Race Car Brains with Bicycle Brakes: Dr. Ned Hallowell on ADHD in a Distracting World

May 03, 2016

Dr. Ned Hallowell is a child and adult psychiatrist, a New York Times bestselling author, and among the world’s leading experts in the field of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He’s written numerous books about ADHD and modern distraction, including Driven to Distraction, Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder, Worry: Controlling it and Using it Wisely, and others. Dr. Hallowell points out that those with ADHD possess what he calls a “race car brain,” capable of brilliance and great creativity, but without an understanding of how to control and train minds with ADHD, it can result in chaos and havoc.

Dr. Hallowell offers insight on the spectrum of ADHD, and the misuse of the diagnosis. In the age of digital distraction, a great many of us struggle to focus on tasks and goals. While his advice primarily focuses on helping people with ADHD to regain control of their minds and their lives, much of what he recommends can be helpful to chaotic, distracted, minds of all kinds.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016. 

I’m Josh Zepps, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Today’s guest is Dr. Ned Hallowell. He’s one of the world’s leading experts in ADHD. More kids than ever have ADHD, more adults than ever think they have it. But what does a clinical deficit of attention really mean when we’re also stressed? Anyway, when we’re also busy anyway? Dr. Hallowell has written countless books about ADHD, about busyness and worry. 

And he’s the host of a new podcast of his own distraction. Dr. Ned. Hello. Thanks for being here. 

Thanks. Thanks for having me. Congratulations on entering the podcast realm. 

Oh, I love it. Thanks. It’s a busy place. Yeah, I know. There’s a lot of us. 

Can you just tell us a bit? Let’s begin with some definitions. What is ADHD and is it different from ADHD? 

Well, technically, they’re ADHD doesn’t exist. It’s only ADHD. And that stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And then within that, there are two subtypes. There’s the subtype that is called primarily inattentive in which the H is not present. 

And yet it’s still called ADHD y. I don’t know. 

And then there’s a subtype combined type, which means hyperactivity is present. 

So the people who make up the names or these people who have what I call attention surplus disorder, and they are bound and determined to confuse everyone which they succeeded in doing by creating this condition ADHD, with or without the H. 

How how does one diagnose it? And is there a clear boundary between having it and not having it? 

Because I know a lot of people who feel going to feel stressed out and distracted all the time. There is absolutely no clear boundary. But there’s a great quotation that I love from Edmund Burke, the 18th century statesman, who said, though they’re not be, though they’re b not a clear line that can be drawn between night and day. 

Yet no one would deny there is a difference. So the fact that you can’t draw a clear line between where non ADHD leaves off and ADHD begins doesn’t mean there isn’t a profound difference between the two as as different as night and day. 

Is it more different than the normal differences that we see between the range of the way that people think in terms of their creativity? Some people are more aligned with engineering. Some people are more interested in writings on people. You know, brains differ. 

Yeah. And I think that’s the way we ought to look at it. I mean, I don’t like the term attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. First of all, it’s a ridiculous mouthful. But second of all, it’s all about pathology. Deficit hyperactivity disorder. To me, that’s absurd. I see it as a treat. It can be a terrible disorder if you don’t know what you’re doing. 

It can also lift you to the heights in life. I could I can I could fill this building with Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winner, self-made millionaires and billionaires, people at the very top of whatever profession, brain surgeons who have it. So. So, you know, to call it a disorder. It really skews it in the direction of pathology. 

But then doesn’t that it doesn’t that raise the question of whether or not where impacting other things when we treat it? I mean, you push down on the balloon and another bubble pops up somewhere. 

One of my best friends who’s a Ph.D. in science in back in Australia is one of the country’s leading soil researchers. 

There is I am certain that when we were at school, if the diagnosis rates had been the same in Sydney in the nineteen eighties and nineties as they are today in the United States, he would have been put on on some kind of drug. 

Would that it necessarily been a good thing if it were done properly? Yes, it would have been. The medication used properly should change you as much as and no more than eyeglasses. And nobody would say, oh, you put someone on eyeglasses, you’ll take away their creativity. No, you won’t. You’ll allow them to use it more effectively. And that’s what the meds do when they’re used properly. They don’t deny you anything. They end by enhancing focus. You’re able to organize your ideas. You’re able to follow through on your intentions. You’re able to get done what you want to get done instead of walking around with this terrible feeling of I’ve got so much to do, but no time to do it. 

