Pathology of a Daydream: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo

Look out, the sanctity of daydreaming may be on the path to obliteration. There’s a new psychiatric disorder in our midst, folks, and I almost laughed it off until I remembered this country’s propensity to allow pharmaceutical lobbying to turn blatantly ludicrous things into a part of our everyday lives. That, I fear, could be the future for “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo” (SCT), especially since the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology dedicated 136 pages to SCT in its January issue.

Image courtesy MicrosoftThe disorder’s name itself is enough to make you guffaw (or snort, which is my go-to response). Add to that the following description of kids with SCT, given by Dr. Keith McBurnett, a researcher who has co-authored several papers on the topic, “These children are not the ones giving adults much trouble, so they’re easy to miss. They’re the daydreamy ones, the ones with work that’s not turned in, leaving names off of papers or skipping questions, things like that, that impinge on grades or performance. So anything we can do to understand what’s going on with these kids is a good thing.”

Great, let’s better understand these little tadpoles! Fill your boots and do the research! But wait, who is paying for that research? You don’t get any guesses, I’m just going to tell you: Eli Lilly, that’s who. A recent New York Times story says, “Experts pushing for more research into sluggish cognitive tempo say it is gaining momentum toward recognition as a legitimate disorder — and, as such, a candidate for pharmacological treatment. Some of the condition’s researchers have helped Eli Lilly investigate how its flagship A.D.H.D. drug might treat it.”

Ah. So I’m guessing the research doesn’t include meditation, diet analysis, sleep analysis, boring-teacher analysis, or just accepting that maybe not all kids are snappy, and leaving it at that. Because, God, who has ever left their name off of a school assignment more than once and lived to tell about it, right?

Inkblot test
Inkblot test

Is there a voice of reason in this discussion? Somebody? Anybody? Dr. Allen Frances, a vocal critic of excessive diagnosis, has stepped up and written a piece called No Child Left Behind for Psychology Today. He’s probably getting paid for his content on a per-word or per-click basis, fairly standard for a publication like that, and Frances’ opinions are his own. With psychologist Russell Barkley, a leading writer and researcher who is “pro” SCT, the source of his opinions is less clear: Barkley received $118,000 over four years from Eli Lilly.

As for me, I’m a writer, not a psychologist. The last time I checked, daydreaming is how creative types like myself develop new ideas. Or are we out to obliterate those, too?

What are your thoughts on Sluggish Cognitive Tempo as a legitimate psychiatric disorder?  


  1. says

    OMG Laura! Can you believe this? Eli Lilly is definitely living up to a name like “evil and diabolical drug pushing company” with this development. Yes, it is obvious that our country is being run by big-corporations and their lobbyists–but it would be nice to know that they weren’t being so blatantly obvious. Apparently they don’t think their are enough of us paying attention and will just do anything they can get away with. Hopefully enough parents will get hold of this and refuse to allow their children to be drugged just because they are creative and autonomous enough to not fit the “corporate mold.”

    Unfortunately I think this is a cultural and a political issue at this point that is being driven by dollars–not the wellbeing of children. I agree with anybody who is a critic of excessive diagnosis for either children or adults….Of course, I’ll bet they have one for people like me too! ~Kathy
    Kathy @ SMART Living recently posted…Do You Like To Play The Game or Just In It For The Trophy?My Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      I can barely believe this, Kathy! How far will pharma go to find new markets?

      I hope that lots of people would and will speak out against this diagnosis if the treatment is medication based, but the huge numbers of American children who are on ADD medicine indicates that these diagnoses and medication treatment plans have an insidious way of taking hold. But this one, yeah, wow, it just seems way off base. Thank you for your input.

  2. says

    Oh my goodness! I think I have to diagnose my own daughter (10) with this new syndrome. And there was me thinking that she was just a daydreamy, whimsical creative child with a vivid imagination that is sometimes much more interesting than the real world around her.

    Maybe what she really needs is a good dose of Eli Lilly’s drugs, to make her snap out of the tendencies that make her so good at writing stories, drawing pictures and making people laugh.

    Or on the other hand …. how do these people sleep at night?!!
    Debbie Young recently posted…My Favourite Moments from the London Book FairMy Profile

  3. says

    You snort and I scream, “Aaarg!” Terrible.

    BTW–British journalist Jon Ronson wrote “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry” in which his research shows that the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is about 4 percent, four times what it is in the population at large. Here’s a link to a Forbe’s interview about the book:
    Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. recently posted…How to Talk So People Will Listen When They’re UpsetMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Whoa, funny that you brought that up (and thank you for the link) because lately I’m starting to believe more and more that we have unprecedented numbers of sociopaths on Wall St.

      I am totally going to have to read this book!

  4. says

    Well, there you go, another label…
    I was the daydreamy one, still am, but I was a conscientious daydreamer, so maybe I’d have got away with it at school. These days I’m not so sure, I often get caught staring out at the clouds…and I’m forty-two.
    Why can’t they just let children be children, and concentrate on those exhibiting ‘real’ problems?
    Lisa Shambrook recently posted…I’ve Moved…Come, Follow Me…On WordPress…My Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      There just seems to be something particularly egregious about labeling kids, doesn’t there? Kids are kids! I agree, let them be. And good for you for being a 42-year-old daydreamer! I think that in today’s busy and fast world, we need temporary disconnection from it all. It probably keeps your blood pressure numbers in check! :)

  5. says

    Wow. Why am I not surprised EL is doing the research here? That child has the same dreamy look I get on my face when writing something new. Minus the wrinkles. I didn’t use to be so cynical. But when you read about what’s behind the book/article/bill/disorder and discover Big Money, makes you go hmmm. Sad. Hope parents do not fall for this.

