Misunderstood Minds
Stories from the Documentary:
Nathan V. Lauren Sarah Lee Adam Nathan S.



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 Attention  ATTENTIONBasics | Difficulties | Responses

Basics of Attention

Paying attention refers to the brain's ability to take all of the stimuli around us, immediately categorize and organize information as relevant or irrelevant, and focus the mind on one thing. For a child in a classroom, paying attention to the teacher means filtering out as many as 30 other students and the dynamics between them, visual or outside distractions, noises, and more.

The psychological and medical communities as a whole have accepted a set of criteria for diagnosing chronic attention problems, and have grouped these problems under the name Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, this term and its use in diagnosis remains controversial, and the approaches to attention problems are varied (see Up Close, Does ADHD Exist?).

This diversity of views comes in part from the fact that although paying attention may seem like an isolated task, it is an elaborate neurocognitive process. Consider everything that is stimulating your senses as you read this sentence. Perhaps there are background noises or a conversation nearby, the aromas of food or pangs of hunger, distractions in your peripheral vision, thoughts of things to do, recent conversations or events still fresh in your mind. Now consider another setting: listening to a class lecture or watching a film. Everyone has experienced a lapse in attention in such settings from time to time. But what if paying attention were a chronic challenge? For some students it is, and they are unable to focus no matter how hard they try.

Try ItTry it yourself. Experience a visual distraction.

People with chronic attention problems describe their world as a cacophony of distractions, with no sound or image necessarily more important than any others. Ambient sounds -- papers rustling, pencils tapping -- demand as much attention as a set of verbal instructions.

Try ItTry it yourself. Experience an auditory distraction.

"Attention deficit" is one of the most widely used phrases when it comes to learning problems, but it may also be one of the most common misdiagnoses. Although there is much information about ADHD available to schools, focusing on attention deficit may be causing parents and teachers to overlook other learning problems. Dr. David Urion, Director of Neurology and Learning Disabilities at Children's Hospital in Boston, suggests that parents and teachers look closely at any inconsistencies. If a child has trouble paying attention or focusing in one subject area, but not all subjects, a lack of attention may be the symptom of a different learning problem. Only a small percentage of children with learning problems have a neurocognitive breakdown in attention.

If your child's attention problems tend to be in one of the following subject areas, visit that section of the site:

> Reading
> Writing
> Mathematics

ATTENTIONBasics | Difficulties | Responses

Lauren's Dad UP CLOSE:
A Family Decision

Lauren's father, Mike Smith, questions medicating his daughter in order to help her focus.

"Being a parent, any foreign substance like a drug scares the hell out of me. Taking it as an adult, I wouldn't see an issue. But something with my baby girl, no. Even though I've read about it and I understand what it's supposed to do and Doctor Baker has gone through what the benefits are and he's described basically no side effects -- still, to me, it's somewhat of an unknown, and maybe it's just my ignorance but it's somewhat terrifying for me."

Dr. Edward Hallowell on Ritalin as a way to manage attention deficit

"Is it a cure? Absolutely not. But you learn compensatory strategies, habits while you're taking the medication that will carry over to when you're not taking the medication. So by allowing you to focus better, it allows you to better learn these strategies that we're trying to teach them. It just makes intuitive sense. If you turn up the lights in the room you can learn better than trying to learn in the dark."
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