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To the beat of a different drum

Putting a new spin on ADHD research, psychologist David Gilden finds the effects of the disorder may be caused by a glitch in internal timing

Aug. 29, 2011

At 33, Susan can’t sit still. She never could. Pegged by her teachers as the resident “problem child,” she spent most of her afternoons in detention for disrupting class and forgetting her homework assignments.

As an adult she still struggles to meet her work deadlines and has to fight the insatiable urge to dart out of meetings.

David Gilden
Psychology Professor David Gilden studies how people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have a much quicker sense of the present moment, which causes them to switch gears at a faster rate than those without the disorder.

“Just the thought of sitting through a meeting or going to the movies makes me feel anxious,” says Susan, who asked to be identified by her first name only, in fear of being stigmatized by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “My mind is bouncing around like a ping-pong ball and I can’t focus on one thing for longer than a few minutes.”

Susan is among the estimated 5 percent of American adults who, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, are living with ADHD, a neurobiological condition marked by impulsive behavior and a lack of focus.

University of Texas at Austin psychologist David Gilden’s research findings suggest the underlying problem doctors have diagnosing ADHD may be in recognizing that it’s not an issue of attention, but rather a problem of timing. According to his research, people with ADHD have a much quicker sense of the here and now, such as the moment it takes to thread together two sentences in a classroom lecture. This timing glitch often causes them to fall out of sync with the rest of the world.

Once diagnosed, the symptoms of ADHD are often managed with stimulant medication, but according to Gilden, to effectively treat the disorder clinicians need to have a clear understanding of the underlying deficit.

“The first thing in any treatment is understanding what it is that’s being treated,” Gilden says. “At this time, that’s missing. People have been focusing on ADHD as if it’s an attention disorder, but I don’t think that’s what it is.”

Using drums, Legos, puzzles and Play-Doh, Gilden and his team of researchers are searching for the root cause of ADHD. By allowing their study participants to tinker with the toys in an unconstrained environment, the researchers are able to track timing differences in their natural behaviors.

“ADHD is not about inattention,” Gilden says. “It’s a disorder in the way people thread moment-to-moment experiences together. Children with ADHD are often disruptive because their world is moving at a much faster pace and there’s always going to be a mismatch between their world and ours.”

As part of his research, Gilden measured how people with and without the disorder tap along to the beat of a metronome. The respondents then continue tapping at the same pace for three minutes after the metronome stops. Although both groups were able to tap to the beat at 60 beats per minute, the participants with ADHD lost the rhythm when the tempo slowed down to 40 beats per minute.

“The slower the tempo, the more likely people with ADHD will be less internally consistent with themselves,” Gilden says. “It’s not that they’re inattentive, it’s just that their world is moving along at a slightly faster clip.”

To measure the timing disruptions, Gilden and his team videotaped the hand movements of more than 60 undergraduate students as they worked on various projects like piecing together a puzzle, building Lego structures or molding Play-Doh.

After conducting a frame-by-frame analysis of the action sequences of each hand movement (such as touching a puzzle piece and fitting two pieces together) the researchers found significant differences in timing between ADHD and non-ADHD participants.

Although both groups used similar action sequences and constructed their Lego and Play-Doh projects in the same order, the participants with ADHD took about one-third of a second longer carrying out a task like fitting two Lego pieces together.

“One-third of a second seems like a short amount of time, but in psychophysics, this is a huge timing difference because it only takes the average person one-tenth of a second to initiate an action,” Gilden says. “This is a very puzzling discovery because although their minds are moving at a faster rate, they’re actions are more spacious.”

Sifting Through the Noise

David Gilden and his graduate research assistants, Maryam Ezell (left) and Laura Marusich
Professor David Gilden and his graduate research assistants, Maryam Ezell (left) and Laura Marusich, examine frame-by-frame hand movements in videos to measure cognitive timing differences between people with and without Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

While all the participants moved freely during the study, Gilden, who holds a doctorate in astronomy, found a hidden structure in the patterns of their actions. He found each moment-to-moment fluctuation in hand movements resembles 1/f noise (pronounced one over F), which isn’t an audible noise, but a mysterious wave-like pattern that appears in natural and unnatural surroundings. Investigated by scientists for more than a century, the noise has yet to be explained.

