Distractible vs. Curious

Those close to attention deficit disorder (ADD)—psychologists, psychiatrists, neurolo­gists, therap­ists, counselors, etc.—frequently reference four distinguishing characteristics or traits that are used to differentiate between those who have ADD and those who do not. The four traits are “distractible” “impulsive,” “hyper­active,” and “lazy.”

In this article, I place each of these traits into a context to illustrate how their obvious interpretations are a function of what people are paying attention to. Let’s begin with “distractible.”

Dictionaries define “distractible” as:

  • Easily diverted or drawn away from attention
  • Amused or entertained by a pleasant diversion

Now let’s look at how dictionaries define “curious”:

  • Eager to learn or know; inquisitive
  • Arousing or exciting speculation, interest, or attention through being inexplicable or highly usual; odd; strange
  • Interesting because of oddness or novelty; strange or unexpected

After reading these definitions, does anything jump out at you? Is anything obvious? What’s obvious to me is that the difference between “distractible” and “curious” is simply whether you are moving towards or away from something interesting. The adjective used to describe the situation depends on where you stand. Let me illustrate.

Imagine an elementary-age student with ADD. The teacher is in front of the class, teaching a lesson that is not stimulating to the ADD child. At the same time, there is a cockroach crawling across the floor. In the moment the child notices the cockroach, he tunes out the teacher and tunes in the cockroach. The question is this: What adjective best describes the situation?

Seems to me, the teacher would say the child is distracted because it is obvious that the child is not paying attention to the teacher and the lesson. From my perspective, the child is curiously watching the cockroach. In other words, his attention follows his interest, and the child is more interested in the cockroach, which wins out over the boring lecture.

So, in any given situation, is the ADDer distracted or just more curious about something else? By and large, society is boring. In contrast, ADDers have a heightened state of curiosity and are curious about everything. Therefore, given society’s bias, what is obvious is that ADDers are distractible, and society has labeled them so. The travesty here is that the negative label overshadows the more positive curiosity trait.

My point here is that it’s obvious to society that ADDers are distractible. What’s obvious to me is that ADDers are very curious.

What is obvious to you? If you are paying attention to the word “distractible,” your obvious solutions look like forcing yourself NOT to pay attention to what naturally interests you, which just sounds hard to me. On the other hand, if you are paying attention to what you are curious about, what you are drawn to, what comes easy? Seems to me, paying attention to what interests you is the path of least resistance and a way to move forward successfully. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Distractible vs. Curious

  1. Being distracted or distractible is a very “in the moment” experience with ADDers but holds many faces and isn’t easy to generalize about. Likely it is a very different experience to describe for each individual with ADD.
    I find it can happen short term when I need to listen or focus on 1 task (like the child in class with the cockroach) and get momentarily distracted by another stimulus around me…pretty typical with cell phones buzzing and dinging for example.
    I feel distracted more when multi-tasking — say one person requires your attention to explain the window installation project in your house and a client is suddenly calling you back after waiting to hear about your approval on another project and then the FedEx guy is ringing the doorbell so you can check and sign a delivery slip for a bunch of equipment you are expecting to finish the renovation project — not to mention that annoying cockroach simultaneously runs across your foot and the dog is barking at the back door because the lawn guy wants his money and needs to leave in a hurry….
    Sounds like a comical reality show, but sometimes life is like this and something is going to get dropped or sidelined or forgotten because of “sensory overload” which is a challenge for ADDers to juggle. Staying on task (staying focused on the most important or necessary) despite all the other “distractibles” is the key. Prioritizing — like triage in a hospital emergency room — and understanding you need to finish or focus the first task is key to moving on to the other “dominoes” in line.

    1. It is very in the moment. While I agree the actual experience of each individual is slightly different, it does come down to self-regulation. I like what you wrote, as it illustrates how self-regulation challenges manifest and implies that, yes, it is hard to manage. Thanks for the post!

  2. Great insight. This is the conflict between necessary “maintenance” activities (boring) and the opportunity to learn something new or create something. Of course even maintenance activities can be studied to find a better (creative) way they can be carried out but the range of possibilities is more restricted than the whole world offers for learning/creating.

    1. “This is the conflict…” is spot on. The battle between the curious and the boring… the internal battle for those with ADHD to self regulate… to use the executive functioning brain to override the urge to divert attention to something more exciting. It is easy to say that one should self-regulate… but hard to execute. In this article my hope was to at least shift mindsets from the negative (distractible) to see the same thing more positively (curious).”

  3. Perhaps the definition of distractible is incomplete. Perhaps it should be: easily drawn away or diverted from attention before a task or activity is completed.

    1. That works! Or maybe “easily or curiously drawn away or diverted from attention before a task or activity is completed.”

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