If I had a penny for every time I walked into my living room, kitchen, or bedroom and completely blanked on what I was going to do or get, I’d be rich. It turns out there’s a name for this phenomenon: the doorway effect. Research from the University of Notre Dame published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2011 showed that memory was affected when passing through a doorway. Below, professor Gabriel Radvansky, PhD, who conducted the research along with his colleagues, explains what causes the doorway effect—and shares tips on what to do when it happens.
- Gabriel Radvansky, PhD, Gabriel Radvansky is a professor at the University of Notre Dame, with research focusing on the development of mental model theory for human memory and cognition.
What causes the doorway effect?
“We experience the world as a continuous flow of information,” Dr. Radvansky says, but we mentally break up the experience into smaller meaningful events referred to as mental event models. When we move from one event to another, a mental process called event updating, we remove information that’s relevant from the prior event and start to focus our attention on the new event. That's why we may forget things when we switch gears.
Dr. Radvansky adds that when the same piece of information is part of two or more events, it is represented in two or more mental event models. For example, if you’re in the bedroom and move to the kitchen to get a glass of water, that information (in this case, get a glass of water) gets stored in both your bedroom and kitchen mental event models, which ironically can also lead to forgetting. “Because these models contain the same elements, they may compete with one another during memory retrieval, causing some mental competition, leading to some forgetting, even though both memories are pointing toward the same information,” Dr. Radvansky says.
Furthermore, passing through a doorway is just one example of what Dr. Radvansky refers to as an event boundary. The doorway effect can occur in any situation when you’re moving from one thing to another. Examples of other event boundaries include changing spatial locations, switching computer windows, or when a person enters or leaves the room.
What to do if the doorway effect occurs
The good news? The doorway effect is a normal brain function. “It means that our brains are parsing up the world in a perfectly normal and adaptive way,” Dr. Radvansky says. In other words, it’s nothing to be alarmed about. In most cases, the fact that our mind is shifting from one event to the next and forgetting what happened before is actually helpful because it helps clear the slate. “If we were not doing this, we might continue to think about and attend to things that are not relevant to the current situation," he says.
Still, it can be a bit annoying when it does happen. To help prevent the doorway effect from happening, one tip Radvansky suggests is carrying something with you into the other room to help remind you of your goal. For example, if you’re walking to the garage to get a screwdriver, you might carry a screw with you.
If the doorway effect does occur, there is a simple trick to help jog your memory. “One of the best things that you can do is go back to the room where you originally established your goal or learned something,” Dr. Radvansky says. “There may be something in that original location that can serve as a memory cue to help you retrieve the knowledge of what it was that you were supposed to remember in the first place.” Too lazy to walk back to the other room? Dr. Radvansky says physical movement isn’t required. Simply thinking about where you were before or what you were doing can also help you remember—all without passing through the doorway once again.
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