Psychologists believe that passing through a doorway and entering a different room creates a ‘mental block’ in the brain, which means that walking through open doors resets the memory to make room for the creation of a new episode. This is generally referred to as the doorway effect.
Imagine that you are sitting in front of your television, watching reruns of your favorite TV show. A commercial comes on, so you want to change the channel, but the TV remote is nowhere to be found. You shout to your mother in the other room and she tells you that it’s lying on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen.
Sluggishly, you head for the kitchen, but suddenly, your phone buzzes. You pick up the phone and check out the recent message as you enter the kitchen. Once you’re done with the phone, you look up and realize that you’re in the kitchen, but for some reason, you can’t figure out why!
You say to yourself, “Why did I come here? What was I supposed to 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 classical example of how we sometimes forget what we were supposed to do as soon as we enter a room. If you think that you’re the only one who experiences this, let me tell you that you are not alone. It can happen to the most brilliant people with the greatest of memories; in fact, it happens to everyone!
The Doorway Effect
Quite often, it happens that we enter a room and have absolutely no idea what we’re doing there. This phenomenon is, quite aptly, referred to as the doorway effect by psychologists.
In the early years of brain studies, scientists thought that the human memory was like a cupboard, with numerous sections where we could store little boxes of experiences from our lives. The boxes would stay there forever, and whenever we needed to look into them, we could simply head to that particular section and retrieve that box of memory.
As neat as this description of human memory formation sounds, it’s not correct. Our brain is far more sophisticated and complicated, and as recent studies have shown, it possesses the ability to change throughout an individual’s life.
Human memories are episodic, as opposed to being clear, linear narratives, which means that they are split into segments and hugely depend on the person who is forming them. For instance, how you recall a particular incident will most likely be different from how another person recalls the exact same incident.
An interesting study regarding the Doorway Effect
In a set of studies conducted by Gabriel Radvansky and his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, it was observed that changing rooms and walking through doorways indeed makes us forget things.
In the first study, they recruited dozens of participants who were supposed to use computer keys to navigate through a virtual reality environment presented on a TV screen. The environment consisted of 55 rooms in total, some large and some small. Large rooms contained 2 tables (one at either end), while the small rooms had one.
Atop every table was an object that would no longer be visible once it was picked up by the participant. The participants’ task was to pick up an object and take it to another table, where they were supposed to deposit it and pick a new one.
It was observed that whenever participants walked through an open doorway, their memory performance was poorer than the times when they covered the same distance within the same room (i.e., when they did not walk through a doorway).
In the next part of the study, the researchers tested the doorway effect using real rooms, wherein participants travelled in a real-world environment. Interestingly, the same observations were recorded, as people had a hard time recalling the previous object once they passed through a door.
What’s the reason behind the Doorway Effect?
As of now, 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.
Furthermore, it is also believed that walking through open doors resets the memory to make room for the creation of a new episode. In nerd terms, this brief experience of crossing from one room to another through a doorway is called the location updating effect.
The good news is that experiencing such forgetful episodes after entering a different room says nothing about your memory, intelligence and cognitive skills. So, if you enter a room and suddenly forget why you’re there, don’t start thinking that Alzheimer’s disease is creeping up on you!
- Walking Through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Further Explorations. – National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
- How Walking Through A Doorway Increases Forgetting – British Psychological Society (BPS)