Attention Deficit. What Kind?

distracted1We are, as you are no doubt aware if you check in regularly, busy with a series examining the impact of diet on the effects of ADD/ADHD. We have already looked at the desirability of a Low-GI diet; this was followed up with a discussion about nutrition and brain function. The last few articles in the series dealt with the negative impact of ‘sugar rushes’ and what we can do to prevent them from occurring.

With the next few articles we will delve a bit deeper into the issue of how our diets can make a real difference in the process of conquering ADD/ADHD. Before we can do that, however, we will have to take a brief look at the issue at the heart of ADD/ADHD: Attention.

We are sometimes so used to an acronym that we completely forget what it stands for. I suspect that this is often the case with ADD/ADHD. This is a pity since the acronym accurately describes the problem that we are dealing with, a problem with paying attention, an ‘attention deficit’. The difficulties that people dealing with ADD/ADHD experience when it comes to attention lies in two related but distinct areas:

•    Some people find it very difficult to focus
•    Other people find it very difficult to deal with distractions

So what is the difference between these two types of ‘attention deficits’? With the first the primary problem is that someone find it very difficult to ‘zone in’ on a particular topic, object or behavior regardless of the physical environment. He/she would find focusing equally difficult in a crowded room or in a bare cubicle. With the second type the outside environment is the determining factor. People with a distraction problem often find it almost impossible to pay attention when they are placed in lively environments but tend to do better when they are placed in more ‘neutral’ settings.

The distinction made above between the two basic types of inattention may seem trivial but it cuts to the heart of how the brain pays attention and is therefore a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to dealing with ADD/ADHD. It means that different people will need different things to improve their attention:
•    Some people will have to learn how to ‘tune’ in‘. This can be compared by placing a magnifying glass over an object. Everything will remain fuzzy until you manage to place the glass at precisely the right distance and angle.

•    Other people will have to learn how to ‘tune out’. I am a frequent flyer and I always take a set of top quality noise cancelling headphones with me when I fly. Their effect borders on the miraculous. One flick of a switch and it is as if the outside world ceases to exist. This is a good analogy of the kind of ‘tuning out’ that some people will need to learn, the filtering out of distractions to the extent that they become almost irrelevant.

There are many differing theories about ADD/ADHD, but one thing that almost everybody is agreed on is that at least some of its effects can be traced back to neurotransmitters in the brain not fulfilling their function properly. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that are responsible for carrying ‘messages’ between brain cells and it does not take a genius to work out that failures in this area could have serious consequences. Some of these consequences are perhaps all too familiar to you: inattention, impulsiveness, daydreaming and hyperactivity. The list goes on.  The interesting thing is that brain scientists are beginning to discover that failures of neurotransmitters related to the types of inattention mentioned above (lack of focus and distractedness) take place in different parts of the brain.

The brain pays attention in two basic ways and you can perhaps already guess what these two ways are. The first is top down (or willful goal oriented) attention. This is where set out to concentrate on completing a specific task (like reading this article for example). This type of attention is centered in the prefrontal cortex (the so-called ‘executive centre’) of the brain.

The other type of attention has to do with the response of the brain to outside stimuli or distractions. It is sometimes called bottom up (reflexive stimulus responsive) attention. This is where the brain ‘snaps to attention’ due to the influence of something in the environment. This type is centered in a totally different part of the brain namely the parietal cortex to the back of the brain.


This insight, namely that different types of attention emanate from totally different parts of the brain, has interesting implications. It means, at the very least, that we will need to pay much closer attention (!) to the kind of ‘attention deficit’ that we are dealing with when discussing a specific case of ADD/ADHD. I will profile this issue in a bit more detail in the next article by discussing ways in which we can identify the different types of inattention. I will also begin to look at the role that nutrition can play to combat them. See you then!