The First Pillar of ADHD: An Interest-Based Nervous System

Don’t feel like reading? Listen to my podcast episode on the interest-based nervous system instead.

There are three big players in ADHD. The first one is the magical interest-based nervous system.

Let’s start by tossing out the misconception that ADHD is a result of poor parenting, inferior willpower, lack of discipline, or the public school system.

Done? Is it gone? Did you take that trash to the curb? Great. Let’s ride.

There is plenty of research to back up differences in the ADHD brain. But did you know our whole nervous system is built with a totally different structure??

Neurotypicals have an importance-based nervous system. ADHDers have an interest-based nervous system. What is the difference? Our brains’ triggers for motivation & focus.

Importance-Based NSInterest-Based NS
~ Importance. You deem a task to be important, or if it is required for one of your priorities.
~ Secondary Importance. A task is important to someone important to you – teacher, parent, friend.
~ Rewards/Consequences. Completing a task will lead to a reward, and/or not completing a task will lead to a consequence.
~ Interest. Strong interest in a task or subject matter.
~ Challenge. Competition against someone else, or a game of some sort.
~ Novelty. A new gadget, new routine, new learning strategy.
~ Urgency. Do-or-die deadlines, procrastination, time limits, crisis situations.

This is a great example of how the existing mold set up for us by the neurotypicals who run things just doesn’t fit the wiring of our brain and nervous system.

So what’s the solution here? That column on the left is how every workplace, school system, and behavior training is structured! How am I supposed to follow those structures when my brain doesn’t have the same inner workings? How do I force myself to do things I don’t want to do?

Short answer: Don’t! Most of us have spent our entire lives trying to contort our brains to fit into their world. We’ve learned: That works for everyone else. There must be something wrong with me.

Instead of trying to paint ourselves to blend into their picture, what if we try to add some of our own color to it? Some ideas:

  • Set up deadlines for parts of a long-term project before the final deadline. Ask a caregiver or teacher or boss to hold you accountable to these deadlines, so you can utilize that urgency trigger without burning yourself out trying to write a 20 page paper in one night. (I mean, I assume…it’s not like I’ve ever done that more than once or twice….a month…)
  • Try to “inject” interest into an otherwise bland subject matter. Gotta do a presentation on Greek philosophy? Let your creativity flourish in creating the visual tools. Or target a super weird aspect of philosophers’ lives to research. Those guys were freaky.
  • Find practice quizzes or have someone test you with flashcards while studying for a test to kick that competition/challenge trigger.

The hidden cheat codes of our MAGICAL brains are just waiting to be discovered.

What are some creative ways you collaborate with your own or your loved one’s ADHD nervous system? How do you or your family member survive as interest-based fireflies in an importance-based honeybee colony world?

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6 thoughts on “The First Pillar of ADHD: An Interest-Based Nervous System

  1. Fascinating! It’s always nice to see science quantifying these things. So many misconceptions and misunderstandings in general surrounding ADHD. Thanks for your input!


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About Abby Chau, LMFT, ADHD-CCSP

I am a marriage and family therapist based in Seattle, WA. I also have ADHD! And I love learning more about it, by myself and with my clients. Join me as I create an ADHD Owner's Manual! (she/her)