Conceptions of ADHD are changing how some researchers think about the condition. Studies suggest folks with ADHD have different thought processes.

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From time to time, most of us experience occasional misfires in brain function (brain navigation) like:

  • forgetting someone’s name
  • under-preparing for a trip and scrambling to pack
  • getting sucked into one task and forgetting about your next meeting

But people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) experience more frequent and consistent disruptions that can be significantly more difficult to overcome.

Though ADHD is classically considered a behavioral disorder, some experts view ADHD as a cognitive condition, a disorder of thinking. The thought processes experiencing the greatest dysfunction? Executive functions, the navigation system of the brain.

Leading theories on ADHD suggest that some of its characteristic symptoms may stem from differences in cognition (according to this older 2009 study), including underlying issues with how the brains of people with ADHD direct their attention.

Part of how your brain directs attention are executive functions, the group of mental abilities that governs your brain’s planning systems. Studies continue to examine how executive dysfunctions impact the lives of people with ADHD.

Some experts have developed new models for thinking about ADHD, focusing on differences in executive functions like:

  • focus
  • sustained attention
  • working memory

Executive function differences with ADHD may have an upside: Quick thinking.

It can sometimes seem that people with ADHD think fast as they leap from one idea to the next. They may start a story, think of another halfway through, switch to the new one, finish their original story, and then hop into a discussion of the last movie they watched, for example.

What might seem like thinking more quickly is simply thinking differently. People with ADHD aren’t as able to inhibit themselves, whether it be their:

The thoughts a person with ADHD tend to jump without stopping to worry about the details. Additionally, many people with ADHD report feeling more relaxed when they’re most active, so this activity stream can often be comforting.

This lack of inhibition in thought can also result in more tangential connections. There’s less stopping the brain from drawing the connection between a story about a walk home and a story about a particular shirt, for example.

People with ADHD often have issues with working memory and with regulating attention, including switching from one task to another. When they launch into a new story halfway through a different one, it may be because they’ve learned if they don’t, they’ll forget the new story by the time they finish the first one.

In short, yeah, kind of, or at least their thought processes might look a bit different. People with ADHD have a diminished ability to regulate their attention, to put the brakes on their attention before it leaps to something else. This can result in someone with ADHD being more easily distracted.

It can also extend to an inability to consider different options before making a choice, or to agree to a commitment without considering prior engagements. People with ADHD don’t just have a short attention span — the part of their brain that governs attention doesn’t work the same.

People who don’t have ADHD can typically pay attention to a task, even if the task is boring. Folks with ADHD find this significantly more difficult. And not because their minds work so quickly that the task is that much more boring, but because their ability to selectively focus their attention is impaired.

Some people with ADHD experience hyperfocus for hours on something enjoyable to them, like:

This is often misinterpreted as proof that they’re choosing when to be affected by their ADHD symptoms or that they lack the “will” to focus on other tasks. Their diminished ability to manage attention is due to issues with their brain chemistry.

Problems with executive function may negatively impact academic outcomes of children with ADHD. Speed of language comprehension may also be negatively impacted in children with ADHD.

A 2018 study focusing on ADHD subtypes and the specific processing areas they affect, found that children with the inattentive subtype had slower decision speeds than children in the control group. The study’s authors concluded that inattention likely played a crucial role in the differences in performance.

The ADHD thought process is not so completely unfamiliar as to be unrecognizable, but people with ADHD might encounter some complications in their thinking. For example, someone with ADHD can be aware of some task, like a research paper. If you ask them when it’s due, they may even know the calendar date.

They know they should start working on it, at least start doing the research, but they can’t seem to actually get started. It’s not that they don’t know they should get started, or that they don’t want to. Their brain is less able to direct attention to the task until it requires their immediate attention. This inability is a result of executive dysfunction.

Hey there, I’m Michael. I have ADHD, and I include that not because it defines who I am, but because it’s part of my perspective as a writer.

I can’t speak to the thought process of everyone with ADHD, but I can add some anecdotal examples to different executive functions, such as:

Activation: prioritizing, organizing, scheduling, getting started on tasks

I know I should start researching for an article on ADHD. I’ve thought about it every day since I got the assignment in my inbox, and I want to do it, but I can’t quite make the jump from intent to action, and now I’m writing at 2 a.m.

Focus: paying attention, sustaining focus, shifting focus

I finish reading a study, and I decide I should give myself a short break. I open a game, and I start playing. I lose track of what I originally decided was my benchmark and keep playing the game, forgetting whatever time limit I set for myself.

It’s only when I finish the level that I can easily shift my focus to something new.

Emotion: managing and modulating emotions, especially frustration

I’m driving home from work, and I see a billboard with a picture that vaguely reminds me of someone I miss. I’m suddenly crying, overcome with emotion, unable to think of anything else until the thoughts play themselves out.

Effort: sustained effort, alertness regulation, and processing speed

Alertness regulation is something that often gets overlooked when discussing ADHD. I am more than simply not a morning person. I have extreme difficulty getting myself up and alert in the morning, no matter how many loud alarms I set.

ADHD is a neurological disorder characterized by differences in attention and activity levels. There are three main subtypes:

  • inattentive
  • hyperactive-impulsive
  • combined

Common symptoms of ADHD include:

  • overlooking details, making seemingly careless mistakes in school or at work
  • difficulty maintaining focus during play, conversation, tasks, or activities
  • trouble with starting and finishing tasks
  • difficulty with organizing and sequential planning
  • trouble with time management
  • easily distracted
  • fidgeting or trouble staying still
  • sudden movements like running, or climbing at inappropriate times
  • talking excessively, even while engaged in other activities
  • difficulty waiting your turn
  • interrupting during a conversation, even talking over themselves
  • acting seemingly without thinking

Other, lesser-known symptoms include:

  • trouble predicting outcomes of one’s behavior
  • trouble learning from one’s mistakes, applying past lessons to the present situation
  • difficulty returning to the task at hand after a break or interruption
  • poor self-awareness
  • difficulty reading social cues
  • inconsistent work, behavior, or interest
  • easily overwhelmed
  • feelings of failure
  • inability to focus on uninteresting tasks
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Additionally, ADHD symptoms vary considerably from one individual to the next, suggesting these differences should be taken into account when making a diagnosis.

ADHD is a mental health condition characterized by:

  • inattention
  • hyperactivity
  • impulsivity

Some view it as a cognitive disorder. Executive function, the brain’s self-management system, is where much of the dysregulated cognition seems to be.

Part of executive functions’ role is in regulating attention, and a growing body of research supports the idea that many ADHD symptoms may stem from this inability to regulate attention.

Executive functions have other roles which affect how someone thinks. In people with ADHD, these executive dysfunctions impact thinking in numerous ways.

People with ADHD don’t really think faster than people without it, but it can sometimes seem like they do. People with ADHD do think differently though, in a sense.