Ever done this: entered a room purposefully, then stood there feeling like an idiot while you try and remember what
you came for? Well, now scientists think they have an explanation: going through doorways causes the mind to "file away" the
As Gabriel Radvansky, Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA, explains in a news article
published on the University's website this last week:
"Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an 'event boundary' in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files
"Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized," he
Radvansky and colleagues have been exploring this phenomenon for a while: the findings of their latest study were published
recently in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
"Previous research using virtual environments has revealed a location-updating effect in which there is a decline in memory when
people move from one location to another."
However, Radvansky and colleagues wanted to explore whether the "degree of immersion" in the environment had an effect on
For their latest study they carried out three experiments in real and virtual environments, the latter being where the subjects
experience the "environment" on a display screen by means of a computer simulation. The participants, all college students, were
given memory tasks to do while they just crossed a room and also while going out through a doorway.
The first experiment was done in a virtual environment using small display screens, to reduce the degree of immersion.
In this experiment, the students moved from one virtual room to another, picking up an object on a table and exchanging it for an
object on another table. They then carried out the same task, "walking" the same distance, but without going through a
The researchers found the students forgot more after they went through a doorway than when they just walked the same distance
across a room, suggesting the doorway or "event boundary" impeded their ability to retrieve thoughts or decisions they had made
in a different room.
The second experiment was in the "real" world, not on a computer screen. The participants had to pick objects from a table and
hide them in boxes and move either across a room, or go through a doorway into another room. As in experiment 1, they walked
the same distance in both cases: whether across the room or through the doorway.
The results of the second experiment in the real world were the same as for the first experiment in the virtual world: walking
through doorways appeared to impair memory.
In the third and final experiment, the researchers tested whether, if the participants were in the same environment as where they
"created" the memory, even if they passed through several doorways, this would not impair memory: there is a theory that if you
can put subjects in the same environmental context as when they did their learning, they retrieve the memories underpinning that
But this did not happen: the participants were asked to make a "decision" (select an object) in one room, then they walked
through several doorways, eventually ending up back in the same room where they started. The results showed no improvements
in memory, which the researchers said suggests the act of passing through doorways serves as a way for the mind to file away
"In Experiment 3, the original encoding context was reinstated by having a person return to the original room in which objects
were first encoded. However, inconsistent with an encoding specificity account, memory did not improve by reinstating this
context," they write.
Perhaps one way to overcome the problem of forgetting what we went into the room for is to write little notes to ourselves, like
Leonard Shelby, the man with anterograde amnesia, who was played by Guy Pearce in the award-nominated thriller
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD
Copyright: Medical News Today
Not to be reproduced without permission of Medical News Today
"Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations"; Gabriel A. Radvansky, Sabine A.
Krawietz & Andrea K. Tamplin; The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Volume 64, Issue 8, pages 1632-
1645, 2011; DOI:10.1080/17470218.2011.571267; Link to Abstract.
Other sources: Notre Dame News.
Please use one of the following formats to cite this article in your essay, paper or report:
Paddock, Catharine. "Why Did I Come In Here? How Walking Through Doorways Makes Us Forget."Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 23 May. 2013. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/237974.php>
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Visitor Opinions (latest shown first)
posted by jay johnson on 28 Nov 2011 at 7:39 am
There might be something here. I once had forgot a train of thought. I humorously retraced my footsteps to where the thought had originated. I found myself in the room I started in downstairs. I noticed my memory going from vague to tip of the tongue as I walked back and forth between rooms. My thoughts zeroed in as I centered in the doorway.
My first thought while reading this article was that when we pass through a doorway our attention is diverted to unanticipated and/or familiar diversions. Perhaps our survival instincts kick in and focus primarily on the unexpected, unanticipated, or varied environment. Therefore our original mission is placed on the back burner, so to speak. I am also considering that another room presents a number of unfinished, or previously uninitiated, missions which may be remembered by the mind and take precedence over the original mission.
relating the "event boundary" or "immersion in the environment " to Alzheimer's
posted by Jean Cunningham on 20 Nov 2011 at 6:01 pm
I think the "event boundary" is a real considieration. Our energy is affected by a physical barrier/obstacle. I would like to consider how this concept can be understood when trying to understand how the brain of a person with dementia. remembers strands of a certain theme, but forgets who just visited them or that someone just visited them. I have been observing my aunt and find that she remembers that a holiday is coming and the reasons she might want to be there and who she wants to share it with, but forgets most plans and most things that happened a half hour ago.
I would agree that taking the same route back to the original room will increase or improve the memory of the original event. It works for me if I can't remember something, I retrace my steps to the original room and sure enough I immediately remember what I was going to do or the item I was looking for. Just a thought. Sometimes I will retrace the route in my mind and the memory will return. It can get frustrating to frequently have to backtrack your steps to remember things!
A question comes to mind about another possible variable in the first two experiments. If the goal object in the other room is in sight from the original room vs not in sight from the original room, does this make a difference in recall. It is well known that for most people visual memory is far better than memory with a visual component.
I understand in the third experiment, the subject "eventually" returns to the same room. I assume this means the subjects take a different path back to the same room. I think it might be important to further this study by comparing subjects' memory when returning the original room after reaching it from a new path versus returning to the original room by backtracking. The human brain might naturally be resistant to subconsciously recalling similarities when entering a familiar room through a different door or the same door by a different path. After all, our brains are able to comprehend that two identical rooms in different locations are not the same room. It kind of makes sense that the brain would naturally refuse to associate inanimate places and things with their ideal counterparts for this reason. However, by backtracking our exact steps, as is often done when we have forgotten something like our car keys, we are sometimes able to more easily recall things we have forgotten. In support of this idea, I've never seen someone try to recall something forgotten by returning to the first place they could have lost it by a different path. Anyway, I just think it could be beneficial to at least examine that possibility for what it's worth.
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