    • Laura Zera says

      It’s hard not to be cynical, Cindy. I just read a scientific review of the influence of voters vs. money in the U.S., and the conclusion was that the U.S. is now an oligarchy, not a democracy.

  6. says

    Hmmm, then nearly every student I had the honor of teaching could be labeled with this disorder. The students who are always lost in daydreams are often the ones with the best capacity for thought, they just don’t quite know how to harness it yet. Oh wait, we don’t want people who can think, we want people who just want to take their Soma (ala Brave New World) and be just like everybody else. Sluggish is such a horrible word. Ack! Ack! Ack! Anything and everything can be invented and sold in the name of money. So much that goes on in schools is driven by making money rather than educating students.
    Jeri recently posted…#WriteTip: Breaking Habits of SeeingMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      The last sentence of your comments makes me really sad, Jeri. I hear the same thing all the time about the mental health system from a friend who has been a mental health advocate and activist for the past 50 years. Money, money, money. It makes the world go round, and it screws so many things up!

  7. says

    OMG Laura, This has been on my browser for days waiting for me to read (I’m moving this week and crazed). Thank you thank you for bringing this to light. It is crazy! I spend my time trying to help people learn how to daydream again, because we need our imagination. We need it! i am personally and professionally outraged!
    This is a great post and I am sharing on FB because I want loads of people to read this!

  8. PY says

    Just wanted to give a different perspective on this blog. I’ve responded to blogs a handful of times my whole life. I personally dislike, perhaps hate, pharmaceutical companies and don’t believe that anything they produce will help me. But I have SCT. I’ve known my whole life that something was different about me and it was amazing to read Wikipedia article about SCT and have it fit me to a T. I am 44 yo so it isn’t because of youthful misattribution I feel this way. Unfortunately, I don’t think there will be any treatment that helps this condition. To me it is like not having legs or arms. You will never be able to do things as well as able bodied people but you can work around your disability. I won’t ever be able to think as fast or be as focussed or be as mindful as most but I can take care of myself as best I can and I’ll at least be the best that I can be, eventhough sadly that often isn’t good enough. Yes, there probably isn’t as many people with this condition but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

    • Laura Zera says

      Hello. If you’ve only responded to blogs a handful of times, then I am honored that you took the time to respond to mine, and obviously this is a topic that is personal to you.

      First off, let me say that I got pulled in to the story that the New York Times reported, where SCT was called a new disorder, and the pharma funding was highlighted. After you left your comment, I found this post, which calls out the Times article for how it reports on SCT because it’s not a new disorder, and its long been considered a component of ADHD:

      The original issue that I was trying to highlight, which is that I believe that we are too quick to use diagnosis in order to have insurance claims accepted, and too prone to use medication as the first line of treatment, doesn’t have to negate that SCT (or any condition) exists. I can imagine the relief you must have felt when you learned what it was that made you feel like you were different. At the same time, I hope you’re not too hard on yourself about it. What can be considered a deficit in some situations can be a gift in others. My best to you, and thank you for sharing your story.

  9. says

    I don’t believe I’m reading this. Please tell me I’m dreaming!!! If this weren’t so scary I’d be laughing my socks off, but I fear they really will start drugging kids up who are a bit inattentive. As you said, Laura, writers of the future tend to be the dreamy kids – I was one too: “Valerie could do very much better if she paid attention” was on all my school reports. I’m sure these days I would either have been labelled ADD or now SCT. This is a seriously worrying development!
    Val Poore recently posted…Funniest events of the year in the Oude HavenMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Well, as one of the earlier commenters wrote, it’s a real condition, but we do live on such a slippery “diagnose and medicate” slope that I, too, have my fears. And perhaps you (and I) have some ADD or SCT, but does it have to be labeled? I try to use my daydreaming to my benefit, as I know you do, too! And love myself just the way I am.

  10. NoName says

    I wanted to write to you all given that I am a psychology student and a specialist in learning disabilities. I do not have vast amounts of experiences but I do identify as SCT.

    I think what the general public does not know is how to identify a basic symptom from disorder. Every day dreams – yes. Some more than others – yes. Not all require help – yes. Although from reading studies of SCT and identifying as having it myself, is that the disorder can be quite dysfunction for many people. One must note that those with SCT have trouble functioning. As a kid, I started to read 2 words and I would day dream. I was able to read a paragraph and daydream at the same time. I did not have any comprehension for what I was reading. I felt sleepy and in the fog every day, as soon as I woke up from a 8 hour rest. I have trouble holding a conversation, not because of my lack of vocabulary or understanding, but because three words in I will be daydreaming.

    Will this diagnosis cause a crazy amounts of diagnosis from psychologists who cannot accurately identify these people. More likely than not. That happened to ADHD. Although, for those who need help for these serious symptoms, the diagnosis can help. Treatment can help. So, over time this disorder will be identified and will help people.

    I was misdiagnosed with 3 different conditions at 3 different times because there was no condition that was associated with my symptoms.

    • Laura Zera says

      Hello, I am so glad that you are contributing to this discussion, and I hope you’re following the comments because I’d love it if you could provide some more information. My first response when reading your input was, “I have the same symptoms, and so does a family member.” My family member is diagnosed ADHD and takes medication; I do not. So the reason I’m bringing this up is that it seems to me that there’s a spectrum on which one would want to evaluate how impacting and disruptive the symptoms are to their ability to function (study, work, maintain relationships, etc.). That said, some days, my symptoms are terrible and I’m utterly unfocused. Other days, I’m much better (though I’d never say “laser sharp”). There is a definite ebb and flow. How do you experience ebbs and flows, or do you?

      My second question is to ask what the treatment is, or what treatment you have experienced?

      Again, thank you for sharing here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge