What is Object Permanence, and what does it have to do with having adult ADHD?
What is Object Permanence?
Object permanence is the ability to realize that objects still exist when they are no longer visible.
Object permanence is an important developmental milestone. In fact, young children are unable to realize that objects still exist when they are out of sight.
Have you ever wondered why peek-a-boo is such a fun game for a young child?
This is explained by the lack of object permanence! Young children have not yet mastered the ability to recall that an object exists when it has gone out of view.
Worse Object Permanence with ADHD?
Ok, so clearly any functional adult has obtained the developmental milestone of ‘object permanence’. We don’t actually forget that something exists just because we can’t see it anymore!
But…… it sort of feels that way doesn’t it? And so lots of people use the term ‘object permanence’ to explain some odd things that people with ADHD (and/or autism) do.
And actually, there is a link between object permanence studies in children and ADHD. And this has to do with self-regulation and working memory.
So you can think of the term Object Permanence in 2 ways:
- Object Permanence is used a specific way in relation to child development
- Object Permanance has a pop culture meaning in relation to ADHD
Object Permanence Tests
So let’s first look at what is meant by object permanence in terms of child development.
There are actually specific tests for object permanence, which are easy to do, and an interesting way to test a child’s development.
These tests include:
The Blanket and Ball Study for Object Permanence:
- Hide a ball under a blanket while the infant is watching.
- Then observe whether the infant looked for the ball under the blanket.
A young child will not look for the ball under the blanket. Once it is hidden from view they don’t realize where it is.
At around 8 months of age, a child will look under the blanket.
A not B Study for Object Permanence:
- Hide a toy in location A while the child watches.
- After a pause, let the infant reach for the toy.
- Repeat several times.
- Now hide the toy in location B.
- After a pause, let the infant reach for the toy.
At age 8-10 months infants continue to reach towards location A, even though they saw the toy hidden in location B.
There are also more difficult tests that measure not only object permanence but also various levels of spatial memory that are also developmental in nature.
So that is what we mean in terms of ‘Object Permanence’ as a concept of child development.
Object Permanence and ADHD Examples
Now what do we mean when we used the term ‘object permancence’ for adults with ADHD?
We are talking about things like:
- leaving 20 tabs open on their computer
- keeping several books on their bedside table
- leaving cupboard doors open
- having messy desks
- having ‘important piles’ that no one can move
Why do we do this? And what can we learn from object permanence studies in children?
We do these things because being an adult with ADHD (and autism) means having a poor working memory. And visual reminders help people with poor working memories.
Object Permanence and Working Memory
So Object Permanence problems are due to working memory. But what is working memory?
Working memory is the ability to hold multiple items in our minds so we can do a task or solve a problem.
Remember how we leave multiple tabs open on the computer because we feel if we close one we will forget about it? You can picture working memory that way. To solve a problem you need to have a lot of tabs open at once in your brain.
Brains with poor working memory, have less tabs. Which means we have a harder time doing certain tasks, because we can’t remember all the items needed.
Object Permanence is Linked to Self-Regulation
Now let’s take it a step further. Research has shown a relationship between self-regulation and working memory in children.
So improving your self-regulation can help your working memory and your object permanence difficulties.
What does self-regulation have to do with object permanence and working memory?
Children who have self-regulation difficulties have decreased attention and less exploration of their environment.
This is because it takes them more effort to self regulate, so they have less capacity to explore and engage with the environment. This leads to object permanence difficulties.
This is exactly what is happening with adults with ADHD. And this is what is causing the problems.
Because more brain power is needed to self-regulate, you have a reduced brain capacity to devote to all those small things that can lead to success.
Object Permanence and ADHD Relationships
Want an example of how reduced working memory and object permanence problems can cause difficulties with ADHD? Let’s look at managing an average work social event and relationship dynamics.
You arrive to the event on time, and are comfortable with your appearance. You are composed, and casually scan the room, mentally making note of who’s who.
You make small talk as needed but politely disengage, and you slowly make your way over to the people you want to meet.
You have positioned yourself to be near the group who is most influential. You are able to follow and participate in the conversation, and make a good impression.
At the end of the day, you feel it was a successful event and you accomplished what you wanted to.
Scenario 2 (reduced capacity):
You arrive flustered and late (You forgot about the event until an alarm you set reminded you). Because you were rushing you are worried your outfit might have a stain on it.
You are trying to remember the names of the people in the room. You become distracted by the conversation you are having with someone you don’t even like.
