ADHD: Unlocking the Three Key Types of Memory

By Jeff Copper, MBA, PCC, PCAC, CPCC, ACG – July 8, 2024

We often talk about memories. It feels like it’s just one thing and one kind of memory, but there are several different kinds of memory. Today, we’re breaking down memory into three key types of memory for those with ADHD: long-term memory, working memory, and prospective memory. In other words, memories are remembering backwards, remembering in the moment, remembering into the future.

Long-term memory goes backwards in time to specific events in the past or for more factual information like times tables or elemental symbols, for example. Working memory is the shortest, most immediate kind of memory. This memory is what we hold in mind while we are doing something with the information. In other words, it stores what we’re paying attention to at the time. Then, prospective memory involves remembering something after hanging up the phone, for example. to look up information or schedule an appointment or a task for a future time.

Folks with ADHD have fine long-term memories. Once it’s in, it’s good. The challenge is getting it into memory in the first place. So, the forgetfulness of ADHD is really more a matter of working memory and attention because you can only remember what you have first paid attention to. If you didn’t really pay attention to something, if you’re a little preoccupied or distracted, it falls out or gets knocked out rather than going into long-term memory.

Let’s use a computer as an analogy. Imagine an office with a filing cabinet, which is your hard drive, or long-term memory. There’s also a computer, which is your random access memory (RAM); this is your working memory where memories are stored for immediate access. Then, you need to use your calendaring system to schedule a task and a reminder for a future date, and this is your prospective memory.

If you have ADHD and struggle with memory issues, or to learn more about the three major types of memory, please check out my video with Dr. Ari Tuckman on Attention Talk Video, “ADHD Memory: Remember There Are Three Key Types of Memory.”

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Jeff Copper: Welcome everybody to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, Attention Coach Jeff Copper, and I’m here today with Dr. Ari Tuckman. Dr. Tuckman, welcome to the show.

Dr. Tuckman: Thank you.

Jeff Copper: Dr. Tuckman, when it comes to ADHD people talk about memory, and to me, that’s a global term, and it’s kind of helpful sometimes to break words like that down into context to understand what we’re doing, because for me, I think if you understand the context, it’s easier to deal with. So, can you just outline the different kinds of memory that is useful for us to understand when working with ADD?

Dr. Tuckman: Sure. So, we often talk about memories it feels like if it’s one thing and there’s one kind of it. There’s actually a lot of different kinds of memory, but I think we can break it into three pieces. So, long-term memory involves remembering backwards into time. So that could be episodic memory, which is sort of things that happened in my life. So, remember last week when, or remember 20 years ago when and specific events in my life. As well as then more kind of factual memory, so things like the symbol for water is H2O or something. Then there’s working memory, which is the shortest, most immediate kind of memory. So, it’s stuff that we hold in mind while we are doing something with the information, and working memory and attention have a lot to do with each other because working memory stores what we’re paying attention to.

Then there’s going forward even further into the future, which is prospective memory. So prospective memory involves remembering as soon as I hang up the phone, I need to look that information up, or next year, when I come to the conference, I need to bring more of this or less of that. So, remembering backwards, remembering in the moment, remembering into the future. Folks at ADHD have fine long-term memories. So, once it’s in, it’s good. The challenge is getting it into memory. So, the forgetfulness of ADHD is really a more a matter of working memory and attention because you can only remember what you have first paid attention to. If you didn’t really pay attention to something, if you’re a little preoccupied or distracted, it comes into working memory, and then it falls out or gets knocked out rather than going back into long-term memory.

Jeff Copper: And prospective memory, it’s memory for the future, but it’s still kind of locking that way and coming back to it with a reminder if you will.

Dr. Tuckman: Exactly. So, it’s kind of your mental to-do list. So, setting that mental alarm. So sometimes for short durations, we hold that thought in working memory, do this, do this, or take the keys out of the tray before you close the door. So sometimes we hold it in memory, but other times we actually use long-term memory. So, thinking about, “When I get back to the office, I have to look this information up,” so I’m storing in mind there’s something special about the office. When I see my office, I need to trigger that association.

Jeff Copper: It’s funny because I like a computer as an analogy is… Imagine your office, your filing cabinet is your hard drive, and your desktop is your RAM. That’s your working memory. So, when you boot up a computer, you grab the files out of the filing cabinet and you put it on your desktop. The difference between those two memories is if it’s stored in your hard drive or your filing cabinet, it’s there whether the computer’s on or off. If you’re putting it on your desktop, that’s electronic memory. So, if you unplug the computer, it evaporates.

And I like that analogy for working memory, those with ADD, because number one, it’s like, think of its they have very small desktop and they’re always shuffling papers and moving it around, but if they get distracted, it’s like unplugging it, and then they have to boot the system back up to get where they are. Perspective memory, I’m just trying to figure out a way to make this analogy work. Seems to me it’s almost like the calendaring system in your computer to actually get it in and have the computer on at the time the reminder pops up and say, “Hey, you need to make this thing happen.”

Dr. Tuckman: Right. Well, or maybe we can think of it as prospective memory is things on your desktop and working memory is what’s in the RAM on your computer. So, the thing about working memory is it’s working. It is working to hold information as opposed to long-term memory. So, you’re not sitting there thinking, “The formula for water is H2O. The formula for water is H2O.” The way that you would, if you’re taking a phone number off a piece of paper and putting it into your phone, 610, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. You’re mentally rehearsing it. So, it’s working memory.

Jeff Copper: And I know a lot of times when I use this analogy by trying to get it out of your working memory by either writing it down, so we call it external memory, if you will. It’s an extension of what’s kind of going on in the — If you write it down and you get distracted, the computer is, you’ve got it externalized, and you can go back to it. So, I think it’s important just to understand these different types of memories, because if you’re going to work with ADD, again, if you can get it stored, it’s pretty good. The working memory is small. If we can begin to externalize some of that stuff, so if the plug gets pulled, we don’t lose it. It can be very helpful in just terms of looking at what structures work. So…

Dr. Tuckman: Yeah. And the flip side of that also is it’s easier to hold stuff in working memory if there are fewer distractions. So, eliminating other less important information makes it easier to hold stuff on mind.

Jeff Copper: Well, Dr. Tuckman, thanks for coming on the show.

Dr. Tuckman: Thank you.

Jeff Copper: As always. To learn more about Dr. Tuckman, go to-

Dr. Tuckman: Adultadhdbook.com

Jeff Copper: And there’s a whole wealth of information podcast books, everything out there. So, I encourage you. But again, thanks for coming on the show.

Dr. Tuckman: Take care.

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