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5. Memory and learning problems with ADHD

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5. Memory and learning problems with ADHD

Forgetfulness, learning problems and memory problems are common in ADHD. It is almost phenotypical that those affected find it difficult to remember details from their childhood, which can be a disadvantage when diagnosing adults.
Forgetfulness can be caused by distractibility or memory problems. Children with ADHD often lose everyday objects. Adults have difficulty remembering actions, events or agreements.
In ADHD, the ability to learn is impaired as certain neurotrophic substances in the brain, such as dopamine and GABA, are reduced. ADHD sufferers learn less well from punishment and are more sensitive to it.
Forgetfulness and memory problems are typical symptoms of stress. Stress impairs implicit memory, declarative memory and working memory. These impairments also occur in ADHD.

5.1. Forgetfulness

  • Forgetfulness
    Forgetfulness can result from distractibility, when another stimulus has captured the attention in such a way that the previous object of attention is lost sight of.
    Forgetfulness can also result from memory problems if no other stimulus changes the focus of attention or suppresses the previous topic from memory.

    • Children:
      • Is often forgetful in everyday activities (DSM IV / 5)
      • Frequently loses objects needed for everyday activities (DSM IV / 5)
    • Adults:
      • Inability to remember actions/incidents/agreements1
      • Initial situations are no longer remembered1, which can lead to the feeling of constantly being in unforeseen situations
      • Subjective feeling of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease1

Like attention, forgetfulness could also depend heavily on intrinsic interest.
An online survey in the ADHD forum of ADxS.org (48 participants, as of 24.09.23) revealed:

Question: is forgetfulness also driven by motivation or is it independent of it?

Scale:
sometimes: from time to time, not only rarely
frequently: more than just once in a while
often: more than often

I forget things/tasks/todos/appointments or lose things:

24% often, and REGARDLESS of whether they are important to me or not
21% often, and mainly when they are NOT important to me
19% frequently, and REGARDLESS of whether they are important to me or not
17% sometimes, and mainly when they are NOT important to me
9% frequently, and mainly when they are NOT important to me
6% sometimes, and REGARDLESS of whether they are important to me or not
2% frequently, and mainly when they are important to me
2% sometimes, and mainly when they are important to me
0% often, and mainly when they are important to me

To summarize:

49 % often / frequently / sometimes, and REGARDLESS of whether they are important to me
47 % often / frequently / sometimes mainly when they are NOT important to me
4 % often / frequently / sometimes mainly when they are important to me

It is probably normal for people to forget things that are important to them less frequently. It would be interesting to see how the rate differs for those who are not affected.
The survey did not ask whether there was a diagnosis of ADHD. A more detailed survey is required for this.

5.2. Learning problems

Learning ability is often impaired in ADHD.
The ADHD-specific learning problems result, among other things, from reduced levels of dopamine, GABA, growth hormone and BDNF, which are neurotrophic substances required for neuroplasticity (the formation of new synapses). More on this at Neurophysiological correlates of learning problems. Learning problems also result from executive problems (organizational problems).2

  • Learning ability requires immediate feedback
  • Little is learned from punishment
    • Penalties are usually issued with a time delay due to the principle
    • Punishments are therefore fundamentally poor learning reinforcers.
    • Punishments inhibit behavior, they do not act as behavior reinforcers.
    • (School) learning is (neurophysiologically speaking) a process of reinforcement rather than inhibition.
    • Even those who are not affected learn better through praise and motivation than through punishment.
    • However, ADHD sufferers learn even worse from punishments than non-affected people
    • Regardless of this, children with ADHD reacted more sensitively to punishments than children without the disorder.3
  • Learning ability in ADHD appears to be independent of delay aversion or working memory problems.4

5.3. Poor memory of childhood events

Our impression is that many people with ADHD have difficulty remembering situations or moods from their childhood. It is difficult to give examples of how they dealt with their parents or siblings.

This could be consistent with our hypothesis that ADHD symptoms are mediated by the same neurotransmitter shifts as chronic stress. Chronic stress causes the brain to store experiences in a less consciously reconstructable way. Psychotherapists often find that trauma sufferers have a good memory of the events before the trauma if the trauma was a singular, surprising event. In contrast, traumas that occurred in a stressful overall situation (chronic stress) (e.g. ongoing sexual abuse / ongoing physical abuse) are much harder to remember.

We know an adult with ADHD-HI who - unlike most ADHD sufferers we know - has excellent HRV, which is a marker of low stress levels in the autonomic nervous system. This patient has an exceptionally good memory, which is sometimes reminiscent of a voice recorder. We are looking for other ADHD sufferers with a particularly good memory and would be delighted to hear from you.

5.4. Memory problems as symptoms of stress

Forgetfulness5 and memory problems65 7 are typical symptoms of stress.

Stress impairs

  • The implicit memory8
  • The declarative memory8
  • The working memory8

Impairments in all of these memory areas are also described in ADHD, although not everyone with ADHD has impairments in all memory areas at the same time.9

Forgetfulness is known to be a typical symptom of severe stress.5 Memory problems as well510

For information on memory impairments caused by stress, see above at Distractibility and attention problems are symptoms of stress.


  1. Krause, Krause (2014): ADHS im Erwachsenenalter, S. 60

  2. Sibley, Graziano, Ortiz, Rodriguez, Coxe (2019): Academic impairment among high school students with ADHD: The role of motivation and goal-directed executive functions. J Sch Psychol. 2019 Dec;77:67-76. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2019.10.005.

  3. Furukawa, Alsop, Shimabukuro, Tripp (2019): Is increased sensitivity to punishment a common characteristic of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder? An experimental study of response allocation in Japanese children. Atten Defic Hyperact Disord. 2019 May 16. doi: 10.1007/s12402-019-00307-6.

  4. Meyer, Beckers, Tripp, van der Oord (2019): Deficits in Conditional Discrimination Learning in Children with ADHD are Independent of Delay Aversion and Working Memory. J Clin Med. 2019 Sep 3;8(9). pii: E1381. doi: 10.3390/jcm8091381.

  5. Dr. Rolf Merkle, Diplom-Psychologe: Stress – was versteht man darunter?

  6. Rensing, Koch, Rippe, Rippe (2005): Mensch im Stress, Seite 156

  7. Bartsch (2015): Störungen der Gedächtnisfunktion, Seite 44, zitiert nach Schmidtke (2013), Funktionelle Gedächtnis und Konzentrationsstörungen

  8. Dickerson, Kemeny (2004) und Kudielka et. al (2009), zitiert nach Schoofs, Psychosozialer Stress, die endokrine Stressreaktion und ihr Einfluss auf Arbeitsgedächtnisprozesse, Dissertation (2009), Seite 2 Seite 32, mwN

  9. Steinhausen, Rothenberger, Döpfner (2010): Handbuch ADHS

  10. Bartsch (2015): Störungen der Gedächtnisfunktion, Seite 44, Springer, zitiert nach Schmidtke (2013), Funktionelle Gedächtnis und Konzentrationsstörungen

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