How ADHD Affects Working Memory
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects working memory as well as short- and long-term memory. In fact, poor memory is often listed as a symptom of ADHD, and numerous articles give great advice about dealing with ADHD forgetfulness and how to improve one’s memory. However, I and many others with ADHD can accurately remember certain facts or conversations years later. I’d like to discuss how ADHD’s relationship to working memory impacts our daily lives, why we struggle with memory, and what we can do about it.
ADHD and Working Memory Problems
People with ADHD struggle with "working memory," a term that used to be interchangeable with "short-term memory." While short-term memory involves holding information in the mind for a certain number of seconds, working memory is the ability to manipulate that information. Long-term memory is essentially a storage bank of information that exists thanks to short-term and working memory.
It makes sense that ADHDers struggle with working memory. We have a hard time prioritizing, and having a “good” memory involves paying attention to what is important. One study required children to remember specific words from a list. These were the “important” or priority words. Those with ADHD remembered the same number of words as those without the condition, but they were less likely to recall the important words.1
ADHD and Problems with a Poor Working Memory
Having problems remembering things can cause troubles at home or work (ADHD Memories in Brief). It makes it hard to follow directions and instructions because they require holding multiple steps in mind. It can lead to losing important items and missing deadlines. Being forgetful also affects interpersonal relationships, due to unreliability or the inability to attend to a conversation. People with ADHD sometimes interrupt others because they are afraid of forgetting what they want to say.2
My poor working memory also affects me in small ways. Some people with ADHD read slowly because they keep re-reading sentences due to forgetting what they just read. I sometimes find myself entering and leaving a room multiple times because I get distracted. On the computer, I might close and reopen tabs or programs because I forget what I planned to do. It can be hard to draw from long-term memory as well. Though others tell me I have a strong vocabulary, it is difficult to think of the right words on the spot.
Information Overload and the Struggle with Working Memory and ADHD
Attention and memory are connected. I am often so distracted by the process of meeting someone that I immediately forget the person’s name. ADHD makes it hard to control one’s attention. Experts note that having problems with “source discrimination3" and “selective attention” lead to being “overwhelmed by unimportant stimuli.4"
In other words, we experience an information overload and do not know what to remember. It goes back to the test with the ADHD children who recalled the same number of words as their peers but not the “right” words. In addition, working memory is a process that organizes memories for long-term storage. If you are overwhelmed with information, it is difficult for that information to enter your brain in an organized manner. That makes it harder to store.
Interestingly, one study revealed that children with ADHD demonstrated widely varying working memory. On average, it was low, but when looked at individually, it showed that each ADHD child alternately processed problems quickly and slowly, though often as accurately as the other children.5
Tips to Improve Your ADHD Memory
In the video below, I speculate about why ADHDers can have excellent memories, and I offer a few tips for improving one’s memory.⁶ Do you have a good memory, is it terrible, or does it depend on the day? Thank you for checking this out, and let me know how your memory works in the comments.
- Psychology in Action. Kate Humphreys. ADHD and Memory: Differences in What is Remembered.
- ADDitude. Eileen Bailey. Say Goodbye to 'Oh I Forgot'.
- GoodTherapy. Memory Capacity in Individuals with ADHD.
- Improve Memory Skills. Mark Beselt. ADHD and Memory.
- Medical News Today. Catharine Paddock. Inconsistent Short Term Memory Linked To ADHD.
- ADDitude. Edward Hallowell. When Sticky Notes Lose Their Power.
Matteson, N. (2018, February 20). How ADHD Affects Working Memory, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, December 3 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/livingwithadultadhd/2018/02/how-adhd-affects-working-memory
Author: Noelle Matteson
I have a terrible time remembering names of people I've just met, but I can remember other things in great detail 30 years later. That's always baffled me, but it sounds like it's the context in which the information is presented (being overwhelmed with unimportant stimuli at the same time, or not) greatly influences the outcome. Thanks for a great article.
Well done and quite helpful. Thank you for your hard work and effort to help those of us adults with ADHD.
Thank you so much, Melissa! I sometimes refer back to this article when I'm hard on myself or wondering why I can't do something. XD