The mysterious phenomenon of „hyperfocus” in ADHD

by Eszter Kovács

Adults with ADHD often report episodes of long-lasting, highly focused attention, a surprising report given their tendency to be distracted by irrelevant information. This has been colloquially termed “hyperfocus” (HF). Here, we introduce a novel assessment tool, the “AdultHyperfocus Questionnaire” and test the preregistered a priori hypothesis that HF is more prevalent in individuals with high levels of ADHD symptomology. We assess (1) a pilot sample (n = 251) and (2) a replication sample (n = 372) of adults with or without ADHD. Participants completed highly validated scales, including the Conners’ Adult ADHD Rating Scale, to index ADHD symptomology. Those with higher ADHD symptomology reported higher total and dispositional HF and more frequent HF across each of the three settings (school, hobbies, and screen time) as well as on a fourth subscale describing real-world HF scenarios. These findings are both clinically and scientifically significant, as this is the first study to comprehensively assess HF in adults with high ADHD symptomology and to present a means for assessing HF. Moreover, the sizable prevalence of HF in adults with high levels of ADHD symptomology leads to a need to study it as a potentially separable feature of the ADHD syndrome.

Short comment
Anyone who’s able to intensely focus on specific tasks or activities couldn’t be diagnosed with ADHD. Right?

Not really.

Although hyperfocus is not an „official” symptom of ADHD (according to the DSM-5 criteria) it is a phenomenon familiar to many individuals with ADHD as well as to clinicians.

Anecdotally, we have known that hyperfocus is an ability to focus with „laser-like” intensity on activities one finds rewarding or interesting, which makes it difficult to switch to other tasks.

But from a scientific standpoint, we’ve known very little about hyperfocus, as little research has been done on this phenomenon in ADHD.

This new study  from the University of Florida and University of Michigan  is filling a gap between the anecdotal and scientific evidence on hyperfocus in ADHD.

The researchers of this study developed a questionnaire, for assessing people’s tendencies toward hyperfocus when engaged in activities like work/schoolwork and hobbies (e.g how frequently in the last year they had “completely lost track of time” when doing something related to their favorite hobby or “felt totally captivated by or ‘hooked’ on” work).

The results showed that hyperfocus really is more common among people with ADHD and that adults with more severe ADHD symptoms (as assessed by the Conners Adult ADHD Rating Scales) reported experiencing hyperfocus more often.

The take-home message of this study can be summarized in 3 key points:

  1. Hyperfocus is a common phenomenon in ADHD and its frequency correlates with the severity of ADHD. The tendency toward hyperfocus can be captured by a short questionnaire.
  2. The fact that people with ADHD experience hyperfocus more often, challenge the idea that individuals with ADHD do have an attention “deficit,” they rather can have a unique way of allocating their attention.
  3. According to Hupfeld, one of the authors: „…the cognitive profile of ADHD includes components that, if given the appropriate channels for expression, could be beneficial for the individual and for society”