January 09, 2011
Mind Wandering Harder To Switch Off With ADHD

Wouldn't it be handy to have an app in your smart phone that would let you adjust the sensitivity of your mind wandering brain circuit?

Brain scans of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have shown for the first time why people affected by the condition sometimes have difficulty in concentrating. The study, by experts at The University of Nottingham, may explain why parents often say that their child can maintain concentration when they are doing something that interests them, but struggles with boring tasks.

Using a 'Whac-a-Mole' style game, researchers from the Motivation, Inhibition and Development in ADHD Study (MIDAS) group found evidence that children with ADHD require either much greater incentives — or their usual stimulant medication — to focus on a task.

The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, found that when the incentive was low, the children with ADHD failed to “switch off” brain regions involved in mind-wandering. When the incentive was high, however, or they were taking their medication, their brain activity was indistinguishable from a typically-developing non-ADHD child.

So the kids are just tuned for zoning out waiting for interesting events to happen. I suspect this tendency was selected for in some environments. Becoming too easily engrossed could cause a hunter to miss some prey.

How can you avoid the risk that your kid will find Phil Collins entertaining and still find a way to make ADD/ADHD kids able to learn? My modest proposal: Make versions of the most popular video games that have educational content mixed in to them.

Trying to develop video games from scratch that will be sufficiently interesting to hold the attention of someone with attention deficit disorder seems like a zero profit herculean task. Video games routinely take tens of millions of dollars to develop. Better to take games that have already succeeded and make variations of them that teach history, vocabulary, math, and other topics. An added benefit: Even non-ADD kids could learn from top notch video games that also did some teaching.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 January 09 07:14 PM  Brain Cognitive Flaws

gnolls dot org said at January 9, 2011 8:39 PM:

Your comment "I suspect this tendency was selected for in some environments" is most likely true. Thom Hartmann advanced this hypothesis in 1992 with his book "ADD: A Different Perception."

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter_vs._farmer_theory

"ADHD" is simply a diagnosis of being a hunter, as we were for millions of years up until a few thousand years ago, and as we still are genetically. "Distractibility" is simply noticing what's around you, as opposed to watching a teacher drone on and on and on. "Hyperfocus" is exactly what you need when you notice prey...because if you can't catch it, you don't get to eat.

Randall Parker said at January 9, 2011 9:15 PM:


Well, if ADHD is for hunters then hunter games ought to be used to incorporate material to learn. Imagine learning an ecosystem by playing a game that teaches you how to find your prey based on a better understanding of food chains and animal behavior. The game could pop up hints that help the player go hunting. The hints could be real scientific facts about an ecosystem.

One could even teach fisheries this way. Be the shark. Be the porpoise. How to find food? When to find it where? Teach migration patterns and species behaviors.

Dog of Justice said at January 9, 2011 10:11 PM:

My modest proposal: Make versions of the most popular video games that have educational content mixed in to them.

There are a few popular games that sort of fit this model, e.g. the Sid Meier's Civilization series.

gnolls dot org said at January 9, 2011 10:34 PM:


That is an excellent idea.

We can generalize the approach by imagining how children learned in the Paleolithic: by example and imitation, because they weren't sent away to 'school'...they were part of tribal life and learned by watching everyone else do daily survival tasks. Some changes aren't possible without detonating the school system (or our entire social system) and starting from scratch, but there is a lot of progress to be made.

The first is "learn by imitation and by doing - not by listening, repeating, and hoping to remember." Remember how exciting it was when you actually got to build a project or do a lab experiment in class, instead of just sitting and listening? Right. Video games can simulate this reasonably well, and most video games are an excellent model for pedagogy: start the player with just enough information to get around in unfamiliar territory, and challenge them with problems of increasing difficulty over time.

There's probably an entire article to write here, but this can give us a start.

Johan said at January 10, 2011 11:32 AM:


I always found labs in school boring. Spending hours confirming stuff that could be said in a few minutes - I am diagnozed with ADHD.

Johan said at January 10, 2011 11:43 AM:

I guess you're also missing one problematic factor here. As I said above I have ADHD. I like videogames as much as the next guy, but I tend to lose interest after circa 20 hours of playing (and that's when it's a good game (this also holds for books and most other things as well)). If you're going to teach something like an ecosystem in a computer game it has to be able to be conveyed in under 5 hours of playing - and then the next game teaching something else has to be a different one. At least if I am representative (which I of course don't know).

gnolls dot org said at January 11, 2011 2:38 AM:

"I like videogames as much as the next guy, but I tend to lose interest after circa 20 hours of playing"

That's over four weeks of a typical class period, lest we forget. No game can last that long in a classroom setting.

Besides, video games are only one of the tools in the shed. Part of the lesson to be learned is that there is not, and cannot be, any single procedure that can be re-run every day for nine months and still result in efficient learning.

Witness the success of the Sudbury method, which lets children hunt their own knowledge at their own pace, with absolutely no constraints other than "you must remain on school grounds (and woods are OK)". Surprisingly, the end result is equal or superior to 12 years of bells, buzzers, assigned desks, and general misery pursued and enforced with Herculean effort. When giving up and doing nothing works better than the existing system, we can safely classify it as completely broken and not worth saving.

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