A Peek Inside the ADHD Mind – From Those Who Have One

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“Ferrari engines for brains, with bicycle brakes.”

Dr. Edward Hallowell, host of the Distraction podcast, has been quoted many times using this analogy to describe what it’s like to have ADHD. In fact, it was one of the “ADHD Daily Quotes” we started posting in October during ADHD Awareness Month. While reaction and feedback to our Daily Quotes has been extensive and inspiring, this quote in particular prompted a social media outpouring – in the hundreds — from people with ADHD.

We were fascinated with the diversity of the narrative, the many different ways people describe their condition, the way they feel about themselves, and how they choose to live with it. The comments were so insightful, sometimes funny and sometimes touching, with a number of creative twists on Dr. Hallowell’s analogy. For those reasons, we thought it would be helpful, educational and enlightening to share this edited thread from a “Reddit” ADHD chat forum, in which we received permission from each of the participants below to use their comments:

“People with ADHD have Ferrari engines with bicycle breaks. I heard it a while back, and now I use it to describe myself all the time. Our ADHD brains allow us to think in a way that is different than most people — I don’t/can’t think in a straight line. Often that’s a bad thing, but sometimes it’s brilliant too. We are more creative, inventive, and imaginative than most. We just have difficulty organizing our thoughts and motivating, or controlling, our actions. So you just need to work on strengthening those brakes.”
–Jennifer, Scott Depot, WV

“I disagree. Maybe in hyperactive-type ADHD. But this does not describe the inattentive type. For me it’s more like chronic avoidance. I tend to hide myself in fantasy worlds (movies, TV, video games) while my real life crumbles around me.”
–Name Withheld Upon Request, Pennsylvania

“Same here. Lack of brakes isn’t the problem; stopping is all too easy. It’s getting started that’s the problem. For me it’s like having a Ferrari engine and a clutch that doesn’t engage.”
–Name Withheld, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

“I resonate with the Ferrari brain part, but instead of no brakes it feels like I have no TCS or suspension. I’m just painfully drifting around corners into new awesome ideas before I’m halfway done with the first one, so it all becomes a pointless mess of frustratingly indescribable brainpower.”
–Grayson Edwards

“A better analogy is my brain is a diesel engine. It can take a bit to get going, and if I keep it properly maintained, fueled, and within its operating limits it can run for a long time and outperform others in certain areas. The down side to a diesel engine brain is it can be difficult to shut down. In gasoline-carbureted engines, you have a phenomenon called dieseling (the engine continues to run when shut down). Diesel engines can do this under certain circumstances as well, when something fails for instance.”
–Name Withheld

“I’m just reading this thread and thinking ‘me too’ and ‘wow, that’s me.’”
–Name Withheld

“A lot of what makes us feel stuck are patterns of behavior that can be changed. Those patterns have arisen as a result of our condition, but the meds enable us to change them if we work at it. It’s a long process.”
–Phil, London

“This is exactly how I feel. I’ve never had it put into words quite so well! I thought it was anxiety or depression.”
–Amy, Arizona

“Thank you so much for this analogy. I usually just call it momentum or inertia, but having a concrete analog means so much more; I can grab on to it and maybe it will stir me into action.”
–Stephanie, Brooklyn, NY

“I describe it as a gear missing: my brain is revving and revving, but somewhere something is disconnected and I can’t get myself to take action.”|
–Ben

“Rush-hour city traffic with no lights.”
–Noah Genda, Boston

“An analogy I like to use for my brain is that it’s like having a powerful gun but no way to aim it.”
–Kyle, Philadelphia

“For me it’s like having an engine, everything in place. According to every expert who’s torn the engine and start button apart and put it back together, everything is supposed to work, nothing is broken, misaligned or out of place. Yet when you press start, nothing happens. You press start five or six times. Finally, on the sixth try, the engine kicks on, sputters, starts and chokes, then almost shuts off, then fires right up. Then as you ease into 80 mph, the engine begins to sputter, stall and we’re coasting to a stop.”
–Orange Jedi, Aberdeen, WA

“It’s a self-driving car and takes off, changes course, stops whenever and wherever it damn pleases.”
–Laurie

“For me it’s like having a Ferrari engine and a clutch that doesn’t engage.”
–Ashley, USA

