers and of course MD’s.” The definitions and methods are clear. It’s the language of science. It’s what allows a diverse group like Nigel M. Williams, Ph.D.; Barbara Franke, Ph.D.; Eric Mick, Sc.D.; Richard J.L. Anney, Ph.D.; Christine M. Freitag, M.D., M.A.; Michael Gill, M.D., M.R.C.Psych.; Anita Thapar, M.D., Ph.D.; Michael C. O’Donovan, M.D., Ph.D.; Michael J. Owen, M.D., Ph.D.; Peter Holmans, Ph.D.; Lindsey Kent, M.D., Ph.D.; Frank Middleton, Ph.D.; Yanli Zhang-James, M.D., Ph.D.; Lu Liu, M.D.; Jobst Meyer, Ph.D.; Thuy Trang Nguyen, Dipl.Math.oec.; Jasmin Romanos, M.D.; Marcel Romanos, M.D.; Christiane Seitz, M.D.; Tobias J. Renner, M.D.; Susanne Walitza, M.D.; Andreas Warnke, M.D., Ph.D.; Haukur Palmason, Ph.D.; Jan Buitelaar, M.D., Ph.D.; Nanda Rommelse, Ph.D.; Alejandro Arias Vasquez, Ph.D.; Ziarih Hawi, M.Phil., Ph.D.; Kate Langley, Ph.D.; Joseph Sergeant, Ph.D.; Hans-Christoph Steinhausen, M.D., Ph.D.; Herbert Roeyers, M.D., Ph.D.; Joseph Biederman, M.D.; Irina Zaharieva, B.Sc.; Hakon Hakonarson, M.D.; Josephine Elia, M.D.; Anath C. Lionel, M.Sc.; Jennifer Crosbie, Ph.D.; Christian R. Marshall, Ph.D.; Russell Schachar, M.D., F.R.C.P.C.; Stephen W. Scherer, Ph.D.; Alexandre Todorov, Ph.D.; Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D.; Sandra Loo, Ph.D.; Stanley Nelson, M.D.; Corina Shtir, Ph.D.; Philip Asherson, M.R.C.Psych., Ph.D.; Andreas Reif, M.D.; Klaus-Peter Lesch, M.D.; Stephen V. Faraone, Ph.D to collaborate on the paper I linked to, and it’s the reason their research can be shared, replicated, and critiqued across the world, regardless of language and culture.

      People like Hagberg and Rushkoff are the ones making up different criteria in fields they don’t participate in. Hagberg “Contextualizes the notion of scientific psychiatric diagnosis as an emergent cultural phenomenon,” and Rushkoff “draw(s) …. distinction between the organic and behavioral types of A.D.D.” These words and concepts are foreign to basic biology, chemistry, math, etc…

      2) Robbie Woliver’s , journalist, Alphabet Kids..

      This is the only reasonable thing on your list; however, I wouldn’t consider it a reference guide. I see a small book with simple summaries of various disorders, sprinkled with anecdotes. There might be some helpful initial guidance for parents in here, idk.

      Here is what a general reference on disorders looks like: http://www.amazon.com/Robbins-Cotran-Pathologic-Basis-Disease/dp/1416031219/ref=pd_sim_b_1

      Can you see the ways this reference is different than yours?

      3) Cheri Florance, speech pathologist, Maverick Minds…

      She diagnosed and treated her own child. I’m glad that worked out for her, but this can be very dangerous. AMA Code of Medical Ethics strongly discourages physicians from self-treatment and treatment of immediate family members, especially your own kids. Medicals ethics across the modern world emphasize that treating you own minor children is hazardous – one of the worst cases; unfair to the child, and in many countries it exposes the clinician to all types of liability. But I guess Florance isn’t a physician, so who cares about medical ethics, right?

      It appears she decided that her child is special and doesn’t have a recognized medical problem; instead, they have “The Maverick Mind” The MM is a new diagnoses “discovered by Dr. Cheri Florance, is a brain that functions at above the 99th percentile in the visual pathway and below the 1st percentile in the verbal pathway.”