I always walk around with that feeling. 

Oh, it’s so, so. So the medicines vastly misunderstood and vastly misused is that one is also misused. 

Yeah. I mean, people are prescribed medication. Don’t need needed. There’s a huge black market for stimulant medication. You can buy and sell them on college campuses, on, you know, any high school campus. 

Right. But I’m not talking about off label use with the way in where students are getting them, you know, like like just from their drug dealer so they can perform better on a test. 

I’m talking about the fact that, you know, quite often I’ll be here of teachers who have classes where there are 42 kids in a class and a few of them are unruly. And the school is underfunded. And it’s just so much easier for a couple of the kids to be diagnosed with ADHD. 

And then they come down and they become much better students. 

Well, yeah, within the definitions and parameters of the educational system as we have it set up, we regard it as desirable for kids to be sitting there docilely listening to the teacher and tolerating eight hours of insufferable boredom in an underfunded school, that whether or not that is like cosmically a better state of affairs than having kids who are boisterous and rambunctious so that that remains to be a gross misuse. 

I mean, these men should never be used as chemical straightjackets. They should never be used as behavioral controls. They should never be used to take the spark out of someone. Quite the opposite. They should be used to allow someone to make best use of his spark. You know, I tell kids all the time is that you’re very lucky you were born with a Ferrari engine for a brain. Kids with ADHD. You know, let’s reading this race car brain. You’ve got a Ferrari engine up there. You’re so lucky. You’ve got what most people don’t have. 

But you pay a price. You’ve got bicycle brakes. 

So you can’t control the power of your brain. I said, don’t worry, I’m a brake specialists and with my help. And it’s not just medication, but that’s often one tool with my help over the years, you’ll learn how to control the power of your brain. And truly, it’s a huge difference because this trait can also I mean, that’s the prison population. It can be a terrible disorder. The ADHD is way overrepresented in the prison population. The addicted population, the unemployed population, multiply divorced, the depressed, the suicidal. You name the bad thing and you’ll find ADHD overrepresented much as a Ferrari with no brakes bumping into things, crashing, burning, you know, so. So if you don’t get a handle on it, the consequences can be dire. But if you. Who then, these are the people who changed the world. 

These are the people who colonized this country. You know, who in England who would get on a boat in sixteen hundred and come over here? 

You had to be some kind of wild eyed dream man from Australia who would go to Australia. 

The same deal. It’s true. It was another. So you were founded as a penal colony and you’ve got all these wild guys. 

And that’s I think the Australian America has very similar characteristics. Were wild. Go for it. You know, have fun loving, you know. And that’s our gene pool. And so what’s so cool about this condition? I love having it myself and helping others who have it. It’s to get the most out of what you’ve got and do the least damage because because it’s unique among all kinds of minds in that that that it can be associated with colossal awfulness or colossal success or both. Mean you can find both the same person. So. So I you know, I as a brake specialist, you know, I like to help these people achieve the heights without getting into trouble. 

And when you say you’re a brakes specialist and that that includes medication and other things, one of the other things. 

First of all, education, reframing it instead of getting out of what I call the moral diagnosis. You need more discipline. You should try harder, buckle down moral lectures about life as real long and earnest and all the stuff that is just totally depresses these kids and adults for them to move it from the moral diagnosis to the medical diagnosis. You’ve got a race car brain with bicycle brakes. It’s a wiring issue, not a willpower issue. 

Get it out of the realm of willpower and into the realm of wiring and that and just that shift is tremendously relieving because a lot of these folks of any age walk around with this terrible feeling of I should try harder. What’s wrong with me? I lack discipline. You know, I’m a screw up. Everyone tells me I have so much talent, but I can’t make good on it. 

But it strikes me that those that kind of mental self talk that you’re talking about is it has to be more common among the population today than it was in previous years. 

And I would argue in some ways more common in the United States, in countries like United States and Australia and the UK than in more traditional places. 

Maybe like Switzerland does all things. You mean that everyone has that right? I mean, we we are inculcated with with this sort of status anxiety. 

Well, but this is a particular subset of those people because the 8D person really knows he or she could be doing much better at absolute. But and they think and or they are told that it’s for lack of effort and it’s has nothing to do with effort. Telling someone with ADHD to try harder is like telling someone who’s nearsighted to squint order. It misses the point. 

Yeah. I mean, I’m not denying that. I’m not denying it is going to change it. 

So you said what else besides men. So it begins with education, moving from the moral diagnosis to the medical diagnosis, then lifestyle issues, physical exercise helps tremendously with ADHD. It’s like my friend John Brady calls exercise the miracle grow for your brain. Abundant physical exercise. Holding these kids in for recess is criminal. They should they need to get out and run around all day. And that’s a great way of treating their ADT. Meditation. When you get old enough and can meditate, that’s another. He’s get a PA with medication, with meditation. 

So meditation helps a great deal. Finding the right school, but were for an adult, the right job, marry the right person, find the right job. 

This is important for everybody, but it’s really important for us. Racecar brain types coaching someone to someone to help you learn new ways of getting organized. Being on time, planning stuff that ADHD people are not good at. So you hire a coach. 

So I want all of their stock. I want all of this. I want to coach you know, I want more time to exercise and play. 

I want more time to to get out of my own head. So I wonder the end. And since you mentioned meditation. You know, we feel like we’ve had sort of a threshold over the past decade or two in terms of an acknowledgment by the scientific and medical communities about the utility of meditation. Huge. And mindfulness and all of these practices writers. And you had John Cabot Zen on your episode. That was the episode of your podcast that I listened to, who’s one of the great one of the greats in this in this field. He had heard Bentson. He was on that. Yeah. 

Yeah, that’s right. 

And I’m interested in what you make of the relationship between ADHD as a diagnosis and school being crazy and caught up in our heads and spending our whole lives and all of us. 

I mean, whatever the diagnosis or none, I’m spending all of our lives living with regrets about the past, fears about the future, and never taking time to smell the roses in the moment. 

Yeah. I often say the. Differential diagnosis, that’s a medical term for what is it the differential diagnosis in ADT is. Do you have ADHD or a severe case of modern life? Yeah. You know, because, you know, the true instance of 80s is maybe 10, 15 percent of the population. I wager 80 percent have what looks like 80. But it really isn’t. They’re just caught up in modern life, which has become saturated with distraction, with with stimulation, with opportunity, with all good stuff. But if you don’t manage it, it manages you and the the the biggest Achilles heel or the screams. You know, I call it screen sucking. Someone just glommed on to their iPhone. They’re walking down the street bumping into people. You know, it’s a it’s a distracted walking and distracted driving, driving. You know, that’s become a big deal. It’s it’s as dangerous as drinking and driving, you know. And so. And so. So the trick is to to manage it so it doesn’t manage you. 

Now, if 80 percent have this severe case of modern life, we have to tease out the true ADHD folks because those are the ones we want to try medication with. And the way you tease it out is by looking at the history. True, ADHD is not created by the environment. It’s genetic. Whereas modern life is entirely created by the environment. So I say you can do the Vermont test, take someone with putative ADHD, put them on a farm in Vermont and come back in a week. 

If they’re sitting on the porch reading a book, then it was a severe case of modern life. If they turn if they’ve turned the farm into an amusement park, then who is the true ADHD? 

So you believe that this is how genetic do you believe it is? 

Do you are you arguing that the same proportion of the population would have it? Regardless of how we structured modern life, regardless of the incentives that we gave people, regardless of whether we were all living? 

No. On a Norwegian ice floe. I know it for across populations. Across cultures, across eras. Absolutely. 

But what, what? What. I also acknowledge greed and in fact recommend environmental engineering can dramatically change the manifestation of genes. 

I mean, this is the whole field of epigenetics. To what extent this environment influence the expression of a given set of genes and absolutely adult. 

So so if are on an ice floe in Norway, it’s much less likely that you’ll develop these symptoms even if you have the genetic predisposition than if you’re, you know, going to school in Manhattan, where you definitely will develop it. 

Right. And presumably, if you ramped up the hecticness and ramped up the stress and the level of ice show. Yeah. Or anyway, or even here, you could see a greater proportion of the population exhibiting those sorts of symptoms lately. 

