Impulsivity: It’s A Neurodivergent Thing
A relatable explanation for anyone who does not understand impulsivity
“What were you thinking?!”
My son and I both have ADHD. I know I’ve asked myself this question many times.
The problem with this question is that we weren’t thinking. Anything. We didn’t have time to think before our bodies just acted. Impulsivity is like having our bodies go rogue: our bodies decide to go full speed ahead without waiting for our brains to catch up.
ADHD Brains are inconsiderate like that.
Reduced Impulse Control
A key feature of ADHD is impulsivity (Barkley, 2015), or difficulty pausing to consider the possible ramifications of one’s actions before acting.
ADHD Brain is a bit like having a few too many beers, then doing or saying things you wouldn’t normally do when fully sober. Having an ADHD Brain is also like having a drunk partner who is out of control, embarrassing both themselves and you, but you just can’t reel them in.
You’re constantly like, “wait, mouth, slow down! I didn’t have a chance to think that through first — ugh!” and “wait, body, hang on, let’s talk about this first! …. aaaaand too late.”
Oh, the regrets.
What really happens is the Prefrontal Cortex, specifically the right inferior part, is supposed to tell the motor cortices to slow their roll (Aron et al., 2014), but apparently, it took the whole “inferior” label a little too literally.
The PFC is the last part of the brain to mature, it’s the part responsible for important things like decision-making and inhibiting behavior. Maturation of the PFC is also delayed in individuals with ADHD (Tripp & Wickens, 2009).
All the Hangover, None of the Fun
To take the analogy even further: too much masking —meaning trying to appear neurotypical, or “normal”— or too much peopleing can lead to overstimulation and exhaustion.
ADHD burnout is much like a hangover, maybe worse if you’re also an introvert or have anxiety, and it can happen without even taking a sip of alcohol.
All. The. Ideas… at all the Wrong Times
Impulsivity isn’t just about physical impulsivity either, oh no, that’s not good enough for ADHD Brains. We’re so extra, our brains don’t stop there.
ADHD brains can often be internally impulsive, so our thoughts are ping-ponging all over the place inside our heads.
When I try to do a menial task… Suddenly: ideas!
[Me, sitting at a computer, trying to do thinking]
Brain: …Sorry, got nothin’….
[Me, later, just trying to wash dishes]
Brain: OOH! How about THIS?! AND THIS!!! Quick, take a note!
[Me, in the middle of a job interview, possible future boss is talking]
Brain: OOOH, what they said just gave me an idea! You should interrupt and share your brilliance!
Me: Shhh! Not now, brain, I’m trying to listen.
Brain: SAY THE THING, do it NOW!!!
[Me: screaming internally in ADHD]
(That’s French for “without patience”… doesn’t it sound nicer in French?)
ADHD Brain and impulsivity also lead to a distinct lack of patience.
Neither my son nor I have any patience.
Of any kind.
One way in which this manifests is interrupting someone when they’re talking. We don’t mean to be rude, we want to hear what you’re saying — it’s just that we have no working memory, so if we don’t say what we’re thinking RIGHT NOW, we’ll probably forget.
Picture an attempted conversation in our household:
Me: This one time, we were camping with the dogs—
Son: I love camping! That reminds me of the time when —
Husband (who does not have ADHD): … [stares in Neurotypical] …
Son: We were also camping, and there was this squirrel—
Me: We tried to put one of our dogs to bed in her own tent—
Son: The squirrel climbed into a pocket on our tent—
Me: She really wanted to be with us, and rolled her tent right into our tent!
Son: We saw the whole tent shaking, then a little squirrel jumped out and ran away!
My poor husband…
But wait… there’s more!
You don’t have to feel left out!
You don’t even need to have ADHD to behave impulsively. As suggested in the intro, alcohol makes most people impulsive, but so does childhood.
Because the PFC is the last part of the brain to fully mature, all children demonstrate some level of impulsivity as a normal part of their development.
ADHD just allows us to revel in, and experience, our impulsivity for longer and until later in life. Isn’t that generous?
Aron, A., Robbins, T., Poldrack, R. (2014). Inhibition and the right inferior frontal cortex: one decade on. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(4), 177–185. [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2013.12.003].
Barkley, Russell A. (2015). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis & Treatment. The Guilford Press.
Tripp, G., & Wickens, J. R. (2009). Neurobiology of ADHD. Neuropharmacology, 57(7–8), 579–589. [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2009.07.026].