Gilden is the first to show that 1/f exists in human consciousness. In a 1995 study published in Science, he found that all humans produce the noise. However, his recent studies have shown that the noise is much harder to detect in people with ADHD, as their movements are more erratic.

From fluctuating weather patterns, to the beating of a heart, to pitch and loudness in music and speech, our world is full of 1/f noise. To illustrate this highly complex concept, Gilden plays a piano rendition of Summer Samba. In between the fluctuating tempos and repetitive melodies, he explains how the patterns in music achieve 1/f noise.

“When you listen to this song, you’ll find that it follows a formula of repetition and surprise folded into a pattern of organization,” Gilden says. “Music is the blend between the ordered states and disordered states, and that’s exactly what 1/f achieves.”

Pointing to a video of a student assembling Legos, Gilden illustrates the alternating patterns in each movement. With each action unit (such as a touch, pause or fitting of two Lego pieces) the student produces a train of durations that resemble 1/f noise.

Using Gilden’s research, James Cutting, professor of psychology at Cornell University, studies how editing techniques in filmmaking follow the pattern of human attention. In a recent study, he found the basic shot structure and scene clusters in movies have evolved over the years to resemble the pattern of 1/f noise.

Using Play-Doh, the researchers examine how people with ADHD move to the beat of a faster cognitive tempo. Over time, Gilden aims to create diagnostic tools using drumming, Play-Doh and other methods to replace current diagnostic tests, which he believes are ineffective.

By timing the scenes just right, moviemakers can capture the viewers’ attention without overly taxing their attention span, Cutting says. If the audience hears something the brain doesn’t recognize as the correct sequence – such as quick zooms and pans – they’re unable to make the connections and their minds wander.

Gilden’s research shows compelling evidence that people think, focus and refocus their minds, all at the speed of 1/f, Cutting says.

“When you’re working on a task, sometimes you’re good at it, sometimes you drag and sometimes you zone out,” Cutting says. “We experience these periods of fluctuation throughout our daily lives. And each of these fluctuations creates waves that essentially form a 1/f pattern.”

By applying this theory to ADHD research, Cutting says Gilden is on the right track to understanding the underlying deficit.

Understanding Attention

More than 5.4 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD according to the Centers for Disease Control. And as that number continues to grow, Gilden says researchers and clinicians need to find out if the disorder has anything to do with attention.

“What is attention? It’s such an abstract concept,” Gilden says. “Attention involves focusing and letting go at the same time, but other than that – I’m not sure what it is.”

Lego structures
To measure cognitive timing differences between people with and without ADHD, Gilden and his team of researchers analyze their hand movements as they build Lego structures in an unconstrained environment.

This has made treating the disorder particularly difficult. After being diagnosed with ADHD, people are often prescribed psychotropic drugs that come with an array of side effects like mood swings and loss of appetite. The problem with this method, Gilden says, is that clinicians are treating a condition that they don’t fully understand.

Without a clear understanding of attention, psychologists have made very little progress in identifying cognitive deficits in ADHD, Gilden says.

“You can’t find a cure until you understand the underlying problem,” he says. “If a doctor suspects you have the flu, he can prescribe a drug specifically targeted for that virus. But when psychologists diagnose people with ADHD, they need to understand what the deficit is before prescribing a full spectrum of treatment that has nothing to do with the condition.”

To seek out the underlying deficit, he examines the disorder from an entirely new perspective by applying an anthropological approach to his research.

“The problem with most ADHD research involving time-pressured experimental trials is that people with the disorder tend to be more erratic,” Gilden says. “We’re interested in the natural flow of behavior. Instead of giving them time-pressured tasks, we allow them to generate their own thoughts and actions.”

Diagnosing a Growing Epidemic

So what’s behind the rise in ADHD diagnoses? That’s the question plaguing millions of parents every year. Is it a biological illness, environmental toxins or a mere alibi for rambunctious children?

The slower the tempo, the more likely people with ADHD will be less internally consistent with themselves. It’s not that they’re inattentive, it’s just that their world is moving along at a slightly faster clip.

