IT’S NOT OUR FAULT, BUT IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY.
In this article I will attempt to explain the latest neuroscience on ADHD. It helps us understand the issue, but its up to us to manage and thrive with ADHD.
Albert Camus the famous French Algerian existentialist said 'you will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of'
This concept has been with us for thousands of years, the Stoics, the Buddha and the Existentialists like Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus always talked about this. In recent times Jordan Peterson is the biggest voice. He avows the notion that one should not chase happiness. One should chase meaning and have a purpose in their life. Happiness might come along with this if you’re lucky. But if you chase happiness. It will never come.
Peterson says one should look into the darkest parts of the forest. This is where you will find the greatest light. So, for me the darkest part of the forest was dealing with my addiction to alcohol. Finding sobriety, which was not an easy process, especially as I had no idea, I had ADHD, which played a huge part in it.
When I was addicted to alcohol, I used to sit in the corner of a graveyard drinking cans of beer on my own. I didn't pay much attention to the bird song or the trees or the beautiful tombstones. I Just wanted to be hidden away to drink on my own and the graveyard was the best place to do this. Now I walk to the same graveyard and thank God for my luck. I thank him for my ADHD diagnosis, for my parents love and understanding, for my sister and her husband and her baby Lola, for the bird’s song, for the beauty of life, for my meaning and purpose.
Why did I drink? Let me explain. I didn’t understand the concept of meaning and living virtuously. I just wanted to feel ok. The more I chased ‘feeling ok’ the more it alluded me. Addiction for those of us with ADHD is common. On a trip to Rehab I found out that about 30% of the patients were on ADHD medication. The rest had some tell-tale signs of ADHD.
People with ADHD tend to ruminate more and find it harder to relax. Our ruminations are of course negative and fill us with anxiety. As time goes by and if you are not diagnosed with ADHD, or if you’re not treating it properly things only go from bad to worse. In recent research on ADHD an MIT neuroscientist by the name of John Gabrielli has discovered the reason why people with ADHD feel restless and anxious more than a neurotypical person. I will go on to explain this, but I want to say that it is this anxiety and restlessness that causes all the terrible things I have described above. The lack of impulse control, the anxiety, the rumination, and the foggy brain. When these are left to fester long enough it creates disastrous situations.
If you are someone with the ADHD genes, then you should pay attention. ADHD can display itself in many ways, but it comes down to those genes and more importantly the way you live your life.
Neuroplasticity is one of the greatest findings in recent history. It means we can change our brain, how we think and how we behave. Your brain is not a fixed organ. In fact, 80-year-olds can change their brain, how they think and therefore how they behave. Nietzsche talked about this. So did Socrates. In modern culture its not talked about enough. Carol Dweck refers to the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
If you believe you can’t change you won’t. Those of us who sit and watch TV, Netflix or scroll Instagram too much have a fixed mindset. You are not intent on improvement. Look at anyone who you admire. Can you imagine them scrolling Instagram for hours every day? If you can. Then maybe you need to look at your values and who you admire. If you believe you can change and take the right actions to do so, you will.
It reminds me of that famous quote by Henry Ford
'If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.'
It is right to think of your brain like a muscle. The harder you work the better the results. Also, if we use the same analogy, just like your biceps need rest days, so does your brain.
So on to the neuroscience. The newest findings explain clearly why people with ADHD tend to have more creativity, entrepreneurialism, and dynamism, but also at the same time irrational worrying, ruminating, and falling prey to self-destructive addictions and compulsions.
ADHD is one big contradiction. I can have days where I am depressed and can barely do a thing. I can have days where I work from dawn to midnight without a break. Both are unhealthy, but at least now I understand why.
When you are engaged in a task, like running, writing, gardening, or cleaning your room; FMRI studies have shown that a certain network in your brain, lights up. You can literally see it when you do a scan. The illuminated section is called the Task Positive Network or the TPN. This is intentionality. It is deliberate work. In this state you don't know if your happy or not, because you are not thinking about how you are feeling.... you are just doing. It is better than being happy. It is flow state. You are not wasting energy on self-assessment..
