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You Can’t Forget What You Don’t Know

Has anyone seen my keys? I’ve forgotten where I put them. Or maybe I never knew in the first place?

Forgetful“Forgetful” is one of those adjectives that’s often used to describe people with ADHD. And there’s truth to this – we are forgetful.

Sometimes, though, what we call forgetfulness could probably be more accurately called inattentiveness.

I’ve already mentioned the example of misplacing items such as keys. Is it that we forget where we put them, or that we just haphazardly set them down somewhere without paying attention? You can’t forget what you never really knew.

Another situation where we ADHDers might get called forgetful is when we “forget” information other people have already given us. For example, we ask someone a question they’ve already answered.

But it might be that we simply weren’t paying attention the first time they answered. So, it’s not exactly that we’ve forgotten what they’ve said – we were never really listening in the first place! (Not that it will help our case to point this out…)

It’s not just forgetting what other people have said either. Sometimes I forget what I’ve said and end up repeating it almost immediately. The typical sequence of events goes like this:

  1. Thought A crosses my mind.
  2. I tell whoever I’m with about thought A, but I’m already thinking thought B and not really paying attention to what I’m saying.
  3. A couple minutes later, thought A pops back into my head.
  4. Because I wasn’t really paying attention the first time I expressed thought A, I share it with whoever I’m with again.

Is this inattention or forgetfulness? It’s a little of both. I forget that I’ve already said something about thought A – but part of the reason I forget is that I wasn’t paying much attention in the first place, so it didn’t really “stick.”

I think this is partly why we ADHDers are prone to forgetting things. The less attention we’re paying when we process something, the less likely it is to sink in, and the more likely it is to go in one side of our brains and out the other. If you do something while paying half attention, you might end up with zero memory of it.

So next time someone calls you forgetful, you can take some solace in this fact: you’re not just forgetful, you’re inattentive too!

Image: Flickr/Neil Moralee

You Can’t Forget What You Don’t Know

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). You Can’t Forget What You Don’t Know. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from


Last updated: 18 Oct 2017
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