Are We Turning Our Kids Into Speed Freaks?

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

This week, the FDA issued a statement that some cases of death and dangerous side effects have been reported "in association with therapeutic doses" of ADHD drugs. "The few controlled clinical studies of longer term drug treatment of ADHD provided little information on cardiovascular risks," the FDA says. As a result, the Pediatric Advisory Committee will be meeting to consider safety and risk management issues associated with currently approved ADHD treatments.

Wow, what a surprise. Daily doses of amphetamines might be bad for a child's health and well-being. Why is it that as a society, we rush to embrace drug treatment of attention disorders and are slow to embrace (if not antagonistic towards) alternative methods of training attention?

We tell our kids that practice makes perfect and the more they do something the better they will get at it. The same theory applies to the workings of the brain. Research shows that focused attention creates physical changes to the brain by systematically rewiring it. Thus, if we pay enough attention to a certain experience, it eventually becomes part of the brain's hard wiring. In a very real way, the more we focus attention the better we get at it because the brain is rewiring itself toward focused attention. As a result, those areas where we focus grow stronger and those areas where we do not focus become weaker.

I am blown away by the clear implications of this concept. It is not overstating the issue to say that where and how we focus our attention determines who we are both with respect to brain development and our moral/ethical development.

It takes time and discipline to train attention through individual effort, and controlling attention disorders through the use of pharmaceuticals is a good short-term solution to treat dysfunction. But if we're looking for long-term solutions, training attention the old fashioned way (as practiced by contemplatives for over 2500 years) makes much more sense, at least for those willing to give it a try.