’How do I feel???’
That thought does not enter your head. You are in the zone.
When you are not in the TPN your brain switches to a different connectome which is called the Default Mode Network or the DMN. When you are in this state it allows for imaginative thinking, working out your future and making connections with things. However, when your brain is in the DMN it can also bring forth your autobiographical memory. This allows you to ponder on your past.
So, when we are on task, we are in the TPN and when we are not engaging in a task, we are in the DMN. Simple right? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The DMN is great for creativity, looking to the future, having a realisation, and connecting the dots. It’s like our subconscious comes up with the idea without us actively thinking about it. It’s like when you forget someone’s name and then 15 minutes later when you’re not thinking about it, the name just materialises in your mind. The DMN is great. The TPN is great. It helps you stay on task and finish essays or tax forms or tidying the house etc.
John Gabrielli has discovered something very different about the ADHD brain and the neurotypical brain. He has discovered that for people with neurotypical brains, when the TPN is turned on, the DMN is turned off. For those of us with ADHD, when the TPN is turned on, our DMN stays on. The DMN is fighting with your TPN by distracting you with negative or discouraging thoughts. This explains why people with ADHD struggle to do boring things like tax forms or excel spreadsheets or tidying their room etc
We basically have a little demon in our brain that tries to distract us from what we want to do in TPN mode. ADHD people have a faulty toggle switch between the DMN and TPN. This explains our distracted nature and the creative and depressive we so often see with the ADHD person. The faulty toggle switch makes it hard for us to move from the DMN to the TPN. When we are trapped in our DMN due to our faulty toggle switch, we quit tasks that we were so enthusiastic about last week or 10 minutes ago. We fall into despair. Our minds are never off. Think of the term tortured artist.
I’ll give you an example.
Let’s say you have an essay or a proposal at work due in 4 weeks. You sit down to start and activate your TPN. However, the DMN stays active. It is saying to you 'this is dull'. It’s asking you questions like...’how do you feel?’ Its recalling past humiliating experiences. You can’t focus on the work. So, you give up. Now its two days before the essay or proposal. Your body and brain release cortisol and dopamine. You stay up 2 nights in a row to get it done. You conquered your DMN because of the time pressure, the cortisol, the dopamine......Why? We don't know.
In summary Neurotypical or 'normal people' have no problem from switching from TPN to DMN. ADHD people do. ADHD people need extreme motivation...extreme dopamine production...excitement about the project...or fear of not getting it done in time, for the DMN to switch to TPN and for us to stay there and get the work done.
Another problem Gabrielli discovered is when people with ADHD are in the 'DMN' i.e. The Default Mode Network for too long they tend to lean towards destructive thoughts. They bring up shameful, embarrassing, traumatic experiences from the past and ruminate on them, leading them into a depression. It is very hard to get from depression to the TPN i.e. The Task positive network. I know this only too well. I was stuck in DMN for years. anxious depressed and addicted.
There is no wonder why people with ADHD people seek relief in drugs, alcohol, or other self-destructive activities. It’s exhausting. Now when you add the fact that we create less dopamine and norepinephrine into the equation you are left in HELL.
The DMN can be great. It is the place where we come up with fantastic ideas. And if we execute them, FANTASTIC! However, if we fail and can't find a new project. The exact creativity that brings about our best can't be fed. This leads us to addiction or compulsive behaviour. It explains ADHD addiction in a nutshell.
So, think of your brain as being in two states...TPN and DMN. Be wary and thankful of both. Know that if you have ADHD its likely you can be stuck in one or the other OR in both as you have a glitch that doesn't allow you to pass from one to the other without hard work on your part!
What is this work I speak of?
