Date: December 26, 2021

Stimulants Gift the ADHD Brain with Self Awareness

Stimulants are a powerful drug for people who have ADHD. They have been prescribed for decades now and study after study shows that they work and can have a meaningful and useful impact on the lives of people with ADHD. The ADHD brain does not produce enough dopamine on its own and stimulants boost dopamine levels to the point where the brain is more conducive to being productive. However there's one benefit of stimulant use that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere - self awareness.

Back in the 1990s there was a brief craze for stereogram images popularised in a book called Magic Eye. These images were, at first glance, just a weird collection of colours comprised of dots, but if you stared at them for long enough, a hidden 3D image would suddenly appear. It took a bit of patience, but once you trained your eyes to kind of relax, it was possible to see these hidden 3D images fairly quickly. However, if you didn't know there was a secret image hidden in each illustration and just flicked through the Magic Eye book you'd have absolutely no idea.

Sometimes, in order to properly understand something, we have to experience it first-hand and you also have to be told that it's there in the first place. And it's this first-hand experience that I believe is one of the most under-rated benefits of stimulant medication for ADHD.

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I'm now in mid-50s and was only diagnosed with ADHD a couple of years ago. For almost my entire life I never knew what it felt like to have a normally functioning brain that was capable of being motivated for stuff that wasn't wildly interesting. People who do not have ADHD are able to self-motivate themselves to do the basics such as keeping the house clean, brushing your teeth and holding down a job, but we struggle with all of these things.

So when I was officially diagnosed and began taking Ritalin to treat my ADHD I found it hugely beneficial. It enabled me to get stuff done that I would ordinarily have put off, avoided and otherwise ignored. The diagnosis and subsequent treatment changed my life. However the Ritalin also gifted me with the ability to realise when my brain was not stimulated.

Here's an example. The other day I was working on an update to a client's website. It had to be finished before Christmas and in time for the Boxing Day sales. I clicked open a new tab in my browser and hit the YouTube bookmark. As I scrolled down the page looking for a cool video to watch, I suddenly asked myself what I was doing. And because I now know I have ADHD and because I know how I feel when I take my Ritalin, I realised my brain had dropped out of 'task positive network' (TPN) and into 'default mode network' (DMN) because I had not taken my afternoon medication. Prior to my diagnosis I would have been completely unaware of this and I'd have scrolled through that Reddit feed without a care in the world, oblivious to the fact that my active brain had deserted me.

DMN is the standard state for an ADHD brain - it's when it's not really tuned into a task - which is to say, most of the time. It's a scientific way of describing that daydream-like state our ADHD brain sits in. When explaining this to people who do not have ADHD I ask them if they've ever been stood in the shower and just let their thoughts go where they will and then before they know it, it's 10 minutes later and they don't really have any memory of what they were thinking about that whole time. Before Ritalin granted me self awareness I would have no conscious idea my brain was in DMN and now I do.

Just as a painter creates an image with the use of negative space, stimulants give us the ability to see when we are ‘without’ just as easily as when we are ‘with’. Recognising when your brain has slipped into DMN is incredibly useful for those of us who've unwittingly lived there our whole lives and means that for the first time, we can take action to remedy the situation.

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Raising Adult ADHD Awareness
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