Walking through doorways causes forgetting, new research shows

November 17, 2011 By Susan Guibert, University of Notre Dame

Walking through doorways causes forgetting, new research shows
(Medical Xpress) -- We’ve all experienced it: The frustration of entering a room and forgetting what we were going to do. Or get. Or find.

New research from University of Notre Dame Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky suggests that passing through doorways is the cause of these memory lapses.

“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,” Radvansky explains.

“Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.”

The study was published recently in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Conducting three experiments in both real and virtual environments, Radvansky’s subjects – all college students – performed memory tasks while crossing a room and while exiting a doorway.

In the first experiment, subjects used a virtual environment and moved from one room to another, selecting an object on a table and exchanging it for an object at a different table. They did the same thing while simply moving across a room but not crossing through a doorway.

Radvansky found that the subjects forgot more after walking through a doorway compared to moving the same distance across a room, suggesting that the doorway or “event boundary” impedes one’s ability to retrieve thoughts or decisions made in a different room.

The second experiment in a real-world setting required subjects to conceal in boxes the objects chosen from the table and move either across a room or travel the same distance and walk through a doorway. The results in the real-world environment replicated those in the virtual world: walking through a doorway diminished subjects’ memories.

The final experiment was designed to test whether doorways actually served as event boundaries or if one’s ability to remember is linked to the environment in which a decision – in this case, the selection of an object – was created. Previous research has shown that environmental factors affect memory and that information learned in one environment is retrieved better when the retrieval occurs in the same context. Subjects in this leg of the study passed through several doorways, leading back to the room in which they started. The results showed no improvements in memory, suggesting that the act of passing through a doorway serves as a way the mind files away memories.

Explore further: How do I remember that I know you know that I know?

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17 comments

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Isaacsname
3.2 / 5 (6) Nov 17, 2011
Oh yeah ? *defiantly*

What about:

Rooms with glass partitions and see-through doors
Walking backwards through doorways
Finding volunteers who aren't high
JRDarby
4.4 / 5 (8) Nov 17, 2011
I see no problem with the result of the study. Most people are almost entirely unaware of the symbolic and representational nature of their own cognition. Beneath the hood, so to speak, things run very differently than a naive realist might expect. Study your own cognition phenomenologically to verify or disprove this, but I have no doubt you'll find it to be true.
Isaacsname
4.7 / 5 (6) Nov 17, 2011
In all seriousness, I understand this completely. Believe me, as a chef I was constantly having to go from room to room shuttling product back and forth endlessly while having to not only keep track of what I was doing, but what everybody else was doing too.

I noticed: When you walk through a doorway backwards, maintaining visual contact with the space you just left, you tend to forget things less. I would wager that the mind is still somehow " cognitating in the space " for lack of better terms.

Also, I got in the habit of saying it to myself, " What am I doing ? I'm going to the walk-in for yadayada, etc " as I left a room and entered another, this also helps to remember.

I'm not knocking the study, I just think it's a little narrow.
noemata
5 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2011
I was thinking the same -
Walking backwards might even assist memory across different contexts/rooms. You can keep the attention through the disrupting environment.

Maybe worth a study in itself? About the correlation of directions of movement and time - forward/future, backwards/past; it's part of our notions anyway, the future in front, the past in the back of us...
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2011
I wonder, for instance, what would happen if the volunteers wore blinders and were moved face down between rooms, only viewing the floor when they were in transit ? Or vice versa, only viewing the ceiling.

Or standing in one room wearing myopic glasses/goggles that only allowed a line/cone of sight that extended into another room, than moving between rooms, in essence giving the brain visual information from the other space while the body still occupied the other.
gwrede
5 / 5 (4) Nov 17, 2011
The study may have been "narrow", but their point was only to establish that a physical departure from context invokes a termination of context in the mind. This is just basic science.

And now that this is established, other researchers can then take the next steps with whatever part of the mind or brain is their special area. This is just an example of diligent science: one solid step at a time.

Personally, I find this result quite expected. Once the cave man was finished grinding his axe, he stood up and went hunting. He no longer needed to entertain the mind-set (the facts and the skills) of axe grinding, so it's natural to dump all that and get more room for the facts and the skills of hunting.

This also explains why it is easy to notice on the phone if the other person has just got up, they sound clueless. They haven't yet loaded the basic everyday facts and things into their mind.
that_guy
5 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2011
I think the research is clever.

@isaac - While the subject is 'narrow', I think they wanted to fully vet their point, because it is one of those outside nebulous points, even if it makes sense when you think about it. I'm sure they will follow up with a more comprehensive "what can you do about it" study, now that they've proven the first point.
RobertSeattle
5 / 5 (3) Nov 17, 2011
There are a lot of things based on "folklore" that are now getting validated with scientific basis. The psychological effect of walking through a doorway may well be a trigger event that actually shifts something in the brain's process, as this study seems to imply. Obviously, a lot more study needs to be done in order to validate the theory.

Here's some interesting food for thought as well as a concept that has historical basis: The Chinese have long incorporated round doorways rather than the rectangular openings so common in the West. The original concept was intended to prevent evil spirits from entering a home or structure (by confusing them apparently). In looking at this new study, I'm now wondering if there was more to this idea and if round portals might actually have a different effect on the human brain? Food for thought...
Sinister1811
Nov 18, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
horve
5 / 5 (3) Nov 18, 2011
If this is correct, then open plan schools would be a good idea.
TheGhostofOtto1923
Nov 18, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (8) Nov 19, 2011
Hush is superhuman in his/her/it's own mind. So if we forget what it was our free will decided for us to do, then we don't deserve to have free will? Humans forget from time to time.

Dweeb.
Cabot Wonder
not rated yet Nov 19, 2011
A while ago, I registered a word for this phenomenon at Urban Dictionary: roomnesia.

BTW: the only way to remember why you entered the room is to leave it.
ROBTHEGOB
3 / 5 (2) Nov 20, 2011
This is reason enough to get rid of cubicles. Just sign me - Dilbert.
icemachine79
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 20, 2011
Hush, turn that critical eye on yourself buddy and re-read your first comment.
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Nov 20, 2011
They should also try this with identical rooms/sets of objects displayed/arranged as a mirrored image. Or even 3 identical rooms, or 4,...or 5.....*eyes glaze over*...
FrankHerbert
1 / 5 (7) Nov 20, 2011
Right here.

Hush is superhuman in his/her/it's own mind. So if we forget what it was our free will decided for us to do, then we don't deserve to have free will? Humans forget from time to time.

Dweeb.

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