ADHD and the Wisdom of William James

Last week’s post, titled ADHD and Psychiatric Name Calling, criticized the prevalent practice of converting concerns about a person’s ability to pay attention into psychiatric lingo.  There was a great deal of interest in the post so I decided to present another for your consideration.

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

As I began to craft this, my thoughts went back to my most popular post, Teaching Children How to Deal with Criticism.  Since the major reason for its great success is that its ideas largely relied on those of William James, I went back to the great professor’s writings to see what he had to say on the subject.

William James

William James

There is unquestionably a great native variety among individuals in the type of their attention.  Some of us are naturally scatterbrained, and others follow easily a train of connected thoughts without temptation to swerve aside to other subjects. This seems to depend on a difference between individuals in the type of their field of consciousness.  In some persons this is highly focalized and concentrated, and the focal ideas predominate in determining association. In others we must suppose the margin to be brighter, and to be filled with something like meteoric showers of images, which strike into it at random, displacing the focal ideas, and carrying association in their own direction.  Persons of the latter type find their attention wandering every minute, and must bring it back by a voluntary pull.  The others sink into a subject of meditation deeply, and, when interrupted, are ‘lost’ for a moment before they come back to the outer world.

pay-attentionThe possession of such a steady faculty of attention is unquestionably a great boon. Those who have it can work more rapidly, and with less nervous wear and tear.  I am inclined to think that no one who is without it naturally can by any amount of drill or discipline attain it in a very high degree.  Its amount is probably a fixed characteristic of the individual. But I wish to make a remark here which I shall have occasion to make again in other connections. It is that no one need deplore unduly the inferiority in himself of any one elementary faculty.  This concentrated type of attention is an elementary faculty: it is one of the things that might be ascertained and measured by exercises in the laboratory.  But, having ascertained it in a number of persons, we could never rank them in a scale of actual and practical mental efficiency based on its degrees.  multiple intelligenceThe total mental efficiency of a man is the resultant of the working together of all his faculties. He is too complex a being for any one of them to have the casting vote.  If any one of them do have a casting vote, it is more likely to be the strength of his desire and passion, the strength of interest he takes in what is proposed.  Concentration, memory, reasoning power, inventiveness, excellence of the senses,–all are subsidiary to this.  No matter how scatter-brained the type of a man’s successive fields of consciousness may be, if he really care for a subject, he will return to it incessantly from his incessant wanderings, and first and last do more with it, and get more results from it, than another person whose attention may be more continuous during a given interval, but whose passion for the subject is of a more languid and less permanent sort. hard workerSome of the most efficient workers I know are of  the ultra-scatterbrained type. One friend, who does a prodigious quantity of work, has in fact confessed to me that, if he wants to get ideas on a subject, he sits down to work at something else, his best results coming through his mind-wanderings. This is perhaps an epigrammatic exaggeration on his part; but I seriously think that no one of us need be too much distressed at his own shortcomings in this regard. Our minds may enjoy but little comfort, may be restless and feel confused; but it may be extremely efficient all the same. (quote from William James’s Talks To Teachers)

Here we see a true master at work.  His sublime summary of the concern, placed in the context of other faculties working together, always lead me to vivid images of the many students I worked with over the years who had little ability to sustain their attention on school work and yet far outperformed outstanding students in such areas as music, athletics, art, computer technology, business, etc.  Rather than framing the concern as a disabling mental disorder, James paints a vision that inspires the hope of finding a way to create a life filled with substantial value.

The one assertion that I tentatively disagree with James is that  a person’s attention span is probably a fixed characteristic of the individual. 

ThinkingI have regualarly seen children who had a below average ability to attend to school work who, as they grew older did much better.  Some of them got over a particularly stressful period in their life. Others learned the value of more physical activity which tired them out, and they began to sleep more soundly. Others seemed to improve for no other apparent reason than becoming more mature.

Jack Star

From my own experience, I found that when I learned to meditate, my ability to sustain my attention on a number of subjects distinctly improved.  There are some excellent research studies that back up my own personal experience.  For an example, that also reviews several of the other available studies, check out “Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention” (Psychological Science, Jun 2010; 21(6): 829–839.) Readers of my blog can find a simple to learn, absolutely free, form of meditation in my post “Anger, Rumination and Meditation.” 

Okay, so there are a few more ideas about concerns that come up about someone’s attention.  I hope you find them to be helpful.

As always, I encourage readers to join the conversation by making comments in the “Comment” box at the very bottom of this page.

