Kids with ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, used to be thought of as problem children. Now, they’re recognized as having a disorder and treated with medication to help them focus their attention. Problem solved, right?
Not so fast, says University of Texas at Austin psychologist David Gilden. Gilden has been conducting research into ADHD for years and believes that the disorder may not actually have anything to do with attention at all. He believes it’s more a problem of timing.
Now pay attention, because this is a little tricky. Children and adults without the disorder have an internal sense of timing that is present in all that we do. This timing is related to 1/f noise—pronounced “one over F”—an inaudible noise that manifests itself as a wavelike pattern.
Despite being inaudible, 1/f noise seems to have a huge impact on human existence, and humans actually produce the noise as well—however, it’s much more difficult to detect in people with ADHD. According to a recent University of Texas article about Gilden’s research:
“From fluctuating weather patterns, to the beating of a heart, to pitch and loudness in music and speech, our world is full of 1/f noise. To illustrate this highly complex concept, Gilden plays a piano rendition of Summer Samba. In between the fluctuating tempos and repetitive melodies, he explains how the patterns in music achieve 1/f noise. ‘When you listen to this song, you’ll find that it follows a formula of repetition and surprise folded into a pattern of organization,’ Gilden says. ‘Music is the blend between the ordered states and disordered states, and that’s exactly what 1/f achieves.’”
[ADHD] is a disorder in the way people thread moment-to-moment experiences together. Children with ADHD are often disruptive because their world is moving at a much faster pace and there’s always going to be a mismatch between their world and ours.
In fact, 1/f noise is so important to our lives that Cornell University professor of psychology James Cutting determined that movie editing techniques have been developed to mimic the pattern of 1/f noise. By mimicking these patterns, moviemakers engage audiences’ attention and hold that attention—if this pattern breaks, our attention wanders. In other words, recognizing the pattern of 1/f noise, whether we realize we’re doing it or not, is crucial to focusing on and engaging in many tasks humans encounter on an everyday basis.
Now back to ADHD. Gilden’s research shows that people with the disorder may work at a different pace than that of others—a pace that does not match 1/f noise.
“ADHD is not about inattention,” Gilden is reported as saying. “It’s a disorder in the way people thread moment-to-moment experiences together. Children with ADHD are often disruptive because their world is moving at a much faster pace and there’s always going to be a mismatch between their world and ours.”
To show this, Gilden’s research involved bringing undergraduate participants into the lab and having them play with puzzles, drums, Play-Doh and Legos. Researchers then tracked the differences in timing between participants with and without ADHD when they played with the toys.
In one study, participants drummed along with a metronome at 60 beats a minute, then continued to keep the beat for three minutes afterward. Both those with ADHD and those without had no problem keeping this tempo. However, when researchers slowed the tempo down, participants with ADHD lost the tempo. Gilden believes this is because the world moves more quickly for those with ADHD.
In another study, researchers timed the hand movements of participants constructing Lego structures, Play-Doh formations or jigsaw puzzles. They found that all participants constructed their projects in roughly the same order, but those with ADHD were actually slower with their hand movements than those without.
“This is a very puzzling discovery because although their minds are moving at a faster rate, they’re [sic] actions are more spacious,” Gilden is reported to have said. It confirms, however, that Gilden’s theory may be correct that those with ADHD are not inattentive, but just follow different timing patterns from others. Although much more research is needed into the exact mechanisms of the timing difference, Gilden believes this difference has to do with 1/f noise.
Over 5.4 million American children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and it’s crucial that doctors prescribing ADHD drugs understand the disorder for which they’re prescribing. Gilden’s research may provide important first steps toward better understanding and, soon, more effectively treating ADHD.