Hold That Thought: Walking Through Doorways Makes Us Forget

Posted on January 15, 2012


Are you sitting down as you’re reading this?  If not, you may want to – chances are, if you’re browsing this on your iPhone while walking to the fridge, you’ll forget what you were reading about by the time you get back (and you may even forget what brought you to the kitchen in the first place).

That’s according to recent research from psychologists at Notre Dame that concludes walking through doorways causes significant impairment in memory retrieval.  This is not a new concept – Gabriel Radvansky’s previous experiments have well-demonstrated the fact that people experience a decline in recall when moving from one environment to another – rather, these new experiments demonstrate that the effect is consistent whether subjects are in a real-world setting, a virtual environment, and even when the final destination is the original room (more on that below).

Researchers use the term “event boundary” to denote the change in locale.  The impairment in retrieving memory encoded in a previous setting once you’ve entered a new one may be an evolutionary safeguard to prevent undue distraction when our surroundings change – and, quite simply, it takes a lot of brain power to assess a new environment.

“Essentially, a shift at an event boundary introduces a need to update one’s understanding of the ongoing events, and this updating process is effortful.”

In one of the three experiments, researchers attempted to determine if this Doorway Dementia (© 2012) could be mitigated by having the subjects walk through doorways that led to the same environment in which the memories were formed – an example of what is called the encoding specificity principle of memory†.  The results showed that it is not simply being in a different environment that impairs recall, but the shifts themselves.

So it seems, once you walk through a doorway, information, decisions, actions performed in the previous setting are either compartmentalized & filed away or purged, likely because what happened in the previous environment is not as important as what may happen in the new one.

I was glad when I came across this research – it makes me feel less neurotic about writing down everything I intend to do on Post-it notes.

“The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

Encoding specificity – The principle predicts that memory is improved when information available at encoding is also available at retrieval (e.g. recall is improved if subjects are tested in the same room they had studied in rather than a different room).
Posted in: Medicine