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Working memory and ADHD

Children with ADHD or ADD show symptoms related to inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Studies have shown that the inattentive aspect of ADHD has roots in deficiency in development of the brain’s working memory.

Working memory is not the same as short term memory. Think of someone telling you a telephone number. A few seconds later you can still “hear” the number, even if you perhaps were not paying attention at that moment. This is short term memory and can be thought of as passive, not working memory.

Working memory is active and, although short term, allows you to keep track of several items at once, in order to work on them. For example, when given two numbers to be added together you need to hold both numbers in working memory while making the calculation then hold the answer in memory long enough to assess against the initial numbers whether it makes sense.

This is “working memory” and it is a vital part of our cognitive functions. As you can see, working memory needs to have the ability to hold on to a certain amount of information at one time. An adequate capability in terms of working memory is a factor in helping us to be attentive and resist distractions. Researchers believe that the working memory in most people has the capacity to hold on to five to seven “chunks” of information at one time.

A simple test researchers used for working memory and its effect on concentration consisted of a message being spoken into one ear while the subject’s name was spoken in the other ear. The subjects were to ignore their name and repeat the message heard in the other ear. This proved to be very difficult for subjects that had deficiencies in working memory.

When a task is given to a child with limited working memory, the result is “cognitive overload”. If the task requires more working memory than the child has available, he or she will “tune out”. The task will become difficult for the child to accomplish and distraction will set in, as the brain seeks to deal with the “information overload”.

Since ADHD and its relation with working memory is related to some extent to the brain’s neural pathways, patterns of inattentiveness can be detected in the earliest years of school. Without intervention, a child that shows signs of inattentiveness and is easily distracted in kindergarten activities is more likely to have trouble with reading and arithmetic in later years. Both are activities that require holding information in working memory for a period of time, putting several facts together to accomplish the task required.

The good news is that researchers believe that working memory can be improved by training. Working memory training methods have been shown to improve students’ inattentiveness and therefore show promise in helping their academic progress improve.

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