Existential Psychology

Attention Span

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A number of people in our culture secretly believe they have ADHD, have been diagnosed with it, or have simply accepted that paying attention for any length of time is not their strong suit. The evidence to support these claims is usually poor performance in school or work when extended concentration is necessary, especially the inability to get through required reading. Many get down on themselves or laugh at their distractedness because they spend inordinate amounts of time on the same few paragraphs, their thoughts drifting off on some tangent. All of a sudden they startle, come back to the moment, realize they have absorbed nothing, and start over on the same paragraph, only to repeat the cycle.

The easy answer is ADHD and the easy solution is medication. But I think in many cases there is something else equally obvious going on that no one wants to see, mainly because of cultural expectations of what intelligence, success, and worthwhile areas of study are. These people are simply not passionate about or really even interested in the subject matter they are trying to stay focused on. If you get them talking about something they love everything changes and they can stay on topic indefinitely. These same people, when reading for pleasure, have no problems with concentration and cruise through books without getting distracted.

Clearly in these cases the ability to concentrate is present, and the real issue is what they are trying to force themselves to concentrate on. We all have different skill sets and different interests that make us feel passionately involved and hungry for more. Some of us never fully explore the different routes we can take, usually because of the intense pressure we feel from our families and from society. But if you are not truly drawn forward by the subject matter, how on earth are you going to keep focused on its minute details for hours on end?

The diagnosis of ADHD has reached epidemic levels and from an existential point of view something vitally important is lost, which is taking the time to self-reflect and decide on a path that really fits who you are. Instead you conform to societal expectations and are given that extra boost of concentration to stay focused on the subject matter even though you will never feel passionately engaged with it. We are not saying that ADHD doesn’t exist or that medication hasn’t been truly helpful and necessary for some people, but we are saying that it’s an easy answer for behavioral and attention problems and often misses what is really going on.