The Attention Span of a Fly

flyWhen I was in high school I had a study buddy by the name of Zuriel Weiner.  “Zook” as only his close friends called him, and I was one of few, noted that I tended to immerse myself only in topics that interested me.  I didn’t think that was so unusual until one afternoon while we were supposed to be engaged in a text assigned by our teacher he turned to me and said matter-of-factly: “Press, you have the attention span of a fly.”  Flies often seem distracted, and at times hyperactive with restless leg syndrome, but that incessant rubbing of legs back and forth is part of their ongoing cleaning to keep their compound eyes pristine enabling them to see in 360 degree surround sight.

Pouring-Oil-BlackI was not diagnosed as having ADD in school as there was no such formal diagnosis, but it would not surprise me, if I were going to school today, to have been assigned this label.  As David Anderson from Caltech observes in the TEDx video above, it is frightening to consider what we identify as mental illness today, and even more so how society treats conditions such as AD/HD.   My colleague Dr. Hong and I have addressed visual factors in childhood behavioral disorders, and Dr. Anderson makes a significant point about the overly simplistic notion that complex and multifactorial disorders such as AD/HD can somehow be treated effectively by the types of drugs we use now.  We treat the brain as if it were a bag of chemical soup, awash in dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, and the drugs used to globally alter brain function presume some sort of chemical imbalance, a simplified and outmoded view.  Psychoactive drugs are so global that alot of people stop taking them because of unpleasant side effects.  Parents are reticent to place or maintain their children on AD/HD medications, concerned about the unknown long-term effects of amphetamines on a child’s developing brain.  Dr. Anderson’s analogy is elegant here:  using these drugs to treat complex disorders of motion, mood, affect or cognition is a bit like trying to change your car’s oil by opening a container and pouring it all over the engine block.  Some of it will dribble in to the right places, but alot of it will do more harm than good.  We need to pinpoint the intended locations in the brain where these chemicals act, otherwise we’re going to keep pouring oil all over our mental engines and suffering the consequences.


We each have seen children in our practices who touch everything in sight and are so distracted that it makes it difficult to engage them in conversation necessary to conduct the so-called subjective examination.  We always try to tease out those children who appear to be globally ADD vs. those who have more of a visual ADD.  Answering a question from a parent as to your take on the advisability of their child being medicated poses a similar conundrum to answering a question from a parent seeking your opinion on whether or not their child should repeat a grade.  Our opinion is being sought much as a parent would seek an opinion from their pediatrician as a trusted professional.  A pediatrician is no more an expert on AD/HD or education than you are, and empowered parents seek input from a variety of trusted sources before making a determination as to what’s best for their child.



4 thoughts on “The Attention Span of a Fly

  1. Well Well Dr. Press,
    I have selective attention problems (maintaining attention while distraction competes) which appear to be the area of attention most affected by AD/HD. I remember at ICO my roommate studied with the radio blasting in the background while I had to leave the room to study. My roommate, Ron, could study with all kinds of distraction, while I could not remember what I read unless it was quiet. I note he was left handed and lefties seem to multitask better than right handed people. It is a wonder that at adolescence my symptoms improved but I never “outgrew” them. Now I find that anti-sccades and memory-guided saccades have helped, in addition to underlining as I read, or reading out loud. Lucky TV was not part of my growing up as research seems to indicated that worsens the symptoms. So, my situation has resulted in understanding my AD/HD patients better and prescribing V.T.
    I note for your bloggers that patients have a better chance of dying from taking Ritalin than in a car accident.
    Nicotine (although I do not smoke) appears to release dopamine and other neurotransmitters which improves attentional issues. Maybe we should hand out nicotine skin patches?
    Thanks for what you do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s