Low arousal theory

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The low arousal theory is a psychological theory explaining that people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and antisocial personality disorder[1][page needed] seek self-stimulation by excessive activity in order to transcend their state of abnormally low arousal. This low arousal results in the inability or difficulty to sustain attention on any task of waning stimulation or novelty, as well as explaining compulsive hyperactive behavior.[2]

A person with low arousal reacts less to stimuli than one without. This individual, according to Hare (1970)[3][page needed] is "in a chronic state of 'stimulus-hunger'".[1][page needed] To further explain, Mawson and Mawson (1977)[4] claim that he or she needs more "sensory inputs" to feel normal.[1][page needed]


Researchers are still unsure what causes low emotional arousal. Researchers have proposed three theories that could account for the low emotional arousal. The first theory stresses that emotional arousal is highly genetic. Secondly, some with low emotional arousal show underarousal of the hypothalamus pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA is responsible for the body's stress response. Because there is thought to be underarousal of the HPA axis, studies have shown that this causes reduced secretion of epinephrine and cortisol. These two hormones are responsible for the physiological response to a threat.[5] Third, low emotion arousal often elicits hypoactivity of the amygdala. The amygdala in the brain is part of the limbic system, and is responsible for processing and regulating emotions. This could possibly explain as to why those suffering from low arousal often lack empathy as well as emotional reactivity to other people.[5]

Antisocial personality disorder[edit]

This disorder is characterized by repeated deceitfulness, impulsivity, irritability, and aggressiveness since 15 years old. Persons diagnosed with this disorder [6][page needed] often score low on fear conditioning.[7] The lack of the empathy associated with ASPD is thought to be linked to the low arousal theory. A study conducted showed that people diagnosed with ASPD showed less physiological arousal to pictures of people crying than people who were not.[8] It should also be noted that ADHD is often a precursor for ASPD. ADHD often co-occurs with conduct disorders 30–50% of the time; this can lead to the development of aggressive behavior which projects a higher likelihood of a person developing ASPD.[9]

Noise and performance[edit]

ADHD is related to an incorrectly functioning dopamine system. In a study, the best performance was exhibited when stimuli caused a certain amount of psychological arousal. When using sound to help brain function, also known as stochastic resonance, it was found that significantly more noise is required to improve the performance of those with ADHD, since they have less dopamine (hypodopaminergia).[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Lindberg, Nina (30 May 2003). Sleep in Mental and Behavioural Disorders (PDF) (Academic dissertation). Institute of Clinical Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, and Institute of Biomedicine, Department of Physiology, University of Helsinki. ISBN 952-10-1084-3. Retrieved 5 August 2009.
  2. ^ a b Sikström, S.; Söderlund, G. (October 2007). "Stimulus-dependent dopamine release in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder". Psychological Review. 114 (4): 1047–75. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.1047. PMID 17907872.
  3. ^ Hare, Robert D. (1970). Psychopathy: theory and research. Approaches to behavior pathology. New York: Wiley. OCLC 93872.
  4. ^ Mawson, AR; Mawson, CD (February 1977). "Psychopathy and arousal: a new interpretation of the psychophysiological literature". Biological Psychiatry. 12 (1): 49–74. PMID 13873.
  5. ^ a b Weis, Robert (2014). "Disruptive Disorders and Substance Use Problems". Introduction to Abnormal Child and Adolescent Psychology (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE. pp. 302–303. ISBN 978-1-4522-2525-8. OCLC 852399984.
  6. ^ American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing. ISBN 978-0-89042-554-1. OCLC 830807378.
  7. ^ Sue, David; Sue, Derald Wing; Sue, Stanley (2005). "Personality Psychopathology". Essentials of Understanding Abnormal Behavior. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 400. ISBN 978-0-618-37633-9. OCLC 61747799.
  8. ^ Butcher, J.; Mineka, S. (2014). "Personality Disorders". In Butcher, James N.; Hooley, Jill M.; Mineka, Susan (eds.). Abnormal Psychology (16th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education. pp. 359–360. ISBN 978-0-205-94428-6. OCLC 865162080.
  9. ^ Wilson, Jeffrey J.; Beckmann, Lacey; Nunes, Edward V. (2007). "The Identification, Prevention, and Treatment of Vulnerabilities among Children of Alcohol- or Drug-dependent Parents". In Vostanis, Panos (ed.). Mental Health Interventions and Services for Vulnerable Children and Young People. London: Jessica Kingsley. pp. 215–216. ISBN 978-1-84310-489-6. OCLC 136317556.