And that’s why one of the interventions that I recommend is tone it down, you know, reduce the amount of screen sucking, reduce the amount of stress, reduce the amount of access to all the bad news that everybody imbibes all day, every day. We wear it where we’re hooked on fear. I mean, we live in our culture a saturated with fear. It’s all about fear and anger and accusation and gotcha. I mean, it’s it’s just it’s amazing how rampant that is. And then maybe it started with 9/11. Who knows words. But it’s way different now than it was 20 years ago. We are way more than I sit in the airport. I hear it now. Don’t let if you see someone who looks funny, report it to someone. If you see a suitcase unattended reported to someone. We’re on alert. Orange. Twenty years ago, I didn’t have that, you know. And you know, the politicians, it’s all name calling and insults it. It’s all about fear, anger, polarization. And what we’re losing is what I call connectedness, a feeling of trust, an assumption that the other person is a decent person until proven otherwise. A feeling of let’s work it out rather than go to court. You know, a feeling of, you know, I’ll work to forgive you rather than I’m going to hold a grudge like it’s a badge that I wear. I mean, it’s it’s it’s a terrible state. I and it worries me enormously. 

The the amount that we are allowing fear to take over my daughter when she was 13 years old. That’s true. Now 26, that’s when 9/11 happened. And I was asked to go on television and give advice. And I’ll never forget what she said to me just out of her mouth. 

I don’t know where it came from. I said, Lucy, what should I tell people? What advice should I give people in the wake of 9/11? She said, Daddy, tell people not to hold back on life out of fear. And how many people these days are holding back out of fear? Political career. Yes, you know, don’t say this, don’t speak your mind or be real, you know, I mean, it’s just fear and and getting caught up in trivial B.S. and instead of being real and going for it, people are hunkering down. Yes. Why? We need, say, 80 years because we can’t do it that way. 

We just can’t do it. 

I mean, this is something that we talk about quite a lot on the show in terms of both in terms of the gotcha culture of political correctness, but also the how the culture of, of course, of hyper cautiousness and irrationalism and fear and our inability to properly understand risk, for example. I think there are a couple of things going on there, and I’d like to get your thoughts on them. One. So 9/11 happened. It is what it is. We could have interpreted it in a whole bunch of different ways. We could have responded to it in a whole different whole bunch of different ways. I wouldn’t give it more meaning than it needs to have. A couple of things that have changed, I think, is the media has become much, much bigger just in terms of how diversified it is. And the competition for eyeballs and the explosion of social media has created a race to constantly be the most compelling things. So when you’re sitting in that airport bar and you’re looking at that CNN on the screen, it’s not going to be a happy story about some. 

I mean, it might be like the cliched, heartwarming story of here I’m disabled. Look at me go. But it’s but it’s it’s more likely to be something terrible happening. And the second thing that I want to get your thoughts on is. 

When you say that you’re at the airport and they’re saying, if you see something, say something. This bag might be suspicious. This person might be suspicious. I’ve been arguing for the past few years. 

I think we to actually all be better off and we’d live longer, happier lives if people were less aware of the threat. And occasionally more bombs went off. 

Because when I get on the subway and I am constantly in time with this voice of authority telling me that I need to be wary at every second of my life, what’s it doing in my blood pressure? 

What’s it doing to my cholesterol? I’d be better off taking them one in a billion chance. I going to get blown up by a suicide bomber on the New York subway. 

I’m with you. A thousand percent. A thousand percent. And I wonder I wonder if they’ve studied how many actual criminals terrorists will have. You are discovered by someone going up say that suitcases unattended or that person looks weird or, you know, I’m guessing since 9/11, zero. 

I’m guessing zero. 

I mean, I can think of one scenario. The truck in Times Square where someone noticed smoke pouring out of it. 

But you don’t need someone on a P.A. system telling you if you see a van parked and it has smoke in the windows, you gotta tell somebody. 

Right now, I would you 100 percent. And and what we can all report, because it happens to every single one of us that raises all of our stress level. Why are we doing this to ourselves? 

Why are we beating ourselves in all this fear? Beefaroni want to prevent terrorism. It’s not doing that. What it’s doing is raising anxiety, fear, stress, which is actually the purpose of terrorism. 

It’s worked that they worked yet. We don’t need a terrorist attack. They’ve created a terrorist environment. It’s worked. Yeah, we’re all scared. 

The bejesus, you know, we’re all stressed out worrying, you know. And it’s our children, us. Any teacher. Kids are so much more worried than they were 15 years ago. Way more where it’s not good to grow up that way. It’s not good for your immune system. It’s not good for growth. It’s not good for confidence. It’s it’s just bad for us in every measurable way, you know? And we need to have a sudden attack of common sense and say, stop it. 

I don’t want to hear about unattended suitcases and tend to the media. 

