About ADHD: Thinking Fast and Slow


I’ve had a theory brewing for a few decades.

It’s about ADHD.

My theory is that some people have been gifted with the adroit ability to think and move quickly; they ride life like a stallion, seeing, hearing and experiencing everything in magnified ways.  It is a gift.  In the right hands, these people emerge out of childhood as curious, lifelong learners who understand deeply and creatively.  They are bright.  Intuitive.  Daring. Perceptive.  Sensitive.  Interesting.   They learn how to manage their strengths well; how to avoid the deleterious consequences of being who they are.  

ADHD is listed in the Center For Disease Control and Prevention;  it is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, all revisions.  Disease and disorders have negative connotations.  Science says it is a “thing”; I won’t argue that.  Instead, I wonder if there isn’t another lens to look at the cluster of symptoms for some kids with the traits.  Here are a few traits associated with ADHD:

  1. Often does not give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.
  2. Often has trouble keeping attention on tasks or play activities.
  3. Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
  4. Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions).
  5. Often has trouble organizing activities.
  6. Often avoids, dislikes, or doesn’t want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
  7. Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools).
  8. Is often easily distracted.
  9. Is often forgetful in daily activities.

Thinking about a book:    Thinking, Fast and Slow, by  Daniel Kahneman.  He makes a distinction between two systems:

“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.  System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.  The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.”

Examples of System 1:

  • detect that one object is more distant than another
  • orient to the source of a sudden sound
  • complete the phrase “bread and…”
  • drive a car on an empty road
  • recognize that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles an occupational stereotype
  • jazz improvisation
  • skillful soccer moves in an indoor arena
  • understanding complex scientific phenomenon

Examples of System 2:

  • focus attention on clowns in the circus
  • look for a woman with white hair
  • tell someone your phone number
  • focus on a particular voice in a noisy room
  • monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation
  • chess
  • math problem error analysis
  • memorizing dates in history

Most people are balanced and learn over time to integrate both.  They offer free checks and balances to keep you on the straight and narrow.  I’ve not yet read but a few pages of this book, but I am hopeful that Kahneman will move me closer to understanding.

 If you are incredibly skilled at one or the other, does that impact this integration?  What does that look like at 2? 6? 14? 22?  How many with strengths in System 1 thinking are diagnosed with ADHD early in their lives? Can System 2 traits be taught so that automatic thinking is harnessed in goal-directed ways?

Thinking about global learners

I read an article written about engineering students regarding sequential and global learners.  Essentially, global learners tend toward System 1 thinking; sequential learners, System 2.

  • Sequential learners focus on details and sometimes need time (and support) to see the bigger picture; details inform them about the big ideas; they learn in part-to-whole ways
  • Global learners focus on the bigger picture and sometimes need time (and support) to see the details; big ideas inform them about the details; they learn about the parts after seeing the whole

If you are thinking globally, how many details do you appear to “miss”  on the road to defining them?   How many with strengths in global thinking are diagnosed with ADHD early in their lives? How many wouldn’t if the environment understood them better?

Thinking, also, about processing speed

Processing Speed is one of the measures of cognitive efficiency or cognitive proficiency.  It involves the ability to automatically and fluently perform relatively easy or over-learned cognitive tasks, especially when high mental efficiency is required.  That is, for simple tasks requiring attention and focused concentration.  It relates to the ability to process information automatically and therefore speedily, without intentional thinking through

Fluent thinkers think fast.  There are pros and cons to this, of course.  These kids may take less time to

  • recognize simple visual patterns and in visual scanning tasks
  • take tests that require simple decision-making
  • perform basic arithmetic calculations and in manipulating numbers, since these operations are not automatic for them
  • perform reasoning tasks under time pressure
  • make decisions that require understanding of the material presented
  • read silently for comprehension
  • copy words or sentences correctly or to formulate and write passages

Kids with advanced processing speed may be at risk for appearing impulsive and  impatient (especially while young).  Are they prone to more simple errors?  Do they appear “hyper”?  “Inattentive”?  Under what circumstances do they thrive?  Whither?

Bringing it together:

I believe, in some cases, ADHD diagnoses are inaccurate; that global thinkers and those with strengths in System 1 thinking and fluent processing speed are identified at higher rates.  

Possible supports :

  • Teach, teach, teach.  Punishment erodes traits that keep them hopeful and productive
  • Be loving, patient and tolerant while the system matures and skills are acquired
  • Teach them to be more mindful and ‘ in the present’;
  • Create routines for checking details and accuracy;
  • Emphasize the draft process; learning from failure; practice to perfection
  • Support reflection in lesson design
  • Provide plenty of time for movement
  • Most importantly:  finding and actively support the student’s interests and strengths.  These aren’t going away.  They will carry the child for life. 


Essentially, they need help nurturing and taming the stallion within.  Done well, they make for particularly interesting and innovative adults  who like themselves.  



6 thoughts on “About ADHD: Thinking Fast and Slow

  1. hi there, same here.. a science nerd…. a teacher in a progressive school in the Philippines… i really like your blog… good thing i found it. Your article about ADHD and the book itself can help me understand more about my students who has this case… thanks so much… 🙂 keep on posting… god bless

  2. Pingback: Big Ideas and Details: Why These Opposites Attract | ariadna.tv

  3. Late to comment!

    The one thing I would throw out there, having also just started reading the book, but a lifelong ADHD person…

    What is probably not controvertial to say is that ADHD folks have trouble making the most of System 2 thinking. It’s where we need the Ritalin (or whatever meds) to get up to the same levels of unforced performance enjoyed by non-ADHD folks.

    It means we’ve spent a lifetime (certainly, a childhood) with an imbalance, towards heavy reliance on System 1 thinking, and without the same level of maturation of System 2 thinking.

    We take risks because our slow thinking doesn’t kick in properly or fast enough. We have “impulse control” issues for that same reason.

    And if we have “executive function disorder” or anything resembling that, then perhaps it originates in this imbalance. For ADHD folks, perhaps System 1 trumps System 2 more than it would in “normal” folk.

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