ADHD and the Alexander Technique | #16
Some people with ADHD have reported benefits in applying some of the ideas from my materials. What could be going on here?
21 February 2023 :: I haven’t sent an email to this list in some time and I just migrated and combined lists from ConvertKit back to Substack. If you’re here by error, please forgive me and go ahead and unsubscribe. And to jog your memory: my name is Michael Ashcroft and, among other things, I teach Alexander Technique.
Two years since I last used it, I’m reinvigorating this Substack as a focal point for my writing on Alexander Technique and ideas it intersects with. This might include cognitive science, anatomy, contemplative traditions, psychology, philosophy, emotions, consciousness and much else besides. For me, Alexander Technique is a portal into a much larger set of interesting ideas and practices and I consider those in scope for Expanding Awareness.
For now, to get back into it, let’s talk about ADHD
Can Alexander Technique help with ADHD?
My interest in Alexander Technique’s potential relevance to ADHD arose because quite a few people with ADHD who have engaged with my materials have reported improvement in how ADHD manifests for them. I’m curious why this is, because my lay understanding is that ADHD has more to do with attention control than with awareness.
But reports like this thread from Thomas got me curious: what if ADHD has a significant awareness component as well, such that learning to notice and control what’s happening with awareness might also be beneficial for those with ADHD?
I’ll comment on some points that Thomas raises and see what conclusions we might be able to draw.
Understanding attention vs awareness
First of all, for anyone who hasn’t seen me talk about this, it’s important to remember that attention and awareness are distinct, yet mutually interacting ways of relating to the world.
My view, which I’ve seen reflected both in The Mind Illuminated (Culadasa) from a Buddhist-meditation perspective, and in The Master And His Emissary (Iain McGilchrist) from a neuroscientific perspective, is as follows:
Attention is the ‘narrow beam’ that we can move from object to object, although it can jump of its own accord to varying extents depending on the person and practice.
Attention can only rest on one thing at a time. There is no such thing as multi-tasking, only rapid switching.
Awareness is the entire set of things around and within you that you are able to notice. If you cannot notice something, it’s not within your awareness.
Awareness has size and shape, which both change continuously. Highly attention-grabbing things can immediately and strongly contract the field of awareness, a phenomenon commonly known as tunnel vision or target fixation.
Awareness contains, but also constraints attention. You cannot put your attention on anything that is outside your awareness.
Is ADHD a problem of hyper-contracted awareness?
I don’t have ADHD, so I rely on reports like Thomas’ to give me a window into what the experience might be like, although I also recognise that his experience of ADHD might not be like others’ experience of ADHD.
Thomas reports that, in fact, he has “sharp and stable levels of attention all the time”, but…
From my perspective, a “tiny blob” of awareness could be problematic few reasons.
Hyper-contracted awareness leads to hyper-constrained attention, where attention cannot go anywhere outside the boundary of awareness. If you can’t notice people or objects around you then you can’t make any choices regarding them. In effect, you would be stuck in tunnel vision until something sufficiently powerful knocked you out of it, like exhaustion, an intrinsic loss of interest or a sufficiently powerful outside stimulus.
On its own, this seems to makes sense, but it doesn’t square with some other reports of ADHD that suggest it’s either difficult or even impossible for people with ADHD to sustain attention on a single thing. Instead, attention seems to move from one thing to another with extreme speed, leading to experiences something like “I was trying to read a book, but now I’m playing online Chess—how did that happen?”
I suspect these two views are compatible, though, if we consider that the tiny blob of awareness could itself, for whatever reason, bounce around with attention constrained inside it. The flow of events might go something like:
hyper-contracted awareness on Object A with experience of hyper-focus, then something about Object A triggers the idea of Object B
brief ‘flash’ of awareness expansion only long enough for attention to shift to Object B
awareness immediately hyper-contracts around Object B and a new hyper-focus emerges
This could happen extremely quickly with multiple cycles in quick succession, leading to rapid shifting, repeated hyper-focus and low awareness that this dynamic is happening at all, because awareness—the thing that allows you to notice things like this—is itself too contracted.
Could awareness control help with ADHD?
If this analysis is accurate—or at least sufficiently accurate for some people’s experience of ADHD—then learning to better notice and control the dynamics of awareness, rather than attention, could be helpful to reduce some of the unhelpful manifestations of ADHD.
One way to catch this might be to practice having a more spacious awareness in order to catch the cycle as it’s happening. If the ‘flash’ of awareness that happens with the focus shift could be expanded or extended, even a little, it might provide enough of an entry point to notice and interrupt the cycle.
In general, I wouldn’t attempt to train this in the context of task focus, because the pull of attention is too strong. Instead I suggest practicing in low-stakes contexts, like going for a walk in nature without external input like audiobooks, podcasts or music. Over time the ‘baseline’ level of awareness can improve enough to make noticing the rapid switching easier, or even to reduce the “tiny blob of awareness” effect when in hyper-focus mode.
Mind-body interactions and ADHD
The other point that Thomas raises in that thread is the relationship between awareness and how to body responds to it, which may be particularly emphasised in ADHD.
A shorthand way of explaining this relationship is “where awareness leads, body follows”. Contracted states of awareness tend to shrink the stature of the body, particularly in such a way as the body moves towards where contracted awareness is located.
Put another way, if you are only aware of the space in front and down from you, like if you’re working on a laptop or using a phone, your body will tend to slump forwards and down. Beyond the ‘bad’ posture, this will also come with all kinds of generalised muscle tension and constricted breathing patterns.
As Thomas correctly points out, if you are able to notice that your body is crumpled, something aches and your breathing is shallow, this can be enough of a cue to intervene. This can be as simple as moving, or it can involve an expansion of awareness back into the broader space around you. In general, that moment of ‘coming back to yourself’ and moving around comes with an expansion of awareness anyway, whether you’re explicitly conscious of it or not.
Isn’t contraction of awareness needed for focus?
There’s one question I get a lot: “don’t I need to cut out distractions to make focus easier?”
My answer to this is… maybe. I don’t know for sure. There are plenty of times I have found easy focus in an obnoxiously distracting environment, and plenty of times I have been horribly distractible in a silent, empty room.
That said, for people who have trouble sustaining attention, removing distractions from awareness can be helpful, because the pull can be too strong. I would just suggest doing this through environment design—like noise cancelling headphones, reduced visual clutter, airplane mode, etc—rather than contracting awareness, because that comes with unhelpful physical and mental side effects, like tension.
In an ideal world, I suspect that training both attention and awareness would be beneficial, such that even if you’re able to notice distractions, you’re still able to keep attention where you want it. In the absence of this, contracting awareness may work, but in my view it’s suboptimal and probably has unwanted second-order effects.
That’ll probably do for now. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them. I am doing my best to simulate what ADHD is like from the inside, but I could be completely wrong. If I am, please let me know so I can update my model! I suspect there is some useful work to be done along these lines.
Want to go deeper?
Alexander Technique is an embodied, real-world mindfulness practice that doesn’t involve sitting on a cushion. It can help you notice, expand and play within the space between stimulus and response.
This is valuable because the entire scope of human experience can be enhanced by being able to make new choices in response to things that happen in your internal and external worlds.
Alexander Technique gives you conscious control over your awareness and, from there, more agency in any aspect of your life, whether it’s how you move, how you think, how you perform, how you speak, how you relate to others or how you relate to yourself.
If you want to explore this more deeply, I have an affordable, fully self-paced course, which I think might be the only one of its kind covering my awareness-first flavour of Alexander Technique anywhere on the Internet. Come join a community of 1150 people who are already learning.