Here’s why you forget what you’re doing when walking into a new room
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Christian Jarrett explains how our memories are vulnerable to the ‘doorway effect’.
Fear not, you’re far from the only one to have had this rather unsettling experience.
Since 2006, psychologists at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana have been investigating what’s become known as the ‘doorway effect’. In one study they used a virtual reality setup to show that their volunteers’ memory of items in a room was diminished once they walked through a doorway into another room.
The researchers propose a three-part explanation: our memories are divided into episodes; we find it trickier to recall information from earlier episodes; and, critically, when we walk through a doorway, it creates a new episode or ‘event boundary’ (thus making it more difficult to recall our purpose, which was stored in the previous memory episode).
These results have implied there’s something almost magical about the effects of doorways on our brains. However, a team at the University of Queensland painted a more nuanced picture. They found that passing through doorways that joined identical rooms mostly didn’t impact memory – perhaps because there wasn’t enough of a changed context to create a significant event boundary. It was only when these researchers distracted their volunteers with a simultaneous secondary task that the doorways between identical rooms affected memory.
The Queensland team said this chimes with everyday experience in that it’s mostly when we’re distracted, with our mind on other things, that we’re inclined to arrive in a room and forget what we came for. It also suggests the doorway effect is more likely to occur when there is a significant change in context – for instance, if you leave your living room for the garden.
The new results also point to a potential cure – try to stay focused on your purpose when you pass through a doorway on an errand (failing that, you could always make a note on the back of your hand).
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.
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