Separating Attention from Intelligence Makes a Big Difference

Separating Attention from Intelligence Makes a Big Difference

When folks with ADHD come to see me, the first thing I typically reassure them about is their intelligence. While they more or less know that intelligence is different than the ability to focus, at this point they’re not quite sure how. Persons with Adult ADHD have received so much negative feedback throughout the years that they’ve almost come to believe they’re not smart at all. The backlog of poor grades and negative work evaluations have taken their toll. Or… they may secretly still believe that they are very bright, but they’re extremely frustrated at the lack of hard evidence to prove it and that no one else can attest to their competence either.

Intelligence is the ability to comprehend increasingly complex concepts, to understand the relationships among these concepts, and to manipulate the relationships among these concepts for specific purposes. At a very simplistic level, intelligence requires that there are ideas in our head that we can move around. Attention is quite different – it is the road on which information and ideas travel in order to enter our brain. If this road is largely closed off, very little information enters the brain to think about!

A Helpful Analogy

I’ve found the following analogy works the best in distinguishing attention from intelligence: imagine a young student sitting by herself in a classroom reading a book. There’s plenty of light in the room so it is easy for her to read. Now imagine that same student trying to read but she can hardly make out the words because the lights have been turned off and the classroom is dark.

In the first situation we’d exclaim what a good reader she is. In the second situation, would we conclude she’s illiterate? Of course not – we’d be able to identify the lack of light as the problem that limits her reading ability. We’d instead conclude that sufficient lighting is a necessary prerequisite for reading. So it is with attention and intelligence – they are two separate variables. Sufficient attention is a necessary prerequisite. Attention needs to be sufficiently focused for new information to be routed in; then the brain can do what it does best – think clearly about it.

Unfortunately, teachers haven’t always had the training they’ve needed to make these distinctions. Adequate attention and intelligence have long been muddled into one. As a result, students with undiagnosed ADHD haven’t succeeded in the classroom and have a long history of receiving poor grades. Many teachers assumed these students weren’t smart enough to comprehend the material when, in reality, these kids weren’t taking in the information in the first place. Imagine this scenario playing out, perhaps starting in elementary school and continuing through senior year of high school – and the emotional damage of being labelled as “not too bright” or “lazy” becomes embedded inside oneself. While the damage starts in school it can eventually leak out to negatively affect many areas of life. Self-confidence and self-esteem suffer tremendously.

Thus, it’s not surprising that clients entering therapy have doubts about how smart they might be. I generally share my analogy about the student reading in the light versus reading in the dark and they politely nod their heads, appearing to understand what I’ve described. But it’s not until they see the results for themselves that these distinctions take on real meaning. Results they achieve via the use of ADHD medications, nutritional therapy, strengthening of executive functioning or other paths. Once their attentional problems have been addressed and they have improved ability to focus and concentrate, they’re amazed at what they’re able to accomplish.

The Results Speak for Themselves

Tom (name’s been changed), for example, had a quizzical look on his face every time he described to me how classmates would encourage him to speak louder so that the teacher could also hear the good ideas he was whispering to them. Maria described how she has been able to share her semester grades with her parents, who smile, and she’s been able to escape the rut of being placed on academic probation. Alex has received strong performance evaluations at work and he’s proud of himself. And Frank has been finishing chores at home and sticking to a schedule, resulting in an end to the constant bickering with his partner.

Bit by bit, these individuals remade their self-concept – which now includes:

• Having proof they’re smart.
• Being able to follow through with promises.
• Setting goals and successfully achieving them.
• Being a responsible adult.

I’ve witnessed this reformulation of self-concept and the development of competence many times, each one a true delight.

Please… separate your problems with attention from your perception of your intelligence. This is an excellent place to start your self-care and treatment for ADHD.

Take the first step.


Please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to learn how I can be of service.

To find out more about my services, click here: Adult ADHD Therapy

About Janet

Separating Attention from Intelligence Makes a Big DifferenceJanet Niederman, Ph.D. is a Los Angeles psychologist in private practice. She’s worked with clients with a variety of issues for thirty-five years and has provided clinical supervision to doctoral-level psychology interns as well. She specializes in treating anxiety, depression, and ADHD.

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Separating Attention from Intelligence Makes a Big Difference