My very best,



Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

ADHD and Psychiatric Name Calling
The Desire for Happiness

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. Attentiveness, in my opinion is about absolute focus on a particular subject that may be abstract in nature, meaning that by determining the true nature of the abstraction, one may reach the conclusion that the subject seems to be abstract. In philosophical terms, the attention span of an individual who is educated in the subject has the capacity to interpret what we call an abstraction, as having evidence that the abstraction is nothing more than a definition of something which is appears as it is. As James points out, some people have thoughts of fleeting visions. I interpret these visions as nothing more than beacons of thought attentiveness. It is true that children who perform poorly in school, or within academia may still succeed if they discover a field that truly fits their thought processes. Meditation can be beneficial in discovering abstract visions, when in reality, if meditation is pursued for a significant amount of time, the abstractions are actually metaphoric, for the reality of paying attention to the true nature of focused reasoning.

    • Interesting theory, Marv. I’m not sure I follow you entirely. We are in full agreement there are children who perform poorly in school or academia who have succeeded once they leave behind the degree of regimentation found in most learning institutions. I’ve seen first hand many examples.

  2. Not suгe that I agree wіth your opinion, but I do find it thoughtful

  3. An excellent analysis. Simply put, people with ADD are creative types. However, if something interests them greatly, they will in fact hyper-focus. I don’t see ADD as a disorder at all. That was merely a label applied by people who are of the analytical type. The accountant and the artist. The accountant says, “You’re not paying attention to these numbers.” and the Artist replies, “That’s because it’s boring. I rather like the way the trees move in the breeze.”

  4. Well as a person that has add I I would like to say that all through grade school I never did bairley any of the school work I was givin in fact they considered me a lost cause and would pass me through to the next year every year Intel I got to high school except for fourth grade only CuZ I had a great teacher that would make me stay after school and working with me one on one she made me actually finish with a passing grad but other than that no teacher before high school made me do my work so when I got to high school I got expelled rite out the gait freshman and softmore year but before I got expelled thoughs years I met a laddy by the name of Karen Johnson she ran an alternative class called work crew just so everyone knows I walked with my class in 2005 because of Karen Johnson of prineville OR at the crook county high school

    • Dear Dr. Rubin,

      I love the fact that you quote the great William James so frequently. I, too, love what this man contributed to your field of study, psychology. You are, I believe, rare in your field, because I am still reading about Freud and Adler and, to be honest, I innately disliked both. I am an educator. I also have manic depression and wrote a book about my last manic episode. The reason I reacted so strongly to your article on, “Does using guilt make a person respect you more?” is for this reason: In the 25 years I was teaching, and I taught grades 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 8, 9, 11, and 12 ( I have a Master’s degree and two teaching credentials) I knew those teachers who used guilt, shame, IQ, popularity and psychological warfare against children. Guilt and shame never worked for these teachers from about grades 6 to 12. When I was teaching English and drama in 7th grade, a visiting teacher said this to my class: “You do not have to like me but you must respect me.” They never respected her. She was in my classroom for about a month and my students hated her. I could have told her why she was having such difficulty with my class but I was not allowed to do so, so she suffered through for a month all because of her initial “demand.” I taught in Littlerock, CA. When I began my teaching career at age 37, my district had the distinction of being the meth, and child abuse and poverty capitol of the United States. These students were already as shamed and beaten down as they were going to be because something in them rebelled against Absolute Authority figures so, they were either going to make it through high school or make it into prison. I would never shame these children or cause them to feel more guilt than they already felt. One of my fourth grade students, who was defiant with me at first, begged me not to call his stepfather due to a minor infraction. I looked into his eyes and saw the fear I was raised with and I told him immediately that I will never call his parents for anything except to report how well he is doing. I met his pregnant mother and stepfather at Teacher-Parent conferences. The mother was a beauty and very pregnant and young. The stepfather was, in my own estimation, someone who had done time. They both were uneducated and they both showed up really drunk for Michael’s conference. Michael was nine years old and already filled with so much shame and guilt due to his mother and stepfather. He sat stone silent and would not make eye contact with me while I sang his intelligence and class conduct praises because his parents were laughing and talking and not listening at all and Michael hanged his head in shame. I found out quickly that my students, from 1st grade and all the way to 12th responded so much better to anything positive. They also responded to teachers who liked teaching and liked their students. If you are teaching in one of the poorest districts in California, you really have to love what you are doing and love your students if you want to contribute to their future success. That’s all I did for over 25 years. Thanks for reading this.

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