      Now she runs the non-medical for-profit Brain Engineering Labs (no brain science or engineering involved). If the “Maverick Mind” is a revolutionary diagnoses and she has developed a breakthrough treatment, I wish she would share it with the rest of the world instead of making money off of it by writing layperson books and opening a business. You know, verify it with established processes of scholarly review, vivo studies, vitro studies, RCTs, etc.. This self-proclaimed “Doctor”/ “a world-famous brain scientist”/”brain builder” ( I want to build brains too! Where do I sign up?) should have no problem. It almost sounds like she is highly regarded clinician-scientist. Oh nevermind, it doesn’t look like she has the credentials to step in a lab.

      4) Robert Melillo, chiropractor, Disconnected Kids…

      This one’s the worst. Melillo is a quack. No exaggeration. He’s on several health industry watchdog lists.

      He calls himself an “internationally known lecturer, author, educator, researcher and clinician in the areas of neurology, rehabilitation, neuropsychology and neurobehavioral disorders in children.” That’s pretty close to being a chiropractor with no recognized work or credentials in any of these areas, right? Everything I find on this guy is scummy. Medical professionals from all over denouncing him and his for-profit non-medical “Brain Balance Achievement ™” franchise (his book reads like a poor late-night infomercial for the program) based on “revolutionary” cure-all crap he makes up like “Hemispheric Integration Therapy.”

      Melillo claims to have ” research papers” and a “textbook.” I looked them up. I thought it was strange these papers were hyped as discovering “ground-breaking cures” but had no citations, no IF, and seemed suspiciously self-promoted. Any article with the even the thinnest veneer of scholarship were co-authored with “Dr.” Gerald Leisman as the MD/PI/medical authority. I wondered what kind of MD/PI works with a guy like Melillo. Turns out Leisman is a fraud. He was charged by NIH for scientific misconduct and confessed to falsifying an MD from Cambridge (really, who does this?), falsifying work history (like being a BioE professor in England, lol), falsifying research, pretending to have non-existent patents, etc… In reality, he was just a fellow chiropractor associated with with same sketchy diploma mill in FL as Melillo.

      Mark, don’t think that medical research just blindly follows some “mainstream perspective.” Everyone is looking for flaws in everyone else’s research. Finding a significant one can sometimes be the greatest accomplishment of scientist’s career. Most published research is wrong. p=.05 means false positive 5% of the time. So what should we do? Abandon ourselves to despair and say, “Fuck it, everything’s relative! n=1 subjective anecdotal evidence is just as good as n=10000 objective empirical evidence! Ignore the biochemical markers in labwork, it could be the videogames!” No. What we do is hold all research to highly critical standards.

      I’ve no expertise to judge the CNV paper I posted. It just seemed recent and interesting. But, I’m confident it’s a worthy study w/ just a glance. Why? It’s published in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal. Case n=896 and control n=2455. They replicated the study (case n=2242 control n=8552) with four independent cohorts in three additional countries. They had a low drop out rate. Their data is open. Their methods are rigorously detailed. They address bias, limitations, and imprecision. They reveal their sources of funding and explain what what role their funders play. Researchers, academics, clinicians, and students across the world are invited to review and replicate their study. And they are not timid in exposing any weaknesses. Your “references” don’t come close to similar standards.

  15. Mark – I hope you write a book someday. You help connect a lot of threads. I have to check out Hagberg. 

    I’ll go back and take my homeopathic remedy now, and read some more South Korean studies on attention. 

    1. Don’t worry he’s got a free one you can read. You’d probably enjoy it.


      First paragraph and he’s talking about tapping into some global collective consciousness through his YES system, and how we have ” a lot of untamed consciousness to explore .” I can’t go on. It’s gonna blow my mind (like giving me the urge to shoot myself.) He makes up theories and then tries to charge people money for them just like his “references.”

      Note to Dr. Mark: Shouldn’t you clearly identify yourself as a DC in something like this? I know it’s illegal in several countries and some US states to use Dr. title in anything that could be confused with medical work without following it up with up with “Dr. of Chiropractic” or something.

      You have the title of Dr. plastered all over your websites and book, and then in the footnotes you make a minor mention of oh btw, I ‘m a chiropractor. Stuff like this is what gives DCs a bad rep. Hell, someone might get the impression that you’re a DO until they glance at your book.

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