Psychologists believe that walking through a door and entering another room creates a “mental blockage” in the brain, meaning that walking through open doors resets memory to make room for a new episode to emerge. This is generally referred to as the doorway effect.
Imagine you’re sitting in front of the TV watching the replays of your favorite TV show. There’s a commercial running, so you want to change channels, but the remote control is nowhere to be found. You call your mom in the other room and she tells you that it’s lying on top of the fridge in the kitchen.
Slowly you are heading towards the kitchen, but suddenly the phone starts buzzing. You pick up the phone and check the latest news as you enter the kitchen. As soon as you are done with the phone, you look up and realize that you are in the kitchen, but for some reason you cannot find out why!
You say to yourself: “Why did I come here? What should I do here?”
After trying to recall what was it that brought you into the kitchen, you give up and head back to the TV room without ever accomplishing your original task, i.e., fetching the remote from the kitchen.
This is a classic example of how we sometimes forget what we should do as soon as we enter a room. If you think you are the only one experiencing this, let me tell you that you are not alone. It can happen to the most brilliant people with the best memories; in fact, it happens to everyone!
What is the Doorway Effect?
It often happens that we enter a room and have absolutely no idea what we are doing there. Psychologists aptly call this phenomenon the doorway effect.
In the early years of brain research, scientists thought that human memory was like a closet, with numerous sections in which we could store little boxes of experiences from our lives. Boxes would remain there forever, and whenever we had to look into them, we could just go to that particular section and retrieve that box of memory.
As beautiful as this description of human memory formation sounds, it is not true. Our brain is much more complex, and, as recent studies have shown, it has the ability to change over a person’s lifetime.
Human memories are episodic, as opposed to clear, linear narratives, which means that they are segmented and strongly depend on the person who makes them. For example, the way one remembers a particular incident will most likely differ from the way another person remembers exactly the same incident.
An interesting study on the doorway effect
In a series of studies conducted by Gabriel Radvansky and his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, it has been observed that changing rooms and walking through doors actually make us forget things.
In the first study, they recruited dozens of participants to use computer buttons to navigate a virtual reality environment depicted on a television screen, consisting of a total of 55 rooms, some large and some small.
On each table there was an item that was no longer visible as soon as it was picked up by the participant. The task of the participants was to pick up an item and take it to another table, where they were to deposit it and select a new one.
It was observed that participants “memory performance was worse when they walked through an open door than when they walked the same distance within the same room, i.e. when they did not walk through a door.
In the next part of the study, the researchers tested the door opening effect on the basis of real rooms in which the participants were travelling in a real environment. Interestingly, the same observations were recorded, as it was difficult for people to remember the previous object as they walked through a door.
What is the reason for the door opener effect?
So far, there is no concrete explanation behind this phenomenon, but psychologists believe that passing through a doorway and entering a different room creates a mental block in the brain. This hypothesis is supported by a study on memory, which demonstrated that people passing through doorways experienced a ‘divide’ in their memory.
In addition, walking through open doors is thought to reset memory to make room for the emergence of a new episode. In nerd terms, this short experience of passing through a door from one room to another is called the location updating effect.
The good news is that experiencing such forgettable episodes after entering another room does not tell you anything about your memory, intelligence, or cognitive abilities. So when you enter a room and suddenly forget why you are there, you should not think that Alzheimer’s disease is creeping up on you!