A Conversation with Dr. Ned Hallowell

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. Dr. Ned Hallowell talks about growing up with ADD, and the positives of having ADD/ADHD.

Episode 2: A Conversation with Ned Hallowell

distracted running

DR. HALLOWELL: Hi, this is Ned Hallowell, and before we get into the meat of the program, I want to play you a quick clip of a conversation between a distracted runner and a particularly observant, interesting park ranger.

Barry: Dan, what’s your last name?

Dan: Barvir.

Barry: Barvir. Dan, you’re a park ranger here in New Haven?

Dan: I work for the city of New Haven. I’m a park ranger. I’ve been here about 30 years.

Barry: I’m running in East Rock Park, and I have my earbuds on, and didn’t hear you at all, and you almost ran me over, right?

Dan: No, I tried to let you know that I was around by blinkers and beeping the horn.

Barry: I didn’t hear you at all because I was tuned in to the music.

Dan: You’re actually one of the first people who, when they saw the lights, responded to me and we had a conversation about the fact that distractions sometimes are harmful to human beings.

Barry: What have you seen? Since I’m not the first runner that you, so-called, almost ran into.

Dan: You were pleasant when I approached you and said, “Excuse me, but why are we not using all our five senses at once?” Those are our early warning systems. Mankind evolved using all its faculties at once. Matter of fact, sometimes I think that in our modern day, we’re almost dumbing down a little bit because the fact we’re not using all of those gifts that we have to take in the environment around us. Primitive man was much more in tune with completely his surroundings, because his survival and his life depended upon it. Ours still do. Motor vehicles are much bigger than we are, and those have honestly, in some ways, turned into our new predators for human beings, if you’re not aware of your surroundings.

Barry: You’ve been attracted to this business, you’re in a wildlife field, and so if you aren’t plugged in, if you’re earbuds aren’t on, what opens up for you?

Dan: The rest of the world. The sounds of everything that are around you. That ambient environment that we were programmed through millions of years of evolution to interact with. The more we funnel ourselves into, or are distracted from that, the less we are aware of our general surroundings.

Barry: Great, Dan. This is wonderful. Thank you very much for talking today.

Dan: Pleasure, pleasure.

“I wanted to be an explorer”

Dr. Ned Hallowell

DR. HALLOWELL: Hello, and welcome to Distraction. I’m your host, Dr. Ned Hallowell. Welcome to our podcast that is devoted to the crazy, busy life we all live, teeming with distraction. Regarding that conversation you heard between the distracted runner, and the park ranger, it points up how different life becomes when you turn off your electronics. It’s really remarkable when you take the earbuds out, when you turn the iPhone off, when you shut down the laptop, when you disengage electronically, the next thing you know, you’re able to engage in all the other ways that your senses allow.

To kick it off, we thought we’d turn the microphones around, and have Barry Berman, the wonderfully creative, inventive ADD guy who owns the company that is producing this podcast. Mr. Berman is going to take on the task of conducting a conversation with me. You’ll recognize his voice, because he was the runner at the start of the show. Let me introduce Mr. Barry Berman.

Barry: Ned. Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s good to be back on air. I think this is great. I’m so excited about bringing you to the world through podcasting. As you know, I’ve admired you for such a long time, and been helped along the way. I’m going to forget about all that, and pretend that I really don’t know anything about you, and we’ll have a conversation and we’ll be talking back and forth to each other. One of the things that I think would be interesting, since people certainly know your professional credentials, or some of them do, but they may not know about your background. They may not know where you grew up, what your influences were in life, so if we could chat a little bit about that. The early years of Ned Hallowell.

DR. HALLOWELL: Sure. Well, I grew up on Cape Cod, in a little town on the elbow of Cape Cod called Chatham. I have wonderful memories of the cape, even though my family life was anything but stable. I tell people often, I come from a family characterized by the New England WASP triad, which is alcoholism, mental illness, and politeness. People in my family were wonderfully interesting people. They’re very loving. There was no cruelty, but there was a fair amount of craziness and drinking.

Barry: Earlier on, you told me an amazing, powerful story about your father, and it blew me away. I was hoping that you would share it with our audience.

An Interesting Beginning

DR. HALLOWELL: Sure. My dad, who was an all-American hockey player at Harvard and dashing, right out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He married my mom, who the Boston Herald said was the prettiest girl in Boston. It was an incredible love story, and they proceeded to have my two older brothers. My dad was going to work at Goldman Sachs, but then the war came along, and he went off, was an officer, was the captain of a destroyer escort, and fought in the North Atlantic, hunting and sinking submarines.