— Psychology Professor David Gilden

Despite decades of research, the underlying problem still remains unclear. However, recent mounting evidence in brain studies has shown that the deficit is caused by a stunted dopamine system, the brain’s reward pathway that associates stimuli with pleasurable expectations.

“Our research is motivated by studies that show abnormalities in specific areas in the brain,” Gilden says. “There are parts of the ADHD brain that are affected and dopamine pathways are altered. We’re studying how blunted dopamine signals create problems with timing.”

Since dopamine is also involved in memory, learning and motivation, the chemical helps people pay attention to the information they need to survive. However, those with ADHD might not be recognizing salient information due to an impaired dopamine system, Gilden says.

In a current study, funded by the National Science Foundation, Gilden and his team are examining how the effects of dopamine dysfunction play into the production of 1/f noise. They found that when participants with ADHD are thrust into a stress-induced environment involving time-pressured tasks, their behavior resembles the kind of noise that a radio makes when not tuned to a station – what scientists call a white noise.

This finding suggests that situations like structured classroom activities, final exams and prolonged meetings are not conducive to people with ADHD. Gilden says researchers, parents and teachers need to take a step back and look for new ways to help people with the disorder adjust to the world around them.

VIDEO: Professor David Gilden on ADHD

video icon Watch a video about Professor David Gilden and his ADHD research.

Courtesy Jennifer Borget, Your News Now.

“Our research is motivated by the idea that there is something deeply wrong with the accepted view of ADHD and how people with ADHD are understood,” Gilden says.

The harmful effects of ADHD sometimes persist into adulthood, and many adults who have it don’t know it. As a result, they don’t seek treatment and continue to struggle at work or in school and in their personal relationships.

Over time Gilden hopes to create a diagnostic tool using drumming and other methods to replace other diagnostic tests, which he says are ineffective.

“ADHD has massive consequences for adult function,” Gilden says. “People with ADHD are more likely to get into car accidents, be admitted to emergency rooms, and are more likely to be divorced. Perhaps these problems could be prevented if the disorder is accurately diagnosed early on.”

Our research is motivated by the idea that there is something deeply wrong with the accepted view of ADHD and how people with ADHD are understood.

— Psychology Professor David Gilden

Caryn Carlson, professor of psychology and assistant chair of the Psychology Department at the university, says findings from Gilden’s research could help teachers capture their students’ attention through strategically timed lectures and classroom activities.

“There is typically a mismatch between the demands of the classroom environment and the attention style of children with ADHD,” Carlson says. “This may be characterized by an inability to focus during extended desk work sessions, missing task instructions due to distractibility and making careless errors.”

Carlson cites other research findings that show the consequences of untreated ADHD, even after children are finished with school, can have a profound impact on their lives.

“When children fail to master critical early academic skills, the effects on school performance can become cumulative and result in failure, frustration and demoralization,” Carlson says.

Looking back, Susan says she wishes her teachers developed classroom activities that were more conducive to students like herself who were chronically bored and restless.

“Back then, I was all over the place,” Susan says. “I couldn’t handle the structure and the teachers didn’t know what to do with me. For the longest time, I thought something was very wrong with me, which is why I have such poor self-esteem. If I was diagnosed early on – who knows – I may have achieved my goal of becoming a history professor.”

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404;
Home page banner photo and interior photos
of Dr. David Gilden and his research team: Marsha Miller

22 Comments to "Putting a new spin on ADHD research, psychologist David Gilden finds the effects of the disorder may be caused by a glitch in internal timing"

1.  Silvie said on Aug. 29, 2011

If Dr. Gilden has in fact proven that ADHD people have this hidden pattern in their movements, then this should be diagnostic with 100% accuracy for people who have the disorder. In other words, Dr. Gilden should be able to diagnose anyone with ADHD without being told whether or not the person has it. It should have predictive value if it is real science. That’s the real experiment to be done in order to distinguish whether or not he is promoting a philosophy or doing real science. Telling me how ADHD people see the world is quite presumptuous and requires real data to back it up.

2.  Shawn Hetrick said on Aug. 29, 2011

I’m going to have to second this idea of why we are prescribing a stimulant to an ADHD candidate. That is like putting oil on fire. I think it is useful, but is definitely more hurtful if not managed correctly. Better yet, the development of a less intense drug.

