An Evolutionary New Idea: Neuroscience, Willpower, and ADHD

I’m still in the spirit of October, ADHD Awareness Month, remembering especially the message promoted by the first ADHD Awareness Campaign: “It’s Real. There’s Hope.  There’s Help” in my webinar presentation tonight at 9:00 p.m. EST.

The part about the “hope” and the “help” is sticking with me, even into November, the month in which we give thanks!  People with ADHD had some difficult experiences around the notion of willpower. Too often, willpower was connected with strength of character.  But that is not so.  People with self-regulation issues, (i.e., using willpower), are not bad. They need a little hope and a little help to get more successful.

The important thing to note at the start here is that to everything we can now say about the brain’s efforts at survival, willpower, and self-compassion, we can add the phrase, “…and even more so for people with ADHD.”

I found out that recent neuroscience research, particularly the work of Dr. Kelly McGonigal (The Willpower Instinct), Dr. Roy Baumeister (Willpower), and Dr. Rick Hanson (Hardwiring Happiness:  The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence).

This research gave me hope that we can “change our brains,” develop a new approach to willpower, and take a deeper look at the relationship between evolution and self-compassion, and what we have learned about the prefrontal cortex.

EVOLUTION: Avoid, Approach, Attach

Reptiles evolved to avoid contact.  They were built for speed, to zip away from the strange, different, or dangerous.  They evolved skills that included flight, (mostly flight!) fight, freeze, and play dead.

Mammals evolved with this reptilian neurological expertise as well, as part of our survival “prime directive.” Rick Hanson points out that because of this, our modern brain has a “negative bias.”  Rick describes our brains as being like “Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.”

Yes, we all are ready to take in and hold the negative messages….“And even more so for people with ADHD.”

Our mammalian brains evolved into the mid-brain, the part that got us brave enough to approach the unknown, mysterious, risky, and odd.  Sounds very much like the evolutionary gifts of ADHD brain wiring.

We still have the “explorer gene” (DRD4-7R and carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans), driving us toward movement and curiosity, leading some of us to paving new paths for all of us …“And Even more so for people with ADHD.”  (National Geographic, January, 2013)

Mammals also developed the capacity to be social, a great advantage for building shared experiences, broadening abilities to learn, thrive and survive together. The new cortex covering the brain stem and mid-brain, had the capacity to attach us to relationships, and ultimately to things, goals, and ideals most important to us. And that is the evolutionary story of how willpower got its start.

SELF COMPASSION: First Line of Help for Negative Bias

The brain’s negative bias that Rick Hanson often mentions is a great biological factor in derailing our pre-frontal cortex, the most newly evolved part of our brains.

It’s the part of the brain that is thought to operate our higher order thinking, like knowing and deciding, and is the part of the brain also thought to operate our executive functions, like planning, self-regulating, attaching.   

“And even more so for people with ADHD,” the brains’ negative bias, which functions in the lower parts of the brain, the reptilian parts, some call it, derails the good efforts of the pre-frontal cortex at exerting willpower, through those stress hormones that once kept us safe through avoidance.

Stress is a distractor for all of us.  It leaves us vulnerable to avoidance, procrastination, misplaced focus, and an uncertain relationship with forward progress.

The first line of help: focused breathing.  Kelly McGonigal has a 5-minute exercise to calm down all those negative messages through slowly breathing in through the nose and slowly breathing out through the mouth, just focusing on the breath. When you lose focus, just re-focus on the breath some more.

Breathing this way gets us ready for some different self-talk. Rick Hanson encourages us to use for ourselves the words we would use with a really good friend who was suffering stress.  What a difference there is from the words of character assassination used toward those with ADHD!

We can approach OURSELVES with kindness, and become attached to the good parts we find within ourselves.  This all helps our prefrontal cortex to “come back on line.”

WE CAN CHANGE OUR BRAINS: Glucose and Willpower

Not everyone is convinced of this, but Roy Baumeister is: It takes lots of blood glucose to run the brain (an even more so for people with ADHD), AND you can run out of willpower if you run out of glucose.

How can we change that?  How can we change our brains to have more access to willpower?

First, remember to breathe.

Next, remember the language of attachment.  Treat yourself as a good friend.

And, as for the glucose, have a survival pack of snacks that have these three elements:

  1. Protein
  2. Healthy fat
  3. Fiber

adhd diet protein fiber health


To maintain a steady level of blood glucose, please don’t just sugar up your brain with empty simple carbs.

In addition, add to your awareness.  Notice on what things you are using up your finite amount of glucose and willpower.

Are you using tons of it to control your impulsivity and fidgetiness at work?  Are you exhausting yourself trying to stay focused on greatly boring talks? Perhaps when it comes time to initiate action on a project, you might feel very spent and avoidant.  There’s a good chance the prefrontal cortex has be derailed.

Are you using tons of willpower to try to keep your schedule straight in your mind? Chances are, you may freeze, and some of the most important deadlines will go unnoticed, as you become more glucose/willpower depleted from all the effort.


Remember your first year Latin?  “Omnes Galia in tres partes divisa est”? Me neither.

Anyhow, Kelly McGonigal, as we have seen on previous blogs, sees willpower existing in the brain (not in the character), more specifically in three areas of the prefrontal cortex.

We have talked before about “I WILL Power,” and “I WON’T Power.”  Now, let’s move a bit deeper into the structure of the prefrontal cortex, to an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex.  This is the third structure of the brain responsible for the “I WANT power” aspect of willpower.

anterior cingulate cortex

What can we change about this part of our brain?  Let’s tune into awareness again. What is it you value above all else?  Do you know?  What is it you really, deeply want to happen if you, say, change your diet?  Is it simply to lose weight, or is it something more significant, like, living without deadly metabolic disease?

Our anterior cingulate cortex is really good at telling us where we are in time and space.  But as far as willpower goes, it can tell us whether we are “moving forward” toward our most deeply held goals.

As part of your practice of self-compassion, add the language of reminder: What are my most deeply held values over all?  How does this relate to the willpower I want to use in this instance in my life?

Become more and more aware of what makes you truly happy, and check out where you are “in time and space” in relation to your forward motion toward those things.

GRATITUDE: The Other, Other De-stressor

No discussion of willpower and parts of the brain would be complete without a reminder.  It’s very difficult to be depleted when you can pause to breathe, have some self-compassion, and BE GRATEFUL.

You have heard it before: cultivate the attitude of gratitude.  Look around at the little things in life.  You are probably safer than many other fellow humans.  You probably have enough food today.  You are probably warm, dry, and have shelter. You can be grateful for these things.  Then go beyond. Find the bountiful and beautiful near at hand.  Remember moments of love and closeness. Lift up your heart to the things that move you.

Yes, life can be very, very bittersweet.  Even gratitude can be provocative to the broken hearted and beaten down.  But, can you give it a trial run?  If it’s very hard, can you just experiment, for just a moment or two? Try this: “I’m safe, I’m warm and dry. I have enough of what I really need.”

Try this even more so if you are a person with ADHD.

TOP TIPS:  And Even More So for People with ADHD!

  1. Approach good situations that build you up
  2. Attach to people who cheer you on … including your own good self
  3. Avoid “avoid.”  It’s stressful and uses lots of glucose
  4. Try Focused Breathing – and breathe a lot in general! It IS all it’s cracked up to be!
  5. Have Willpower Survival Packs ready – with protein, healthy fat, and fiber
  6. Become aware of what you love most, want most dearly, and what brings you deep happiness
  7. Become aware of your own “forward motion”

Be grateful.

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