Many people opt to play crossword puzzles, learn a new language or take up a different hobby, not only because it’s enjoyable, but because they believe that doing so can help deliver brain-boosting benefits. Even a quick internet search with the words “brain power” shows that there’s an interest in this topic, with headlines running the gamut from techniques to improve memory to tips to sharpen focus.
But can people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – often referred to as a brain-based disorder – also train their brain to improve?
Every Brain, Not Just the ADHD Brain
Of course, says Edward Hallowell, founder of the Hallowell Centers, which help treat people with ADHD and other cognitive and emotional conditions in Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. He makes it clear that the question actually shouldn’t be so much about the ADHD brain specifically, noting that “every brain can be improved.” He explains that the interventions that help people with ADHD are the same that can help everyone.
“It’s an absolute fact that every brain can be improved,” he says. “Because of its neuroplasticity, the life of brains can be improved or destroyed based on how you manage it.” Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to create new neural networks – regardless of age or even injury – in response to new activities and situations. Hallowell refers to this powerful ability as “a wonderfully liberating fact.”
More Activity, Less Recreational Screen Time
According to Temple Grandin, author of “Thinking in Pictures” and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who has interacted with people with various disorders including ADHD and autism (she has autism herself), the ways to expose people to new activities and situations need not be complex, costly or time-consuming. For her, boosting the brain is about a return to “the simple things,” which she feels is unraveling in much of today’s society – especially among children. Of ADHD and other medications, she says that “there are too many drugs floating around like candy,” suggesting that before turning to stimulants, it may be more helpful to first “ask yourself if a child is getting enough exercise or spending all day on the web?”
The ‘Other’ Vitamin C, Developing a Growth Mindset
For Hallowell, a great deal of keeping brains in shape involves getting a regular dose of what he calls “the other vitamin C” which stands for “connection.” However, he’s not talking about connection in terms of gossip or interacting in ways that can be detrimental, but instead says that “the power of connection” – love, when it’s most distilled – can be a helpful intervention. He explains that this doesn’t have to involve another human; connection can be with a dog or appreciation for a sunset or a kind of music. Connecting with things that foster positive engagement, he says, is good for the mind.
Developing a “growth mindset” is also important, Hallowell says. This means thinking in ways that pave the way for beneficial outcomes such as believing in the ability to find certain resources in order to accomplish whatever your mind sets out to achieve. Otherwise, people fall into a “fixed mindset” in which just the opposite takes place; thoughts are restricted by fixations pertaining to beliefs about shortcomings or limitations, squashing the growth mindset.
For people interested in other methods, Dr. L. Eugene Arnold, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Nisonger Center at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center and author of the book “A Family’s Guide to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” says that delving into neurofeedback is important. “Individuals with ADHD tend to have higher voltage in the theta, or slower, brain waves than in beta, or higher waves,” he explains, adding that theta waves are associated with drowsiness while beta waves involve active thought and the ability to solve things. Therefore, neurofeedback may help by training the too-high theta waves to decrease and the lowered beta waves to increase, helping a person focus better.
In fact, Arnold is currently involved in a neurofeedback study, which he says is still accepting ADHD children ages 7 to 10 (more details reside at icanstudy.org). The children can be the inattentive type (an inability to pay attention) and combined type (an inability to pay attention and feeling the need to constantly move). Those are two of the three types of ADHD a person may have. The other type is referred to as hyperative-impulsive which refers to having to move frequently and having challenges managing impulse control; inattention is often not an issue. By examining brain waves in a setting where children receive “a lot of coaching to encourage them to keep trying so their brains can become stronger and develop more stamina,” he says the goal is to help people “pay attention longer and keep their mind on what they’re supposed to keep it on even when it wants to drifts off.”
Kevin S. McGrew, a visiting professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and the director of the Institute for Applied Psychometrics, explains that an interactive metronome method may help people improve their brain focus specifically. People wear Velcro-type fastening straps with sensors on their hands and are instructed to clap the moment they hear a signal. He says that the entire time, a computer screen provides immediate feedback as to whether the clap was too premature, late or right-on.
“It sounds simple, but it’s extremely mentally challenging,” he says. “If they keep doing that, it can help improve focus. It trains you to shut out internal and external distractions and focus like a laser beam.” McGrew says to think of the brain as having networks, much like maps, all of which have to be properly managed to find a balance between “mind wandering” and focusing on the task at hand. “Research suggests that ADHD might be a brain network disorder,” he says. “Something is amiss between the networks” that deal with spontaneous thoughts, focusing on a task at hand and the ability to synchronize it all.
Still, many other options may exist for people. Hallowell adds that coaching can help because it offers people step-by-step suggestions, often in an environment filled with like-minded people who believe in you. “Coaching can be encouraging and allow you to achieve your goals,” he says. “It can create dramatic results.”
Other options worth exploring, according to an ADDitudeMag.com article, “Boost Your Brain Waves: 6 Brain Training Therapies for ADHD” include – but aren’t limited to – Cogmed, a web-based program designed to help improve working memory, and meditation, which may foster greater in-the-moment awareness that can ease the anxiety people with ADHD often experience.