Opinion – Luciano Melo: Pay attention to your attention and attention deficit

Opinion – Luciano Melo: Pay attention to your attention and attention deficit

William James, philosopher and pioneer of the teaching of psychology in the United States, 130 years ago, gave us a beautiful synthesis: “attention is taking possession by the mind of one among many objects or lines of thought, simultaneously possible”. Modern neuroscience visits William James, when he conceptualizes: “attention is the selective prioritization of neural representations of what is most relevant to our goals”. Prioritization is necessary because the human brain has a limited ability to process information.

How we experience the world is a product of this selection. Consequently, someone with abnormal attention will also experience abnormal living, which will emerge alongside symptoms of many mental illnesses. Depressed patients keep an eye out for negative information and fixate on their melancholy memories. Autistic people do not pay attention to their interlocutors. When they watch movie scenes, with intense interactions between the characters, they focus on unimportant aspects of the setting, not the actors’ faces. Schizophrenics consider unrelated details to compose the plot of the delusion. In such a way, a flashing street light is an “obvious” signal encoded by some intelligent force, warning of impending tragedy.

There is a clinical condition whose dysfunctional attention is not one aspect among others, but the fundamental characteristic, which is why it gives it its name. It is the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), previously considered an exclusive childhood disorder, which would disappear during maturation. However, studies indicate that about half of children with ADHD will carry this problem as adults.

As a result, they will live losing house keys, wallet, glasses or any important objects. They will have multiple random thoughts that interfere with logical reasoning, they will have difficulties in finishing work on time, they will face ramblings that will take them away from the tasks, they will forget about commitments, they will be restless when they should be silent. They will be classified as chatty, disorganized, impatient, careless and sloppy.

These are the suspicious symptoms when thinking about ADHD, but there are many others, also indiscreet, but still neglected. Ugly, sloppy writing can be the result of inattention to the layout. Joking behavior, while required otherwise, may be the result of an inability to perceive the rigor of the environment. Delay in reacting to an unexpected new event can be a difficulty in tracking the effects of changes. The long-winded, digressive speech may have its origin in the inability to organize ideas.

Attention is a dynamic cognitive activity and should be. Focusing around the present situation may not be the most appropriate as soon as some environmental interference occurs. Or when other mental activities, such as planning, remembering, feelings, and sensations, point to a new priority. The mind, even when focused on something, momentarily wanders to assess any new developments, which can be disregarded or accepted. For this psychic movement to be harmonic, adequate brain control is necessary. But harmony often gives way to mess when there’s ADHD.

There are some septic considerations regarding ADHD in adults. Diagnosis requires childhood memories, which may not be accurate. ADHD is often considered an invention, to apologize for failures, whose reasons would be others such as indolence, immaturity and indiscipline. In addition to these factors, other medical conditions, such as depression and sleep disturbances, can produce similar symptoms.

Despite these controversies, there are indeed adults who are impulsive, inattentive, and restless, and these manifestations are reminiscent of persistent childhood disorder. These adults suffer the consequences of these maladjustments, with failures in work and social life, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

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Mennen, Anne C, Kenneth A Norman, e Nicholas B Turk-Browne. “Attentional Bias in Depression: Understanding Mechanisms to Improve Training and Treatment”. Current Opinion in Psychology, Attention & Perception, 29 : 266–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.07.036.

Spencer, Thomas, Joseph Biederman, Timothy E. Wilens, e Stephen V. Faraone. “Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Controversial Diagnosis”. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 59, no suppl 7 : 0–0.

Volkow, Nora D., e James M. Swanson. “Adult Attention Deficit–Hyperactivity Disorder”. New England Journal of Medicine 369, no 20 : 1935–44. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcp1212625.


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