For whatever reason, when he came back from the war, he went crazy. He became psychotic, and so he was taken off to a mental hospital outside of Boston and was given a lot of shock treatment, electric shock, insulin shock. Diagnosed schizophrenic. The doctors really didn’t know what to do with him. They decided to let him go home for a trial visit one weekend. Turned out it’s not such a good idea, because when he got home to the farm that my mother was living on with his brother and some family, he decided he wanted to murder my mother. My mother was a very artful woman. She persuaded him to make love instead, and that’s where I came from.

It’s an interesting beginning for a psychiatrist. Then after they did that, he got up from bed and went out to the backyard. It was in the winter. He was naked except for a pair of galoshes, and he brought a shotgun, and he started shooting crows believing they were Nazis. He’s out there blasting away at these crows, thinking he’s killing Nazis, and neighbors called the police. The police didn’t dare disarm him, because here’s this man out of control. This war hero who’s got a shotgun. My mother walked out into the field and disarmed my father, and they brought him back to the mental hospital.

An Incorrect Diagnosis

It wasn’t for a few years the doctor said my dad was incurable, and so they got divorced. I lost my family, but a young physician came along and said, “There’s this new medication called lithium, and this man may not be schizophrenic at all. He may have what was then called manic depressive illness.” They put him on lithium, and lo and behold, it was like an awakening. My dad was cured, and he spent the rest of his life teaching public school up in New Hampshire, but it had broken the family apart, and one of the reasons I’m so committed to trying to really understand what’s going on in some ways.

I saw the damage done when the diagnosis was wrong, and the good done when the diagnosis was right. My mother, who, they’re both in heaven now, and how courageous she was, and how intuitively able to think on her feet she was, it’s an amazing story. Nonetheless, it was a childhood full of exploration, of discovery, but it was unstable enough so that I got sent away to a boarding school when I was 10 years old. I pretty much grew up in boarding school. It was a little school called Fessenden, outside of Boston. Prep school in New Hampshire called Exeter, and then for college at Harvard, and then for medical school at Tulane. I was living in institutions, if you will.

Barry: Without parents.

DR. HALLOWELL: Without parents, but with teachers who functioned as parents, and with wonderful friends. One of the reasons I love teachers is that they saved me. They gave me the kind of stability my well-meaning family could not provide. For medical school, I went into psychiatry largely because my own father was bipolar, my brother was bipolar. I had an interest. People ask me, “Why’d you become a psychiatrist?” The answer is because I come from a crazy family, and I found the workings of the mind very interesting, but I didn’t want to be a bench researcher. I wanted to be an explorer. I’ve been ever since, really. I discovered this thing called ADD way back when I was 30 years old.

Barry: What do you mean by discovered?

DR. HALLOWELL: I was doing a fellowship in child psychiatry, and I heard a lecture on ADD. I’d never heard of ADD, and as I heard the lecture, I realized, “Boy, that’s me.” I always knew I had dyslexia, I was a slow reader, but I also have ADD, so I have two so-called learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. I also realized that they didn’t have to be disabling, and in my case they’ve been anything but disabling. I’d done extremely well in school, in fact, so I realized that the textbooks had it wrong. I’m a naturalist. I learn from my patients rather than the textbooks. I revised how I looked at these conditions, culminating in 1994, writing a book called Driven to Distraction with my friend, John Ratey, where we expanded the view of ADD to include the many positives that go with it.

Barry: Such as?

Positives of Having ADD/ADHD

The Positives of ADD/ADHD

DR. HALLOWELL: Creativity, originality, energy, pizzazz, charisma, the sense of entrepreneurialism, of adventure, the desire to discover. It’s the kind of people who colonized this country. As I was discovering ADD, I also discovered the crowning achievement of my life, that I could fall in love and make a family. Right as Driven to Distraction was coming out, we were having babies. All of that happened in those few five years. This book and this life changing creating of a family. People look at me in terms of my professional work, but truly the crowning achievement, if you want to call it an achievement, in my life is giving my kids the happy childhood I didn’t have. That’s why this podcast is so important to me.

I really want to bring the message of positive energy, of connection, and that everyone can have it. If you look at the strikes I had against me, psychotic father, alcoholic stepfather, my dear sweet mom became alcoholic, sent away to boarding school at the age of 10, two so-called learning disability, ADD and dyslexia. Most people with those strikes against them don’t do very well. The reason I’ve prevailed against the odds, no doubt about it, is the power of connection.

Barry: I remember years ago, I don’t know whether it’s still the case, but a lot of people felt that ADD was phony, that it really is not a real condition.