3.  Lani said on Aug. 30, 2011

WOW. This is so ME. It is timing ! Can’t go slow or I am bored or tired…whether is is walking, listening, playing a game. I don’t like puzzles very much.
I am doing better on Vyvanse in social situations and in accomplishing tasks and enjoying life. But it does make me less patient with certain people. I do lose focus fast and hate long meetings. I pad helps as does taking notes. Thanks for the article

4.  Sheri Innerarity said on Aug. 31, 2011

Are you acquainted with the literature related to Vitamin D 25 deficiency and ADD, and ADND? I’m putting my patients who don’t get sun (including Af Am and Hispanics) on D3. Sheri (Assoc Prof UT School of Nursing, FNP, Adult Clinical Nurse Specialist)

5.  Charles A Phillips said on Sept. 1, 2011

Internal timing apparently is multi modal or multi pathed; such that some stimulants cause the systems to sync with each other and reduce stress. But what is being synced. Are the paths parallel or do we have two or more sets of waves on the same paths causing interference patterns? Wave propagation on the electrical grid and associated problems may be similar and the folks who analyze that may recognize a pattern that could be of use in understanding this. Why do I take a stimulant like caffeine at bed time to relax and go to sleep? Is it really a deficit or merely a difference that has other benefits? Thanks for broadening the thinking.

6.  Arlene Virga said on Sept. 1, 2011

Fantastic article and research. As a nursery school teacher I am very interested in your findings and research. As you publish more work around ADHD please send me articles to my e-mail address. I know you are on to something truly amazing that can help countless children, adults along with thier teachers, families and friends. Thank you.

7.  edythe said on Sept. 1, 2011

Interesting article. So one big question. The medical profession use to separate out the AD from the HD. A diagnosis prior to the merging of these two terms was more appropriate for my child. Not suffering from hyperactivity, but definitely, attention deficit. Diagnosed at a children’s hospital, did a blind study, for medication to determine if it would help and dosage. Questionnaires to teachers and coaches for six weeks prior to prescribing. As a parent, felt it to be very thorough. Most people I know whose kids are diagnosed with ADHD, never go further than their pediatrician for diagnosis and medication.
Child also diagnosed with learning differences. Due to interventions and parental and student advocacy, survived public schools and graduated UT with a 3.3. It can be done, but sometimes “takes a village.” Would love to speak with Dr. Gilden.

8.  John Langston said on Sept. 1, 2011

Fascinating article, especially the connection made to dopamine. Dr. M. Hallowell, in his book, “Delivered from Distraction,” notes the importance of finding a creative outlet for people coping with ADHD. Could this be a way of ‘jump-starting’ the dopamine pathway?

9.  Stacey Ross said on Sept. 1, 2011

This was a fascinating article! I think it would be wonderful if some of this research were carried out in clinical studies in actual classrooms around the country. I’m in San Jose California, and I think my oldest son would greatly benefit from a non-medication approach to controlling ADHD. Good luck with this research!
Stacey Ross

10.  kathleen lansky said on Sept. 1, 2011

I am 51 yrs. old. I have never been diagnosed with ADHD, but I am pretty sure I have it. I once took a test for ADD in an out patient program, and was told I passed, but barely.
I was always good in school, but as I got older, I was never happy sitting still, watching TV at night. I am divorced, don’t have a driver’s license(many accidents and alcohol abuse), and I haven’t been able to keep a job for more than 6 months since Hurricane Katrina.

If you need an older specimen for a study, let me know. 512-363-9874.

Kathleen Lansky

PS-The article was sent to me from someone who has also recognized my symptoms.

11.  Abraham Samuel said on Sept. 1, 2011

A wandering mind is definitely a characteristic of a person with ADHD. At least it is the experience of some. The difference in timing could also be a characteristic. More research is needed.

