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Overload, distraction, or inattention? Different factors in a frenzied world

ADHD is one of those clinical diagnoses that caught on and spread wildly, tagging every kid as it rushed by. At least that’s what some people would like you to think. In reality, only about 5% of children have been diagnosed as having ADHD (according to the CDC). Nevertheless, it certainly seems that distraction and inattention are becoming much more common in our society, though most people probably don’t hit clinical levels.

I’ve been losing things my whole life – It’s a running joke in my family (unless I lost your stuff, then it’s not so funny). From keys as a kid, to sneakers after ball-games, to my latest custom-made suit that was left on top of my car as I drove away. I was almost certainly an undiagnosed ADHD case in my childhood – the standards were different back in the early 80s and my Jewish mother was too protective to let anything be wrong with her perfect kid – but I can’t blame everything on my ADHD, and my wife who certainly doesn’t have the condition seems to lose her share of stuff too. So what gives?

Overload, distraction, and inattention

We live in a world full of stimulation where lights, and sounds mark the constant flow of information we’re supposed to process. Overload is a nice concept, but in fact our brains, not adept at processing computer-level bits of information, simply have to screen some stuff out in order to maintain us at below overload levels. In fact, when we hit overload, we normally know it – Headaches, anxiety, increased heart-rate and general stress response are ways our body lets us know that’s we’ve gone too far. The bottom line is that we normally operate well within our body’s functional range.

Nevertheless, if our brain has to screen out information, how controlled is the stuff that gets away? I think this is where the difference between people like me and the rest of you who don’t lose things daily really lies. You see, my brain dumps stuff at the same rate as everyone else but I don’t think it knows what is more, or less, important and therefore performs its cleanup duties indiscriminately.

It’s a bad deal.

The thing is you don’t have to take my word for it – recent research, conducted by some colleagues of mine at UCLA showed that people with ADHD do poorly when it comes to remembering more important words on a list even though they have about the same memory recall overall. When each word on a list of words to be memorized was given a clear point value, controls were able to produce significantly greater total-score word lists from memory than ADHD participants even though the total list length wasn’t different.

You see, it’s not just how much you can remember but also how good you are at screening out the less important stuff. For me, it’s a constant battle that I too often lose. Hopefully you have better luck.


Castel, A. D., Lee, S. S., Humphreys, K. L., & Moore, A. N. (2011). Memory capacity, selective control, and value-directed remembering in children with and without attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Neuropsychology, 25, 15-24.

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