The real difference between your ADHD brain and a non-ADHD brain

Dom Longford
Oct 26, 2021

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably already familiar with the long lists of ADHD symptoms that may or may not resonate with you — easily distracted, inability to sit still, low frustration tolerance…you know how it goes.

These lists of symptoms really put a huge emphasis on how ADHDers act and feel which can make ADHD seem like this fuzzy non-tangible thing. This can lead to stigmatising ideas about whether ADHD is even real.

It is real, so much so that there are biological differences between ADHD brains and non-ADHD brains.

We’ve found that connecting these biological differences to ADHD symptoms is central to learning how to manage your ADHD brain. Once learned, you’ll find these are typical behaviours that most people do to manage themselves.

So we’ve dived into the neuroscience and did our best to simplify our findings in an ADHD-friendly way — clearly, visually and concisely.

Let’s get into it!

Brain basics

Your brain is on a perpetual mission to keep you safe. It’s constantly trying to avoid danger and navigate you to safety, in any context and at all times.

Inside the brain is a busy communication network where messages are relayed from one brain cell to the next, attracting you to safety. Many of these messages are triggered by things we see, think and feel which either signal safety or danger to your brain.

Three parts of the brain to remember:

  1. Cerebellum: This controls base functions like breathing, heartbeat, all involuntary movements;
  2. The Cortex: This controls base emotions and responses like jumping back when you see something threatening;
  3. The Neocortex: This controls our Executive Functions. For example, prioritising and planning, language, impulse control, and much more.

To comprehend ADHD, we must understand the Neocortex. Many messages travel through four different brain lobes within the neocortex, which allow us to control our actions, reactions or inaction to things around us. Or at least it should, right ADHDers?

Let’s see what that looks like in practice👇.

“Neuro-typical” vs. ADHD brains at the supermarket

Here’s what’s going on inside the different lobes of your brain during a trip to the supermarket.


As you walk into the supermarket you feel the coldness from the open refrigerators and smell the freshness of the pastry from the bakery.


As you look around your brain sees products on the shelves. You see heaps of fresh produce including a display with curved yellow objects creating lots of messages in your brain.


Your temporal lobe recognises that you’re a little cold, smelling croissants and are now looking at bananas. Not only that, it reminds you that you love bananas and sends you impulses to add a bunch to your basket.


Your frontal lobe is in charge of things like decision-making, attention control and emotional responses. In a “neuro-typical” brain it remembers you actually have bananas at home and stops the impulse to buy the bananas and decides to move on. You only buy exactly what you need in the supermarket and you go home, within budget, on-time and satisfied. Or do you?

If you have ADHD you probably don’t …


There is a deficit of neurotransmission within the frontal lobe of ADHD brains, which can complicate or even stop the function of the frontal lobe. Poor neurotransmission means messages are not getting to the frontal lobe. This is the definition of ADHD.

At the supermarket, this results in your brain struggling to control attention because you’re still distracted by the cold and the luring smell of the croissants, you’re overwhelmed by the endless produce choices and you can’t remember if you still have bananas or not. So the ADHD brain feels overwhelmed and buys the bananas. That’s why you always have all these bananas at home that you don’t know what to do with (pro tip: make banana bread).

The three sensing lobes of the ADHD brain work the same as “neuro-typical” brains. It’s the frontal lobe that functions differently causing you to struggle with focus, impulse control and sticking to the original task — in this case the shopping list. So you end up buying things you don’t need.

How the frontal lobe typically works

Let’s dive a little deeper into this frontal lobe. As we mentioned before it controls reasoning for making decisions, particularly around how to react to external stimuli (what you see, touch and smell) and internal stimuli (what you think, feel and imagine). It controls your impulses.

All these stimuli are sensed by the three other lobes of your brain — the parietal lobe, occipital lobe and temporal lobe. Your frontal lobe then helps to decide whether these stimuli are important and reacts accordingly, navigating you to safety.

It’s central in things that involve discipline, completing important tasks that aren’t fun (life admin, studying, etc.) and navigating through busy and chaotic environments (the supermarket, traffic, etc.). It’s your mind over matter.

Your frontal lobe constantly processes the things the rest of your brain is sensing and makes decisions to navigate you through them — to safety.

How the frontal lobe of an ADHD brain works

In an ADHD brain, a deficiency in neurotransmission means the frontal lobe struggles to function. ADHD frontal lobes will only kick into action when doing things you enjoy, you’re in a state of anxiety or adrenaline. That’s why ADHD brains DO have endless attention for things they must do to survive or tasks they genuinely enjoy.

That’s because the brain can naturally release dopamine (a key neurotransmitter) when having fun, feeling safe and when anxious. That’s why ADHDers are good at what they are interested in. When doing something fun, the frontal lobe of an ADHD brain operates well. In fact, sometimes too well which leads to hyperfocus 😂. This is when our impulses don’t want us to stop focussing. So we keep going and forget to eat, go to the bathroom, etc.

When you’re doing something that isn’t enjoyable, your brain starts looking for the next dopamine hit and tempts you towards alternate activities. impulses without your frontal lobe working mean you start to do something more fun AKA getting distracted.

It’s important to understand that given the deficit of transmission in the frontal lobe, ADHD makes distraction scientifically inevitable and unavoidable.

This impacts everything; your energy levels, memory and ability to focus. But remember, it is not your character.

The frontal lobe of the ADHD brain has a poor connection with some the other parts of the brain. This is leads to an inability to regulate attention resulting in distraction or hyperfocus.

How to deal with this

Knowing the tangible differences of an ADHD brain is also helpful for practicing self-compassion and boosting your self-esteem. You see, crediting these symptoms to concrete differences in your brain means recognising that your struggles are not a reflection of you, but a biological condition that affects behaviour.

Just remember that with the right guidance, the ADHD brain can train itself to spark up the frontal lobe when needed. It’s true! We’re building an app for this called Cog meant to help you manage your ADHD symptoms and navigate through a complex modern world. Sign up here for early access to Cog and to stay in the loop for more ADHD resources.

Because it’s one thing to know what the symptoms of ADHD are, it’s another thing to understand what it is about your brain that leads to those symptoms. This understanding is key to figuring out what’s going to help you manage your symptoms and make your life easier. Everyone has to manage their own brain to be able and happy, and you can too.

Understanding your brain gives you the context in which you can figure out the best way to manage your ADHD symptoms. With the right guidance, you can get your brain to make your life easier.