Driven to novelty
Last November I took a very last minute short break to coastal Morocco. Planned only days before, cheap flights booked to stay in Marrakesh and then a quite impulsive decision two days before to take a two hour taxi ride and stay instead on the coast, in a lovely port town, called Essaouira.
I love visiting foreign places, my memories of holidays are often my fondest. I like to explore and find unfamiliar environments truly exciting. Not necessarily to long haul destinations but off-track locations or mingling with the locals. I so don’t want to be a tourist, anticipated, expected and catered for in my arrival, I want an adventure.
This trip to Essaouira was a perfect example of my ideal moment away from home. Way before I diagnosed my ADHD I always knew that novelty had some kind of magic effect on me: new sights, sounds, places, foods, cultures and places seem to wake me up and engage me, pretty much more than anything else in my life.
Some YouTube person walking through Essaouira
Not my video, just randomly chosen from YouTube but gives a great idea of the town!
I seldom eat the same food twice in a restaurant and find it hard to holiday in the UK, as having the same high street shops, foods, people, language and architecture simply doesn’t interest me. After I was diagnosed ADHD it was obvious to me that novelty seeking is definitely a key part of our ADHD make-up. We have dedicated novelty circuitry in our brains that drive significantly dopamine release than prior, well honed experiences.
I had a perfect moment on that trip, wandering through the enormous camel market of Had Draa, reached by crowded and ancient bus an hour from Essaouira. After passing the camel sales section, the used engine parts, the piles of vegetables strewn across a vast open area, we entered the meat section, where freshly dispatched lamb and goat meat was sold, blood and entrails lay around in a fashion I don’t usually see back home in a UK supermarket – great!
Smoke and barbecue smells drifted in the hot desert air between the canvas tents from the many temporary restaurants where lamb was being served by men in turbans and djellaba robes, to customers sitting on floor cushions, all shouting and laughing in what I guess was Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and maybe Berber too.
In that moment, taking in the smells, sounds, the light shafts breaking through the drifting smoke between the temporary ramshackle tents, everything was new, exciting, colourful and vibrant. I was privileged to see another world in which everything was different – and I felt fantastic.
How we boost our under-stimulated ADHD brains
In some ways I wish Edward Hallowell has called his brilliant guide to ADHD, “Driven to Novelty” rather than “Driven to Distraction”. His title never really worked for me, I am seldom involuntarily distracted and much more driven to seek interest, novelty and stimulation.
I know that this is not a universal ADHD experience and many find themselves involuntarily distracted. But for me and many adults that I coach and have met, much of the time we chose to be distracted, we make a deliberate choice to engage in an alternative and more stimulating activity. We choose interesting over important despite the consequences of being less effective, less productive and ultimately less rewarded.
So why do we make these unhelpful decisions? In ADHD the basic background-level of stimulation in the brain is uncomfortably low, due to the way we process dopamine. Our brains are under-stimulated and that does not feel good. We seek the most engaging and rewarding options available. Broadly we have three choices
- To engage our Flight, Fight, Freeze response to boost adrenaline and hence dopamine
- To increase dopamine with stimulants
- By chasing after and finding novelty
The “flight/fight” approach to engagement
The flight/fight response activates a different neural network that lights up our brains. We use this all the time, often without realising it. We unconsciously engineer arguments, we drive fast, we leave tasks till the last moment and we endlessly ruminate on anxious thoughts – all in order to produce the flight/fight response, to boost adrenaline and so dopamine to stimulate our under-active minds.
When I present to large audiences my stress response means that my head clears, I find the right words, make my best jokes and have the energy to engage and entertain. Many adults with ADHD choose high-adrenaline jobs like being a fire-fighter, ambulance driver or emergency surgeon. Consciously or unconsciously, we engineer this flight/fight response, and it helps us enormously. We don’t leave the essay to the night-before simply because of procrastination, no we leave it because our past experience shows that we engage better the night before, in a way we cannot a week earlier, we need the stress, the panic of last-minute stimulation increases our motivation, focus and interest.
It works but at a price, the flight/fight response induces stress and stress in extremely detrimental to sleep, immune systems, our hearts and health in general.
The chemical approach
A simple but often unhealthy approach is to take a short cut and chemically stimulate our brains. Many adults, unaware of their own ADHD, discover that many legal and illegal drugs can improve engagement and focus, such as caffeine, cannabis, nicotine, cocaine, speed and alcohol all increase stimulation too, though with unwanted, unhealthy side-effects. It is no wonder that studies show that around 50%-70% of substance abusers have undiagnosed/unmedicated ADHD. Drugs are the primary approach taken by Western medication to help ADHD. The stimulant medications are designed to increase the available amount of dopamine and nor-adrenaline (nor-epinephrine) in our brains in as safe and non-addicting way as possible.
The Novelty Approach
Most people with ADHD are drawn to the new, to explore, investigate and invent. We are rewarded with a major release of dopamine the first few times we do, see, feel, think, experience something. Novelty is probably one of the most powerful signals to determine what we pay attention to in the world. From an evolutionary standpoint it makes perfect sense, as we would be wasting our time and energy if we spent all of our time noticing the things that don’t change from day to day. Of course the second mouthful of chocolate gateau is less rewarding than the first. Watching a movie the second time can be boring even if we loved it the first time around. Over time our new house, car, girlfriend/boyfriend, job, holiday destination often become less pleasurable and rewarding.
Sadly, novelty wears out – as new becomes old
In work and study this loss of novelty factor explains our ADHD inconsistencies. When we start our degree or new job everything is new, fresh and exciting. The first time we produce a report, write an essay, sit in a lecture, listen to our boss – it is all an original experience, dopamine flows, we are focussed and enjoy ourselves. Three months, six months, a year later, the reward we get from sitting writing the report, depends solely on how interesting that report is, there is no extra-buzz of novelty induced dopamine. We return to our base-line state and with ADHD that state is too low and there may not be enough stimulation and reward on offer for us to complete the task.
Novelty really matters with ADHD
ADHD people pursue novelty which means they leave behind older, no longer novel tasks, places, jobs, relationships, hobbies, studies, holiday destinations, foods and exercise regimes far more quickly that other people, as often it is only the novelty that sustains our focus. This can can be baffling to our bosses, teachers and friends – it can be baffling to us too. Why did I stop my hobby of photography? Why is my ADHD employee suddenly goofing off? Why did my job get so boring? How come the gym no longer appeals? Why has my ADHD partner stopped paying me any attention? It can be frustrating, sad and confusing when the novelty wears off.
There is no cure. When interest wanes often the only solution is to find something else new instead, a new job, hobby, exercise class, or subject to study. It does make it hard for us to be truly an expert in anything in life as we can seldom hold on long enough. On the other hand we often enjoy a much far wider variety of experiences, driven to novelty in work, holidays, relationships, foods, places and activities. We are likely to explore further and more often.
My advice is don’t fight it, just enjoy the richer life experiences the pursuit of novelty brings