DR. HALLOWELL: Yeah, when I was first writing about it, people would say all the time, “Come on. That’s just an excuse people make up to get out of doing work. This is the yuppie flu. It’s nonsense.” I remember it wasn’t so long ago that people talked about depression that way. They said, “Come on. You’re not depressed. Just suck it up. Get a grip.” Then with ADD, at first they’d say, “Just try harder.” Telling someone with ADD to try harder is about as helpful as telling someone who’s nearsighted to squint harder. It misses the basic point.

The brain science was awhile in coming. When I learned about it in 1981, we didn’t have these brain scans. We didn’t have these genetic studies. Then in the 1990s, the so-called decade of the brain, they came pouring in, and all the skeptics were put to rout. There are still skeptics out there, but they don’t have a leg to stand on. In the 1990s, the research from brain scans, from genetic studies, and twin adoption studies, established the very solid scientific foundation of attention deficit disorder.

Adderall Abuse

Barry: Now, I’ve heard in the last couple of years and read stories about the overmedication of kids as they’re trying to study for SATs, and competition to get into good schools. What’s your observations about that kind of stuff?

overmedication of kids

DR. HALLOWELL: It’s true. There’s tremendous abuse of stimulant medication. There’s a black market on almost every high school campus, on almost every college campus. It’s being used as a performance enhancing drug, Adderall the leading offender, is being widely misused, abused, sold, and that’s terrible. That’s deplorable. On the other hand, when the medications are used properly, they’re a godsend. They’re as effective as eyeglasses.

You have these two parallel stories. The abuse of medication by people who are taking it illegally, selling it, buying it, using it as a performance enhancing drug. What I say to them is, “You ought to go to Starbucks and get the legal version, which is called caffeine.” Then you have the wonderful story of people who are diagnosed properly and take the prescription medication under medical supervision, which changes lives dramatically for the better. Not just of children. I see careers turned around. I see marriages saved by this diagnosis. It’s a powerful diagnosis when made properly.

Insight Into the World of ADD/ADHD

Barry: You’ve spent your whole professional life thinking about these things, and if you were to synthesize your key insight into the world of ADD, or ADHD, what would that insight be?

DR. HALLOWELL: It would be that these folks do have a Ferrari engine for a brain with bicycle brakes. They have trouble inhibiting incoming stimuli, hence they’re distractible, inhibiting outgoing stimuli, hence they’re hyperactive, impulsive, the so-called holy trinity of ADD. Turn each one of those on its head, and you get a positive. The flip side of distractibility is curiosity. The flip side of impulsivity is creativity. You don’t plan to have a creative thought, they come spontaneously, impulsively if you will. The flip side of hyperactivity is called energy. I’m 66 years old. I’m glad I’ve got this turbo pack. The key insight is that we should think of these conditions, and I include dyslexia as well, as traits. If you manage them properly, they can take you to the very pinnacle of success.

Barry: That’s what we’ll be doing in this podcast. We’ll be talking-

DR. HALLOWELL: If you don’t, that’s the prison population. That’s the addicted population. The violent. The marginalized. What makes ADD so intriguing, and I still call it ADD because that’s what I was taught when I learned about it, what makes it so intriguing is that it can go one extreme way or the other. It can make your life or it can ruin your life, or it can do a little bit of both. My career has been devoted to helping people make the most of it, and suffer the least consequences possible.

Not Just For People with ADD

Barry: This podcast is not only going to deal with issues of ADD, but we talk about this crazy, busy world. Not everybody is brain wired to have the gift of ADD. The world has gone nuts in terms of things that grab your attention and just take it away all the time. Texting while driving. My god, how terrible that is. How do we relate this ADD with this crazy, busy world, and how would you characterize as the changes that you’ve seen in this world in the last 20 years?

DR. HALLOWELL: About 15 years ago, more and more people started coming to me thinking they had ADD, and they didn’t have true ADD. What they had was what I called a severe case of modern life. They were crazy busy. They were screen sucking. They were allowing too many interruptions. In fact, I wrote a book called Crazy Busy, Overbooked, Overstretched, and About to Snap.

Barry: It’s been on my desk for all these years.

DR. HALLOWELL: It’s not about ADD, but it’s about the societally induced syndrome that looks for all the world like ADD, and I call it attention deficit trait, or pseudo-ADD. While the incidence of the true genetically transmitted condition, ADD, is maybe 10% of the population, pseudo-ADD, or ADT, is maybe 70% of the population.

Barry: We should have a very big audience then.

DR. HALLOWELL: The good news is this is controllable. It does take effort. It’s not like you need some kind of special medication. In fact, there’s no medication for pseudo-ADD. It’s simply a matter of restructuring your life.

Word Association

Barry: I’m just going to throw some words at you, and you can vamp off of those. Let’s start out with status.

