They Studied These ‘Wise’ Animals and Found This Odd Link to ADHD

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

barn owl

Story at-a-glance -

  • Barn owls have laser sharp focus that allows them to hone in on what’s most important at any given moment, whether that be chasing down its next meal or evading a predator
  • While observing behavior of barn owls with various stimuli, including auditory and visual distractions, researchers are simultaneously measuring how the owls are dealing with the sensory overload
  • Researchers observed how owls appear to control what they choose to ignore; which may help pave the way for a new approach to treating ADHD

Barn owls and children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have little in common, but their apparent differences are actually what’s drawing them together with a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. This article is reporting on the study itself, I am not condoning the use of animals for research. 

Kids with ADHD often have trouble focusing and ignoring distractions. When faced with an important choice, background “noise” may become overwhelming, making a sound decision unattainable if not virtually impossible. This inability to appropriately “attend” to an important task at hand is seen in a number of psychiatric disorders, including not only ADHD but also autism and schizophrenia.

Barn owls, on the other hand, have laser sharp focus that allows them to hone in on what’s most important at any given moment, whether that be chasing down its next meal or evading a predator. The Johns Hopkins researchers are hoping that by studying barn owls, they may come to understand how animals control their attention — and harness it to help humans struggling with ADHD.

Barn Owls Give Clues About ADHD

Barn owls are the perfect birds to study attention problems for a number of reasons, starting with their high ability to focus. Shreesh Mysore, Ph.D. an assistant professor working on the study, told NPR:1

"Essentially, a brain decides at any instant: What is the most important piece of information for behavior or survival? And that is the piece of information that gets attended to, that drives behavior …

When we pay attention to something, we're not just focusing on the thing that we want to pay attention to … We're also ignoring all the other information in the world … The question is, how. How does the brain actually help you ignore stuff that's not important for you?"

In barn owls, a species with long, tube-shaped eyes, the eyes can’t turn in their sockets, which isn’t a liability because they’re able to compensate by turning their necks about 270 degrees in either direction.2 Fortunately for the Johns Hopkins researchers, because owls must turn their heads to check out new sights, it makes it easy to determine where their focus lies — a key element of the ADHD research.

While observing barn owls with various stimuli, including auditory and visual distractions, the researchers are simultaneously measuring how the owls are dealing with the sensory overload.

In 2014, Mysore and colleagues revealed a brain system in owls that appears to control what the owls choose to ignore, or “distractor suppression.”3 Along with figuring out how the system works, the research may help pave the way for a new approach to treating ADHD.4

According to researchers, “By identifying the principles of circuit organization and function that underlie selection for attention, we wish to discover new, specific treatment targets to combat attentional dysfunction.”5

Barn Owls See Like Humans Do

In addition to perhaps sorting out distractions in a way similar to humans, barn owls also share visual similarities with people. It turns out that both humans and barn owls use “perceptual grouping” to help their vision. This describes the act of grouping different elements into one perceived whole based on the similarities of their motion.

Using a special “owl-cam” to track visual search behavior in barn owls, it was shown that owls may group incoming visual information into meaningful scenes similarly to humans, including giving more attention to an object moving in an odd direction from others. Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers explained:6

“In humans, elements that move homogeneously are grouped perceptually to form a categorical whole object. We discovered a similar principle in the barn owl's visual system, whereby the homogeneity of the motion of elements in the scene allows perceptually distinguishing an object from its surround.

The novel findings of these visual effects in an avian species … suggest that our basic visual perception shares more universal principles across species than presently thought.”

Barn Owls Can Happily Coexist With Humans

Barn owls have a stable population globally, although they are considered endangered in some areas, such as New Jersey, Indiana and several other U.S. states. With their striking features (large eyes, heart-shaped faces and golden, cream and brown coloring) and piercing calls, barn owls are one of the most revered of owl species.

Barn owls are nocturnal, hunting at night sometimes in complete darkness, and may spend their days roosting in trees, caves or manmade structures, including barns. These resourceful creatures can live alongside humans in both urban and rural areas. They’ve even been found in the New York Yankees Stadium.

Barn owls are sometimes harmed by vehicle collisions, as they often fly low over fields while hunting, and rodenticide poisoning, and in some areas, the birds nest primarily in man-made nest boxes, including in Britain where an estimated 75 percent of such birds depend on man-made nest boxes for survival.7

If you’d like to attract barn owls to your backyard, consider putting up a nest box, especially if you live in an area where their population is declining (in the U.S., the Midwest and northeast). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has plans to create a barn owl nest box as well as helpful tips for proper placement.

If you’re lucky enough to spot one of these intriguing creatures, remember to marvel at the many ways they’re helping out humans, from helping out with pest control (their favorite food is rodents) to perhaps providing insights into human conditions such as ADHD.