12.  Kelly Lenig said on Sept. 2, 2011

Excellent! Thank you for taking on this crisis situation. Hopefully your research will bring about a much needed change to the way drug companies and schools are allowed to mis-diagnose and mis-treat our most helpless citizens, our children.
Kelly Lenig

13.  Steve Ray said on Sept. 4, 2011

Dr. Gilden, our son Austin, was diagnosed with ADHD at age 5, took Ridelin until age 15 or 16, attended a private high school for kids with learning challenges; attended SMU and Dallas Baptist, lied about graduating, accepted a position with a bank in Dallas, and now faces termination after informing his boss.
Austin is bright; honest; social; unable to stay with schoolwork and assignments; somewhat dilusional;
and in agreement he needs help with his ADHD.
Can you recommend a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist in Dallas familiar with your work with whom we may arrange an appointment.
Thank you,
Steve and Brenda Ray 214 770 9448

14.  Janaki Tenneti said on Sept. 5, 2011

I am very keen on keeping track of your findings. Would appreciate if I could receive updates.

I can relate to almost all the observations made by Dr Gilden during his research. In all my office meetings I find that It is not inattention but the fact that I think I have figured out what is being said or discussed and my mind moves on, most often at tangents based on the points that are being discussed. Others are unable to keep up and as such consider me to be out of sync. Also when I am explaining something or making a point I will jump on to ideas that pop up as I am explaining. This is very frustrating to the audience. It comes through as jumbled and unfocused but in fact it is not . I have just moved on a few steps ahead. The problem is not inattention but the inability to filter and park these ideas to be retreived in an orderly fashion that would be considered normal. Prolonged meetings, prolonged explanations, emails etc are all great ” distracters”. I would prefer if you did not post my comments. Thank you. Janaki Tenneti.

15.  rook said on Sept. 6, 2011

reading this tugged strongly at my heart.. i can be ready for something all day and still be late, ive watched my peers that ive tutored personally pass classes that i end up failing, ive succeeded marvelously in classes that require project based learning, ie no time pressure, ive delighted in the most advanced of each major i have been in yet for all my learning i tend to fail, ive been labeled a jack of all trades but im just trying to find my way… i have ‘highlight reel’ moments in my sports but miss the wide open ones.. i keep moving on to other things before submitting this comment.. and in all this ive had many a well meaning person tell me i may have ADD (adhd?whatever.) .. ive always refused to believe that the beauty of my mind can in any way be labeled a disability, especially when the only cure appears to be prescribed and getting hooked on what students these days perpetuate as ‘study aids’.. (ridiculous!!) but now i wonder, can we instead make the system cater to a greater variety of learning types? i wish i knew what to do to make my life better. the pharma solution is unacceptable to me, but what else is there? its all fascinating thought.. but really what can we do without losing who we are?

16.  JESSE said on Sept. 7, 2011

This is why I get ticked when people drive so slow.

17.  Rae said on Sept. 7, 2011

There are a lot of gray points with this study. First, I do not understand the observation our Dr. makes about dopamine, since it is presented as if it is news, but it has been suspected for quite some time: in the treatment of ADD/ADHD, dopamine had been pointed out already as being related to the disorder. If you recall, it is part of the key behind the build of Adderall, an ADD/ADHD drug, as opposed to other drugs such as Ritalin, etc. Research had already suggested that the receptors of ADHD patients in brain cells, fail to absorb dopamine, and the drug mentioned above attempts to correct that intake deficiency.

Another point of friction in this study is when our researcher says that attention is such an abstract concept, I again disagree. The most basic definition of attention is “a cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring others”. This is a pretty direct definition. It might be hard to quantify (was that the point he was trying to make instead), and can be considered abstract as most other things, but for the purpose of this research, the concept seems straightforward: if you have more trouble concentrating than the next set of individuals, you have attention issues. Now of course drugs are not always the solution, but that’s slightly beside my point here, which is that attention is not that abstract of a concept.
Another point, and contrary to what the study suggests, is that ADHD is probably linked to attention, and not solely to faster-timing. Otherwise this disorder would work in the favor of the patient: they would simply process information quicker, on the tune of their faster drumbeats. To illustrate this, consider a computer with a faster “clock” (faster processor/beat-rate): it processes the same information as another unit, but it’s on a faster time rate (like the ADHD patient), *but* it is a more effective machine (while the ADHD patient is not). But the difference with ADHD-affected individuals is that they do go on a faster beat (like the article suggests), but fail to grasp/see/retain the information they come across. This is what attention is all about: skimming over data without focusing and grasping it, so yes, contrarily to what the article suggests, ADHD is likely linked to attention issues, and not uniquely to a faster rate issue.
Last, I would not fault clinicians for “treating a condition that they don’t fully understand”. In the absence of a complete understanding, ADHD will be treated like viral infections are: we do not know how viruses truly come to exist, but they wreak havoc, so we fight the symptoms and help the body deal with the true, unkwokn cause. The research overall raises valid questions, but builds up on somewhat shaky foundations, in my humble opinion.

