ADHD and Working Memory

If you have attention deficit hyperactive disorder, you probably find yourself struggling with working memory. What is working memory? It’s the system in your brain that allows you to hold multiple thoughts in mind while you organize and sequence them. It is important to understand what working memory is in relation to ADHD, and this condition can be very problematic when you’re trying to solve problems.

Often, you can find solutions by reducing the amount of information you have to manipulate. To do that, I have a simple working memory exercise to help you see your working memory in action and understand why those with ADHD need to externalize things to minimize the need to use working memory. Check out my video on the subject and see how the exercise might help you.  Here’s the link:


Welcome everybody to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, ADHD and attention coach Jeff Copper. I’m here today to talk to you about ADHD and working memory. A lot is said about this, but really what I would like to do is understand what working memory is, understand ADHD, and then talk about how this relates to what might work for those with ADHD and not.

An exercise that I like to do, and I do this very frequently with many of the people that I coach, I want to tell you five words. I don’t want you to write them down and I don’t want you to repeat them, but I want you to listen to the five words and I want you to remember them. Then what I want you to do is reorder them in alphabetical order, and then repeat them back. Now, this is a video, so you’re going to repeat it into the camera. If you get it right, that’s great, but really, the point of the exercise is actually to witness what working memory is all about.

Again, I’m going to give you five words. Now, they’re not going to be words like A, B, C, D, and E. Matter of fact, there won’t be an A, I’ll give you that much. They’re going to be a different areas, but the idea is to repeat them back in alpha order. Again, ready? Here we go. The words are kangaroo, Jill, teach, beat, and heart.

Now, notice, you’ve got to take those five words and you’ve got to hold them in your memory. Then you’ve got to take a look at each word that you can think of individually and hold that and rearrange it, so you’ve got one list, you’re going through that and you’re trying to figure out what that other list is. If you’re successful, you can repeat it back, and it would be beat, heart, Jill, kangaroo, and teach.

But what I find for those with ADD, and the general population sometimes, is that they’ll hold those five words if they can remember them, and many times they’ll get a beat correct and maybe heart, but after that, they will have forgotten the rest of the words, because as they hold their attention on each one of those individually, they can’t hold all the other words in their working memory to remember that. That can be very problematic when you’re trying to solve problems.

Now, realize is that if you wrote them down on index cards, like so, you can actually write them all out and very simply rearrange them very, very quickly and have them in the correct order. What does all this have to do with ADD and why is this important? Well, those with ADD, the back part of brain is about knowledge, it’s about retaining that, and the front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is taking that knowledge and executing, planning and manipulating, it’s that working memory of pulling that stuff together.

Now, as children, we learn to play. It’s very, very important, because it’s like playing with the index cards, but as we become older that play outside our brain becomes privatized, it moves into our prefrontal cortex. Those with ADD struggle with playing with information in their head, so it’s very important that we get it out and that it’s externalized by putting it down on the cards.

Practically, let’s take this into the everyday environment. The world is going to this digital means. If you can just imagine sitting at a computer where you’re doing some research and you’ve got four or five screens open at a time, whether they’re web browsers and stuff like that, and you’re trying to hold information from here over here, or maybe it’s in the same spreadsheet or a Word document, but you’ve got to scroll up and down.

You see something, you’ve got to hold that in your working memory, and you’ve got to scroll and make reference to something somewhere else, that’s using your working memory. Because it’s very difficult for those with ADD, very often what I suggest is print it all out so that you can see it, lay it out so that you can just move your eyes back and forth as opposed to holding it, or write things down, et cetera.

A lot of those that I work with, with ADD, what we try to do is we try to limit the working memory. We try to externalize the play, the manipulation of information, the planning, the timing, and the sequence. I hope that gives you some tips on what works today and I hope that you get the sense of what working memory is. The exercise that we just did, you can do it with other people to have them gain an idea of what that’s really all about, but that’s the challenge is that our hand, and so often solutions can be found by reducing the amount of information that you’re manipulating in your mind and you’re playing with and externalizing it.

With that, I hope you enjoyed this tip, and I hope you enjoyed this edition of Attention Talk Video. Take care.

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