Richard G. Petty, MD


“Success isn’t magic or hocus-pocus its simply learning how to focus.” –Jack Canfield (American Motivational Speaker, Author and Trainer, 1944-)

We have all been taught the importance of focusing to learn and to get jobs done. But there is also a problem that we call hyperfocus. This phenomenon has been known for centuries; in fact the Athenian Philosopher Socrates had it, and I’m going to put my hand up and admit that I have it too. When I am focused on a task I can easily become oblivious to the world and sit at my desk for many hours at a time without moving. I will not even hear the phone on my desk ring. And I have recently learned the hard way that sitting hunched over a hot computer for hours is not good for the spine. My chiropractor has given me strict instructions to break the spell of hyperfocus every hour and have a good stretch. (Thank you Teresa!). I’ve been giving that advice to other people for years, but doctors are, of course, the worst patients. Now my computer sends me a reminder every hour. Fortunately there can be an upside to hyperfocus, which I shall explain in a moment.

So what is hyperfocus? Interestingly, it is can be a feature of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). People with the disorder may not just exhibit distractibility, but may also have a tendency to focus very intently on things that interest them. The ability of a child to sit for hours playing complex video games does not at all rule out the diagnosis of ADD. I have known many people whose hyperfocus lead them to spend countless hours playing games or surfing the Internet, to the detriment of their relationships.

The real problem in ADD is not a short attention span; it is a poorly regulated attention system. It is thought that attentional problems are related to low levels of dopamine in key regions of the frontal systems of the brain, which is why people with ADD tend to be drawn to activities that provide instant feedback, and may also be part of the explanation for the disastrously high rates of substance abuse and impulsivity in untreated patients. Particularly in young people with ADD, they tend constantly to seek out things that are exciting and entertaining rather than schoolwork and chores.

So what to do about hyperfocus? I shall mention in a moment why, in its place, it can be helpful. But when it is interfering with things that have to get done, or causing other problems, here are some tips:

1. Use you computer’s alarm functions: I use a Macintosh, so I’ve been able to set up some fun distractions that come along once an hour.

2. Alarm watches: set the sound and/or vibration that it will be able to break through your hyperfocus. Experiment to find the decibels needed.

3. You can send yourself regular cell phone messages via email.

4. Most modern cell phones have good alarm functions that you can set to help yourself.

5. Kitchen timers are also very helpful.

Though there’s not a shred of scientific evidence to support it, I have also had some successes with the Bach Flower Essence, Chestnut Bud, in reducing unwanted hyperfocus.

I firmly believe that most problems contain their solution. Therefore I try not to fight hyperfocus, but to harness it. For a child with hyperfocus, learning that is active and physical is far more likely to be successful than book learning. Many entrepreneurs have hyperfocus, because they like working intensely on projects that give them a quick and enjoyable payoff. They often find it difficult to work in corporate America, if they have to work at someone else’s speed and at times laid down by another person.

“Successful minds work like a gimlet, to a single point.” –Christian Nestell Bovée (American Lawyer and Writer, 1820-1904)

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


5 Responses to “Hyperfocus”
  1. Jim Pfrommer says:

    Question about possible use and mechanism of action of modafinil in ADD.

    If modafinil is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor, wouldn’t that ultimately mean that over time of continued administration, dopamine transmission would be down-regulated?

    Whenever I teach psychopharmacology, I always emphasize that there are two parts to every time we put a chemical in the body. The first is the direct effects of that chemical upon the various receptors, and the second is the body’s response to that first action…

    We’ve always felt that this why SSRI’s are not “addicting” and the benzo’s are.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Richard Petty says:

    Downregulation should only be a theoretical possibility with modafinil. A group from the University of California has recently published a paper in PNAS, where they describe the mechanism by which some drugs may cause downregulation; it involves a G protein coupled receptor-associated sorting protein, nicknamed GASP! It’s main function is to degrade D2 receptors after they have responded to dopamine. Modafinil should not modulate GASP, so there should be a low risk of downregulation.
    Modafinil may just as easily be doing its work via GABA receptors. But I think that we also need to be careful about attributing all the actions of a drug to actions at receptors alone. An example of what I mean is clozapine, where it remains possible that some of its clinical activity is not derived from its interaction with receptors at all, but rather by modulating cell membrane phospholipid metabolism, that secondarily affects receptors.

    You are quite right to emphasize the dynamic interplay between a medicine and the body: the traffic is never in just one direction.

  3. Living with ADD says:

    Attention Deficit Disorder Carnival #6

    Here is a listing of some of the top posts from ADD ADHD blogs for last week. Hyperfocus (Richard G. Petty, MD) The real problem in ADD is not a short attention span; it is a poorly regulated attention

  4. Jim Pfrommer says:

    “Receptors are SO ’90’s”
    has become my one of my newer mantras as I go back over cell membrane metabolism, ion channels, second messengers, and other things that have come into focus just as we thought we were figuring something out.

  5. Richard Petty says:

    One of the puzzles about the neurochemistry of schizophrenia and bipoar disorder is the number of unconnected neuronal pathways effected. However, each on of the systems has receptors whose characteristics are modulated by changes in cell membrane fluidity (CMF). Part of the rationale for the fish oil experiments, and a possible link between hypercholesterolemia and arteriosclerosis: cholesterol-induced changes in CMF increase the response of endothelial and smooth muscle cells to local growth factors.

    Then there’s Manji’s data on the actions of lithium and divalproex, and all the data on different types of membrane disturbance in ADD and autism.

    I highly recommend the “Madnes of Adam and Eve,” by the late David Horrobin for a discussion of the phospholipid hypothesis of the physical aspect of schiophrenia, and “Phospholipid Spectrum Disorder in Psychiatry.”

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