Well. From my experience this work is first and foremost recognising we have a different type of brain. Then seeking a diagnosis and medication. The right medication FOR YOU. I use Concerta (a methylphenidate that slowly drips dopamine into my neurones) It will take trial and error to find the right medication that works for you. For many, medication doesn’t work. That’s OK. There are other ways to manage ADHD. Medication is one of many. You must do them all to live a productive meaningful life. In fact, the only thing you don’t need is medication. But it has helped me, so it might help you.
Second is having a purpose and meaning that you are passionate about. YOU HAVE TO WORK TO FIND THAT - IT DOESNT JUST LAND ON YOUR LAP. This is the most important factor by a mile. Life is hard. As Nietzsche said, ‘he who has a ‘why’ can bear any ‘how’.’ This is my favourite quote ever. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the greatest philosophers that has ever lived.
THIRD is exercise. Every day! This includes walking, so don’t worry if exercise scares you. But don’t let that be an excuse. Once you are fit enough, hard intense exercise is amazing for ADHD. IT IS FUCKING AMAZING FOR ADHD. This creates endorphins and dopamine. It helps us switch between networks and calms you down. It helps us concentrate and work with focus in the TPN and it keeps ruminating destructive thoughts away when you are in your DMN. It helps you switch from both networks with ease.
Fourth is sleep. 8hrs for me. It’s just like exercise. It’s just as important. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Everyone is different, so you must find what times work for you. For me it’s 11pm -8am
Fifth is having the right loving and understanding people around you. What if we don’t? Find them. We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Choose them wisely. This is hard, especially if your friends and family don’t or won’t understand your issues. BUT IT CAN BE DONE
Sixth is understanding that this is your responsibility. It’s not your fault you have ADHD. But it wasn’t Stephen Hawkins fault he was paralysed. Look at what he achieved. Take responsibility for it and work your arse off to follow the golden path. Realise your values. Tell the truth or at least don't lie as Jordan Peterson would say.
We know relatively little about ADHD in reality. There is so much more to be discovered. But we can use the information that I have outlined above as a tool to learning more about ourselves. ‘Know thyself’ as Socrates said. That is so important for a meaningful life.
We shouldn't blame others EVER!!! It is a truly terrible trait in humans. We are better than that. Take what little information we have about the brain and ADHD and use it to overcome the glitches, the lack of dopamine, the ruminating thoughts.
Life is suffering. Embrace the suffering and don’t moan.
When it comes to the human brain, even our greatest neuroscientists are cavemen trying to work out an apple MacBook. But we can still use what we do know to HELP ourselves. How can we help ourselves? We can ask for help from people who know more than us and we can learn as much as we can about ADHD and our brains, our central nervous system, philosophy, psychology, anthropology etc etc. There are Neuroscience lectures on YouTube from the great Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University. Maybe start there. Jordan Peterson Lectures are incredible. Sir Ken Robinson. Dr Rhonda Patrick. Joe Rogan. Alain De Botton. Jonathan Heidt. Modern Wisdom (Chris Williamson) Alan Watts, AfterSKool, Dr Russel Barkley etc etc.
For parents of children with ADHD, your job is to be compassionate and learn and teach as much as you can. ADHD, untreated, is like diabetes of the brain. We can treat diabetes. We can treat ADHD. Getting angry and shouting at your children is never the answer. You need to cultivate compassion and understanding. ADHD brains are different. Having ADHD can be torture, but with loving parents and intentional help, children with ADHD can be exceptional human beings. The evidence is there. Joe Wicks is a great example.
There are many others.
If you think you might have ADHD, the first thing to do is to get checked by a psychiatrist who knows as much as he can know about it. Then it’s up to you. I really do not want people to experience the terrible things I experienced in my 20s. However, it taught me some valuable lessons so I will never see it as a bad thing. ADHD, treated well, can have huge advantages. There is hope!!
A special mention to Dr Ned Hallowell and Dr John Ratey, whose book ADHD 2.0 inspired this blog post.