You now realize you’ve ended up at the end of the table with this person. You wish you were at the other end of the table chatting with the people you had wanted to meet.
The person you were chatting with now impresses the group with something they just learned from your conversation.
You feel like a wallflower and are yet again frustrated by your inability to manage these social events and work relationships.
Theory of Object Permanence ADHD
When you realize that ‘Object Permanence’ in ADHD is really just poor working memory, you can see what is going on in this work party situation.
Working memory is needed to hold information in your mind and use that information to guide yourself toward tasks or goals. Having poor working memory leads to failure to accomplish tasks, or even coming up with goals.
Reduced working memory can lead to:
- Forgetting to do things without reminders
- Losing items
- Arriving late for events
- Being distracted by thoughts or worries
- Forgetting people’s names and titles
- Becoming overly involved in a conversation
- Not being able to come up with a polite excuse to leave a conversation
- Oversharing information with the wrong people.
- Paying attention to the wrong things
Other issues not seen in that specific scenario:
- Forgetting to keep up with friends and family
- Misplacing items like your keys or wallet
- Needing things to be visible
- leaving cupboard doors open
- having a messy desk with important piles
- making multiple to do lists
- using many sticky notes as reminders
- Forgetting the name of someone right after they tell you
- Having trouble with verbal directions
- Having trouble when someone spells something for you out loud
Stress Makes Object Permanence Worse
The other thing to realize is that you will have more trouble with Object Permanence Difficulties when you are under stress. This is because working memory is sensitive to cortisol, the stress hormone.
So stress reduction or management is needed to control object permanence difficulties.
Ways to Cope with Object Permanence Difficulties
There are a few ways to manage object permanence difficulties.
The first is to realize it is a problem with working memory. This may be something you have always struggled with (ADHD or VAST or autism) or it may be new (for example due to traumatic brain injury or a concussion). And it may be worsened by stress or menopause.
Realize what the issue is and have some compassion for yourself. Perhaps there are tasks you simply cannot do as quickly or as efficiently as you used to be able to. Getting angry at yourself is not going to help.
Then there are two approaches.
- One is to look at ways to enhance attention and emotional regulation to set the foundation for more advanced working memory skills.
- The second one is to externalize your brain.
ADHD Emotional Regulation and Object Permanence
A lot of the issues with ADHD come down to self-regulation including emotional regulation. The most striking example of deficient emotional regulation with ADHD is rejection sensitive dysphoria.
And there are a lot of ways to improve deficient emotional self-regulation. And they really do work, sometimes to an impressive extent, but they do take time. Much like gaining strength with physical exercise, becoming stronger in emotional regulation takes time.
Non-Sleep Deep Rest protocols are scientifically proven to help improve learning, concentration and stress. You can learn to feel your body with Yoga Nidra, and work on separating your emotions from your body sensations with self-hypnosis.
Breathwork is truly powerful. I previously thought this was all woo, but I was definitely wrong. 5 minutes of an easy breathing exercise, the Physiological Sigh can make a huge difference. Box breathing and Wim Hof breathing exercises are other options.
Cognitive behavior therapy, Acceptance and commitment therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy are all forms that help you understand the difference between feelings, thoughts and actions.
Working Memory ADHD – Externalize Your Brain!
So you’ve got a poor working memory. This means you can’t hold as much in your brain. So you should be careful what you use your brain for.
Be picky about what you pay attention to. Do you need to follow up on every aspect of current news? Gossip about celebrities?
Probably not. Decide what is important to you.
You can also externalize your brain by:
- making lists
- writing down the Pros & Cons to help with a decision
- using multiple post-it notes
- working through a problem on paper
These tricks externalize the information, which means you need to use less working memory to accomplish a task. You can read here about how I use my ADHD hyperfixation to plan vacations, and externalising information is an important part of the process.
Also feel free to take some time to make big decisions. Not that much needs to be decided in a rush really.
Sometimes it can take some time to understand an important piece of information. It’s like it just appeared! Only it was there the whole time, you just didn’t see it the way you do now.
Yes, object permanence can occur with information in your brain too.
Hopefully this is a helpful way to look at this concept.
- Early working memory in children born with extremely low birth weight: assessed by object permanence
- Hair cortisol predicts object permanence performance in infant rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta)
- Working memory is more sensitive than declarative memory to the acute effects of corticosteroids: a dose-response study in humans