Attention and attention problems have a lot to do with the brain’s executive functioning. Executive functioning is a term to describe brain operations that work like the way a corporate CEO decides what needs to be focused on in company operations at any given moment. Executive functioning is just like upper-level management, and not at all like filing alphabetically. So when a person with attention problems has trouble remembering the list of things his wife asked him to buy at the grocery store, but then has no trouble paying attention to the latest action movie, it may be that it’s about executive functioning and not because he “just doesn’t listen” to his wife! (Well, it may be independently true that such a guy doesn’t listen much to his wife, but that’s not the relevant issue here.) For true ADHD/ADD sufferers, this is a brain issue, not an issue of respect, organization or self-centeredness.
Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that is involved in directing the brain’s attention to what the brain determines is important. The kinds of things individual brains find important vary from person to person. Dopamine calls your attention to the things that your brain specifically finds important in any given moment.
I have a child who qualified for an Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) diagnosis, but for a long time I did not think that he had ADD when I saw how he was able to hyperfocus for long periods of time on particular things. Was the diagnosis wrong? Just because he could happily read an 800 page book didn’t mean that his brain was able to process and attend to all the other input in his life with the same amount of motivation and attention. It wasn’t because he was choosing to be difficult, and it wasn’t because he didn’t understand how to be organized or how to use his time strategically. He understood all of those things.
The executive functioning part of attention happens way before the person can decide on any particular organization or strategy. The idea is, “If I don’t see it, I can’t fix it.” Attention is derailed because the brain is signaling that something else is more important in that moment. So people with ADD tend to miss things. A lot. And attention tests show that people with ADD do have brains that function differently from people who don’t have ADD: there is 10% less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for directing and regulating behavior (and using logic, identifying consequences, etc.).
The surprise was that as I observed my son’s attention difficulties over time, I had insights into my own behavior and recognized that I actually had many of the same struggles. Realizing this helped explain a lot about both me and my son.
Brain Nutrition Makes a Big Difference with ADD
Both my son and I have found that excellent brain nutrition makes a big difference as we deal with our ADD—so big, in fact, that many of our ADD symptoms are negligible when we practice good habits of brain nutrition. Nutrition includes sleep and exercise as well as healthy eating habits. And since in this chapter we’re talking about exercise, let me be more specific about what this means:
Exercise Increases Neurotransmitters
Exercise increases the levels of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, lower levels of which are implicated in ADD. Most of the drugs that target ADD symptoms are drugs that increase these neurotransmitters. Exercise does the same thing. And regular, habitual exercise helps the brain far more than occasional exercise does. Consistent exercise makes us less likely to react irritably or out of proportion to problems, and helps us shift our attention more smoothly from one thing to another.1 Interestingly, research has shown that boys appear to need more exercise for these kinds of improvements as compared to girls.
Exercise Calms the Amygdala
Exercise helps calm down the brain’s amygdala, which is a part of the brain responsible for starting the fight-flight reaction as a result of strong emotion (think of lots of fear or anger). People who exercise are less likely to overreact to situations, which is another typical manifestation of ADD. Of course, emotional overreaction can also be a problem for people without ADD, so don’t imagine that everyone who overreacts must have ADD! By the same token, however, exercise will definitely help everyone whose amygdala tends to overreact, no matter the root cause.
An important point here is that merely increasing norepinephrine and dopamine levels isn’t always enough, nor is it always a good idea. Having more of these substances in the system is not always better, and there is a point at which too much of these neurotransmitters create negative effects. That’s why the neurotransmitter increases from exercise are going to be more useful than those from medication. Your body will not create “too many” of these neurotransmitters through exercise, although it’s surely possible to get too many of them through medication.
The best thing for you to do is just exercise and pay attention (!) to how much your exercise affects your ability to…pay attention.
1. Ratey J. (2008) Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company