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What Is Hyperfocus?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Hyperfocus is a term that is not well defined, but is often used loosely when discussing symptoms of ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. Generally, it refers to the experience of focusing on one topic to the degree that all other stimuli are nearly completely shut out. This gives an individual the feeling of being isolated with the concept, problem, or activity in question and allows him or her to experience greater connection with that activity. In some cases, this type of focus can be nearly compulsive, and it can be very hard to break the trance-like concentration experienced. There are many theories that address why this type of focus evolved, and many that claim that it is a benefit rather than a detriment even though it does not fit well with many socially appropriate learning schemes.

Although the experience of hyperfocus resonates with many people, this is not an experience that is medically defined or identified precisely by psychiatric communities. Most people who experience hyperfocus understand it in a positive light when properly supported and a negative light when pressed to break the focus. When discussing the ethics of treating ADHD to create supposedly normative brains, the potential benefits of hyperfocus often come into the discussion. Even though this type of focus is associated with accomplishments, the negative aspects of living with ADHD are more commonly the subject of psychiatric evaluation.

The symptoms of hyperfocus are different for each person because this experience is poorly defined, but in most cases people agree that a large part of the experience is being unable to stop until a satisfactory goal has been reached or interest has been lost. In general, the person focusing does not wish to stop the activity and therefore does not exercise the control needed to put away the activity. This is different from stimulant-induced hyperfocus, in which the person feels completely unable to stop. A good example of hyperfocus is a person who gets interested in a puzzle and refuses to stop until the puzzle is complete.

People who experience this type of focus often do not understand that this is a negative trait until confronted with social demands for alternative behaviors. When an individual must be able multitask or perform uninteresting work, hyperfocus can be a serious disadvantage. On the other hand, in cultures that value sharp attention on interesting topics, this type of attention can be a major advantage. Many individuals engaged in creative or highly detailed work of a specific nature find that this type of concentration is necessary in order to do the job at hand, and these people may be better suited to this type of work than people with more conventional styles of concentration.

Understanding hyperfocus not only provides valuable insight into the ADHD diagnosis but also underscores the importance of recognizing and harnessing this state for productivity and personal growth. By acknowledging the nuances of hyperfocus and employing strategies to channel it effectively, individuals with ADHD can navigate their cognitive landscape more successfully and leverage this remarkable aspect of their neurodiversity to their advantage.

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Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On Dec 19, 2013

A little hyperfocus, I think, can be good. Being able to ignore ringing phones, stop checking emails constantly and avoid wandering around the Internet can actually avoid distractions and get some work done. I'd argue this symptom may well be a natural result of a society in which we are constantly bombarded with distractions.

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