How do you manage that in your own life and how do you recommend that people manage it? Because if you just as you say, if you engage with media and social media in an UN mediated way, allowing it to control you, then I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I mean, I can spend 20 minutes before getting out of bed in the morning looking at Facebook and following links on on Twitter. It’s not a healthy way to be. What do you prescribe? 

Well, I read headlines and editorials for information, and then I see the rest of his entertainment. Like, I love watching Trump. You know, it’s just it’s just fun. I don’t take it the least bit seriously. 

It’s when he comes on, I it’s really fun. It’s it’s it’s it’s as good as all of the families to be your, you know, the cousins, this buffoon, you know, it’s very diabolically manipulatively smart. 

But he’s just get this talk about unfiltered media. 

That’s why people love it, because he does break. So to me, that’s entertaining. So I see most of what comes over the airwaves. And as you say, that’s what it’s engineered to do. Good to get your attention. That’s what entertainment is all about. Well, fear and bombast and insults sell. Making nice doesn’t. Love is a tough sell, you know, that nobody tunes into unless it’s sex. 

But but fear way out sells sex and sex has become so commonplace. You could have naked women everywhere. And it’s the fear thing that would get the eyeballs and not sure about that. 

Do we know that? You know, I mean, you know how big the porn industry is. You know how much Americans spend. 

Know how what proportion of like what Marriott hotels they earn from their in-house movies? Certainly about. 

But whether both they’re both strong eyeball getters. 

Yeah. And look, neither neither of them are sex is not love. Right? I mean, it has the same kind of titillating effect as fear does. In a way. It’s an arousal. 

That’s a very important distinction in there. When you when you’re selling sex, it has nothing to do with love, Wolf. And it’s the opposite. It’s exploitations, degradation sometimes. 

So I when I was listening to your podcast, which again is called Distraction with Dr. Ned Hallowell, and it’s about all of this stuff and about mindfulness, I was I was walking along and was reminded of a period a few years ago when I got into, like, listening to Eckhart Tolle talking about, you know, mindfulness and all that stuff. 

And I was like really digging it. 

And I was walking down 6th Avenue, immersed in Eickhout, totally talking to me about being in the present and stopped. 

In my tracks, realizing I’m listening to a man telling me to live in the now and I have no idea where I am and I’m not looking at the trees or the clouds or anyone around me, I’m not living in the now. I’m living in the voice that he recorded a while ago. And increasingly, that’s how I spend my life. I’m either listening to NPR, I’m listening to people discuss things. The podcasts are always on or the TV is always on. 

Do you worry about. 

I mean, first of all, do you think it’s ironic that you’re doing a podcast called Distraction? And the podcast itself is distracting people from the world that they are engaged, that they should be engaging in. 

And secondly, how do you find moments of of actual connection there? 

To me, the the the terrible price people pay about by allowing themselves to be screaming, sucking and getting waylaid distracted is they live a incredibly superficial life. 

They’re very, very busy, but very, very superficial. 

Whereas your podcast on NPR, those are going deep. So listening to those, you’re doing it because you have an appetite for depth. You want to go into some depth. So I make a big distinction between between podcasts, you know, the podcast that’s just titillation and sound effects and, you know, whatever. And your podcast, which is which is trying to discuss important issues seriously and in depth. And I think people are starved for depth. They’re really looking for it. And something that’s beyond a tweet is something that’s beyond the soundbite. 

And there’s stuff and nuance. Yeah, I think this stuff for great six days. We’re so sick and tired of everybody being entrenched into their position and hating everybody else who is on the other side taking teams and identity politics. Similarly, all red and all that. 

It’s you know, it’s so boring and it is so wrong. It’s not the way life is. It would be fine if life were that simple, but it isn’t. And so, you know, stupid people love it because they want. Yes and no. Black and white. 

You know, Lynch should have carpet bomb and, you know, and but people with half a brain would like to consider. Well, on the one hand and on the other hand. And that’s where life is really lived and anything we want. First of all, that to be validated. But second of all, discussed. And I think that’s why shows like your podcast have a market that I would endorse. 

Whereas the raft of silly ones, I’d say that’s a distraction. 

Well, we can be silly and profound. 

Or absolutely embedded at its best. They go hand-in-hand. 

Is it. What is it? Who was it? Who said life is tragic and its fate. Lyric. In its essence and comic in its existence. So we’re pretty funny. By and large, I like it. 

Dr. Net Hallowell, thanks so much for being on the show. 

The podcast is Distraction and the books are driven to distraction and delivered from distraction digital. Thank you. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.