ADHD and the Metaphor of “Memory Retrieval”

In an article entitled “Looking Differently at ADHD,” Julie Hail Flory reframes so-called attention deficit in terms of “memory retrieval”, or the “failure of active maintenance.”

It happens to us all – you walk to the refrigerator, open the door, then stand there, unable to remember why you went to the kitchen in the first place.

You may call it a brain cramp, but in psychological terms, it’s a “failure of active maintenance,” and it could be a key to decoding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, according to Brad Gibson, a University of Notre Dame associate professor of psychology whose research looks at the link between memory and the disorder in adolescents.

But how compelling would this analysis be without recourse to technological metaphors? What is gained, scientifically speaking, by referring to simple forgetfulness by the cumbersome phrase, “failure of active maintenance”?

Further, if this simple, everyday example is an example of ADHD, then how is ADHD abnormal? How is ADHD a “disorder” if its “symptoms” are so universal? It would seem that institutions and authorities are essential to forming a distinction. (If you forget why you went to the fridge, it’s simple forgetfulness, but if you forget why you raised your hand in class, it’s a “condition”.)

Which is why the technological or computational metaphor is so important. It suggests that the information or knowledge is ‘in there somewhere’, only something is blocking its retrieval. The kind of memory described by Flory is quite literally a computer’s memory, even though, for the same author, what ultimately determines recollection are institutional standards of propriety, educational norms, and industrial metrics.

“What we’re finding is that kids with ADHD tend to retrieve more irrelevant information; so they’re coming up with things, but they’re not really relevant, they’re not the items from the list,” he says. “Right now the challenge is to come up with measures that can accurately assess their weaknesses.”

What, then, constitutes irrelevant information in a memory game? Or, to put it differently, could information considered irrelevant in this game be found relevant in another? The author, however, says nothing of the criteria buttressing this decidedly non-computational judgment, even though, to be sure, the whole argument comes down to this fine distinction.

So, what began, or what ends up seeming like, a distinction between attention and attention deficit really boils down to a hidden, and it would seem largely unquestioned, distinction between relevance and irrelevance, topicality and tangent. What seemed at first to be a matter of retrieval failure has become, in fact, the successful retrieval of improper information, which is a different ‘problem’ altogether. And in this regard, one can’t help but wonder whether a rather limited and unhelpful theory of learning is merely labeling as deficient those who, for whatever reason, learn differently or are less available to the current educational model. Those they say are attention deficient to everything, because of their ‘brains’, might just be attention deficient to them, because of their method.