18.  joe sosa said on Sept. 8, 2011

Which this was around when I was a kid. I guess you are never too old to learn new things I’m 56 with a mild ADHD. Thank you Dr. Gilden for sharing this great article.
Maybe I should be tested?

19.  Justin said on Sept. 12, 2011

ADHD is not erratic my dear it’s a symphony you just don’t understand.

20yr Male here. ADHD in most situations under my control has helped me. In fact as long as what I am doing or wanting to do is under my control I can outperform most others. The internet to me has always been my greatest ally. All the information of the world directly in front of me, where, what, and when is at my control. Information is absorbed at a much faster rate than I can even hope to gain at school. I find it borderline ridiculous that I can take a test about something with no serious prior knowledge and still do better than most. Math to me was great up until 6th grade. They thought I could not grasp the concepts and had a hard time doing mental math. One of which is true, mental math. Grasping the concepts was not a matter of learning anything or being taught. I just needed the information presented to me in a way that gave me control. I would learn more about math from taking quizzes and tests than “structured education”. Why must I be held to the same manner of education as others when I know I could seriously thrive in a solid information environment. Most need to be taught but I find people with serious ADHD just need to be told and given control, from there we just understand.

It’s infuriating to see people with ADHD failing at most aspects of life and it being sold as a problem. That is not the problem. The problem is that we are put in an old world of single minded thoughts and beliefs. ADHD does not hold us back, our ancestor crafted environment is what holds us back. Every single one of you who looks at ADHD as a problem ARE the problem. My mind can make connections and process thought in a way you cannot even imagine. Just because I cannot physically and mentally be satisfied by people who drone on and on does not make slow. The fact that I have been forced through a system made for simple minded people has crippled me. Screw that, it is time we realize that ADHD does not hinder people, it is people that hinder ADHD.


20.  Michael Smith said on Sept. 16, 2011

Rather insightful thank you, There’s no doubt that your trusty readers could quite possibly want a lot more stories such as this carry on the good hard work.

21.  Kerri Welch said on Oct. 7, 2011

Thanks so much for this article. My research is on the subject of fractal time, which intersects nicely with the scale independence of the 1/f or pink noise signature. I find it particularly interesting that the 1/f signature is characterized by the highest intensity at the lowest frequencies. The fact that ADHD characteristics display white noise instead of the expected pink noise seems to suggest the “bass line” is missing. I find this interesting for two reasons.

First of all, We naturally entrain to the frequencies that surround us. Because our modern world operates in the realm of hyper-paced frequencies, it does not seem unlikely that the bass line frequencies would suffer. We might consider researching the effects of replenishing bass-line entrainment therapy such as spending time in the woods where the frequencies are much lower than those of human culture. Additionally, time spent in stillness and meditation might serve a common purpose of allowing one to drop into wider expanses of time and timelessness. However, these methods might seem less accessible to those inclined toward constant motion.

Secondly, I have a friend who practices neurofeedback training and has had great success with ADHD clients through “Infra-low Frequency Training,” ( ) which basically helps train the clients brain to intensify the lower frequencies (hours long wavelengths) of their EEG spectrum – thus training pink noise, and offering a bass line from which to organize the shorter frequencies. In my dissertation, I discuss the possibility that ADHD is characterized by a higher internal frequency and thus a perceived slower passage of external time. The dissertation, “ A Fractal Topology of Time,” is available at .

Thanks for your work and I look forward to hearing more about how the research progresses!

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22.  Anita Barnett said on Nov. 29, 2011

Interesting article–appears related to the basis for the treatment methodology in Interactive Metronome? IM has been around for a number of years, with ongoing research to back it’s premise, and quite successful in addressing the idea of rhythm/timing/motor planning.