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Is My Working Memory On Strike?

TimeManagementReminderRecently on my Facebook page, one of my readers asked an excellent question that, I think, merits some exploration. She asked me, “Why can I remember the smallest details about events that happened years ago, yet not remember what I did an hour ago?” Memory issues are a common problem in people with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) that we don’t often discuss, but the repercussions can be huge.

Over twenty clinical studies on ADHD have shown that the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate cortex of people with ADHD is different compared to those of non-ADHDers.  These two structures in your brain are responsible for the executive functions, functions which are involved in many high-level cognitive processes such as planning, organizing, strategizing, focus, time management, project management, emotional control, initiating activity (getting started) and working memory.

If I Forget, Is It Always Caused by Lapses in Memory?

Two of the executive functions can play a role in memory issues. For example, if you are not paying attention to where you drop your keys when you come home, no information will be remembered but not because you forgot. You never had any information to store in your memory banks in the first place. Most of the memory issues ADHDers face are associated specifically with their working memory.

Wikipedia defines working memory as “the system that is responsible for the transient holding and processing of new and already stored information, an important process for reasoning, comprehension, learning and memory updating.”  It’s the process you use when you try to dial a phone number or complete some mental calculation. Imagine your spouse asks you to complete a task, and you agree to do this task. So, you’re off to complete the task, but on the way, the phone rings or you have an interesting idea or some other distraction occurs. Now, if you have a poor working memory, which is the case for people with ADHD, the task you promised to do, which is not yet in your long-term memory, is completely forgotten. It was wiped out by the new information you put in your working memory. Of course, as many of you know, this can cause a lot of problems in your relationships.

Why Can You Remember Certain Information or Events and Not Others?

Researchers have identified certain factors that influence your capacity to remember certain information or events:

  1. Your level of attention for the event. Do you have something else on your mind? Are you anxious or excited about something else while this is going on?
  2. Your interest in the subject. Of course, if you are interested or passionate about a particular subject, or it is one that you need to know, you are more motivated to expend the effort to pay attention and to retain it.
  3. Your emotional state during the event. In the past, when my ADHD husband and I fought, he was able to quote me on things I said or did during some of the more explosive fights we had five or six years before. I was amazed he could quote me word-for-word what I had said, what I was wearing, where we were standing, but he couldn’t remember what he had committed to do fifteen minutes earlier. As you can imagine the situations he was recalling were very emotional for both of us, and as a result, they tended to be stored easily in long-term memory.
  4. The sensory context. We best remember situations that were vividly captured by our sense of smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch. You’ll more easily remember a meal you had in a restaurant where the food was incredibly tasty or awful.

How Do I Manage If My Working Memory Is On Strike?

Now that you know more about your memory, it’s important to recognize that working memory is an issue for people with ADHD, and that there are strategies you can use to compensate for those issues.  Here are a few:

  1. Avoid relying on your memory for important information. Keep a small notebook on you or use an application such as Evernote on your smart phone to capture all relevant and important information.
  2. Create a system that includes reviewing your notes. You could make an appointment with yourself in your calendar to review your notes periodically during the day and to make decisions about how you will manage the information. Do you need to set an appointment with yourself to complete something? Do you want to capture the information for a project you’re working on? Use your agenda to create reminders for things you must remember later.
  3. Learn to move important, relevant, information to your long-term memory through repetition or by reviewing the information through different senses.
  4. Create systems such as habits and routines to avoid needing to remember tasks that are important in your life. This way you can “set ‘em and forget ‘em” because your system will kick in when it’s time to remember.

If you want more information on memory, here’s a good resources:   http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_07/a_07_p/a_07_p_tra/a_07_p_tra.html

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