“I’ve described my attention like a spotlight in a dark room. I can only see what is in that spotlight, and nothing else exists. It’s also like a fish getting hooked on a line. Once my attention is caught, I can’t pull my attention away. This wouldn’t be a problem if the bait on that hook was what I’m supposed to be doing, but instead it’s what is more interesting to me.”
–Chris, Ithaca, NY

“Imagine you are going down the street and you pass a lovely view that you’d like to look at and focus on. But you get a glimpse and then whizz by. Now it’s time to find an exit and turn around, only to whizz by again. Next time you manage to slow down some, but you’ve passed it again. And again. And again.”
–Liam Schindler, Portland, OR

“Same here. It’s like I can’t get the engine going and the accelerator doesn’t work consistently.”
–JP, Denver

“I would have thought ADHD is more like a jet engine that runs only at full speed that is mounted on the back of a ten-speed bike that only has front brakes.”
–Robert, Seattle

“For me it’s a locomotive getting started. It takes a ton of energy, but once it gets going, nothing stops this train.”
–Name Withheld, Quebec, Canada

“Speed (intelligence) and maneuverability (creativity) are entirely useless if the driver (self-regulation) is taking the car down the wrong road for too long (hyper-focus) or if the driver is making the wrong turns (being distracted).”
–Eli, Texas

“If you’re only focusing on one lane and ignoring all else…that lead foot’s going to make you go faster. After all, you don’t have to think about turning or anything.”
–Name Withheld

“A Ferrari engine in first gear. It may rev high, but the overall distance covered can be beat by miles in a solid car with functioning gears.”
–Name Withheld

“The brakes analogy doesn’t really fit. It’s not that you can’t stop, it’s that you don’t have a map.”
–Name Withheld

 

Dr. Edward Hallowell is a child and adult psychiatrist, New York Times bestselling author, frequent speaker, and host of the “Distraction” podcast, which you can hear at www.DistractionPodcast.com.

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5 Comments

  • Anonymous Posted December 8, 2016 2:16 pm

    I once wrote to Dr. Hallowell and described how I am a teacher and I work with kids who have ADHD (inattentive type). It is hard to describe them as kids who can’t “slow down” their brain, but instead kids who can’t turn on their brain to what is around them and/or the information in the class (though their minds could be very active in their daydreaming and in other areas of their life). So, his Ferrari analogy was lost on me for these inattentive types. Did he mean that they can’t slow down the daydreaming or something like that? He said that he has written a lot in his books about ADHD without hyperactivity. Perhaps he can explain on this blog how the Ferrari analogy applies to people with inattentive-type ADHD since it seems from the comments that not everyone with ADHD can relate to this. Thanks.

  • Jim Alkon Posted December 8, 2016 4:04 pm

    Dr. Hallowell responds:
    “My analogy that having ADHD is like having a Ferrari engine for a brain but with bicycle brakes doesn’t always resonate with people who have the inattentive type of ADHD. These folks are the quiet daydreamers, not the disruptive Ferraris. Nonetheless, the analogy applies insofar as these people also have trouble controlling their minds. They drift off during class, not because they want to but because their mind has a mind of its own, like a toddler on a picnic, going wherever curiosity leads it, with no regard for danger or authority. They need to work on their brakes not to keep from crashing but to keep from getting lost in the woods. Hyperactive or not, the mind wanders in ADHD. To get to where they want to be, all people with ADHD, inattentive or not, need to strengthen their brakes, i.e., need to work on gaining greater control over their minds.”

  • Andrew Oxenburgh Posted December 10, 2016 8:04 pm

    For me, the Ferrari engine is right. It spins and spins and spins, but making the step to action is hard. My mind is just doing donuts the whole time.

  • sk Posted January 3, 2017 12:25 am

    I guess if I have a Ferrari brain, that is great. I just have no clue where I left the keys.

  • Mimi Posted May 15, 2017 8:37 pm

    I get it. I have inattentive type…and when faced with a boring work project my engine refuses to start or revs then dies suddenly. For a daydream project though, of which I have thousands on the go at any time, my Ferrari brain takes off at speed and disappears down the road in a cloud of dust…no brakes whatsoever!

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