DR. HALLOWELL: The thing that you should not fall for. The fool’s gold of life. What trips so many people up. Instead of being true to yourself, you try to whore yourself out, hoping that others will admire you when you don’t admire yourself.

Barry: How about virtue?

DR. HALLOWELL: The glowing candle in the darkness. If you can be good, you will shed light. All of us have it in us, if we can cultivate it.

Barry: Happiness.

DR. HALLOWELL: A cloud. Attainable. People dismiss it as a silly word, happiness. I want to be happy, as if it were superficial. I don’t know, I’m a parent of three kids. If you ask me, what do I want for my kids, the first word that comes to mind is that they be happy. I’m asking them all the time, “Are you happy? Is life moving through yourselves in such a way that you feel good about it?” If your answer to that is yes, then I call you happy.

Barry: I had another word that’s out of order now, parenting, or parents, either way.

DR. HALLOWELL: Parents, the most important, most difficult job in the world. Those of us who are lucky enough to get the chance to be a parent. My wife Sue and I have done it three times. We never stop doing it, and I tell people that when you become a parent for the first time, you enter into a permanent state of psychosis. You fall insanely in love with this little baby, and you remain crazy for the rest of your life. It’s a good thing you do because you’ve got to be crazy to do a lot of the stuff we parents have to do, but we get back so much. By far, the greatest reward in my life is my three kids.

Barry: Sexuality.

DR. HALLOWELL: I think sexuality, in this country we are strange. We’re still dominated by two very different traditions, the tradition of puritanism and the tradition of libertinism. We are, on the one hand, free thinkers and free spirits, and on the other hand, very prudish, and very guilt-ridden. Both of those traditions converge in the soul of most people. We are conflicted around sex. It’s too bad, because it ought to be one of the best antidepressants we’ve got.

Barry: I actually had another word in that vein that you just brought up, which was guilt.

DR. HALLOWELL: What a waste of space. You want to do the right thing, of course, and when you don’t do it, your natural reaction is to feel guilty. That guilt should be short lived, and redirect your actions. The funny thing about guilt is, the people who should feel guilty don’t, and the people who do feel guilty, by and large, shouldn’t. It’s very strange. The people who are trying to be good, and when they slip up, they feel tremendously guilty, but the ones who aren’t even trying don’t feel guilty at all. Those are the ones you’d hope guilt would hit, but it doesn’t.

Hopes for this Podcast

Barry: Maybe we can close this way. What are your hopes and dreams for this?

DR. HALLOWELL: Oh my gosh. When you asked me to do this, I was immediately excited. I would love, love, love with this podcast to create a community of people who want to connect. A community of people who are open, honest, warm. We could disagree about everything, but unite in our desire to connect in a respectful, playful, fun loving, life affirming, joy giving way. I can think of few things. It would be like creating the family in a much larger way. A second version of that that I had at home, when I saw how much fun that is. If I could bring people together in a community around this podcast, that would be a dream come true.

Barry: One of the things that we’ve been talking about is that one of the unusual and good parts about this podcast is that the audience is really going to help shape this. We’re really interested in what their thinking is, and their ideas, and their questions, and what bothers, them and their dreams. Thank you.

DR. HALLOWELL: Just underscore what you’re saying, the audience is the podcast. We’re here for you, truly. We’re not just saying that. We want to create a community that is very connected and governing itself, directing itself, and growing together.

Barry: Ned, it’s a pleasure.

DR. HALLOWELL: Thank you, Barry.

Closing Statements

There are many ways you can connect with us. Go to our website, distractionpodcast.com. Email us at [email protected]. Submit a topic. Ask a question. Please, make a suggestion as to how we can grow this community. You can call us. The number is 844-55-CONNECT. All the information I’ve been giving you can be found on the website, distractionpodcast.com. Please, contact us.

When you check us out on iTunes, you’ll see shorter episodes of our show, which we call mini distractions. These bonus shows could be about anything, an extension of our interviews, insights, tips, or something I call the daily dose of vitamin C, vitamin Connect. We’ll post these at least once a week, or whenever we think we have something that might interest you. Subscribe to the show on iTunes. This really helps us. Please leave a review. We would love it if we could get your participation.

Distraction is produced by Collisions, the podcast division of CRN International. Collisions, podcasts for curious people. That’s it for me for this week’s episode, but I want to leave you with some marvelous sounds from a website called calmsound.com. The sounds you’ll hear if you go out for a walk in the park without your earbuds in, and if you do what the park ranger suggested and use your five senses to appreciate the ambient noise of nature, which is teeming with marvelously interesting sounds and smells and sights.

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “A Conversation with Ned Hallowell.” Distraction is available on iTunes.


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