Finally, a Reason Why You Forget What You Were Doing When You Walk Into a New Room

Doorway effect

Ever walked into a room ready to accomplish something, only to completely blank on what you were just about to do? Same. Turns out it’s an actual psychological event and brain function called the ‘doorway effect’. The term refers to an instance when a person’s memory declines when passing through a doorway.

“We experience the world as a continuous flow of information,” says Gabriel Radvansky, PhD, one of the researchers of a University of Notre Dame study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2011, which looked into ‘doorway effect’.

Radvansky explained to US publication Well + Good that we mentally break up the experience into smaller meaningful events referred to as ‘mental event models’. When we move from one event to another, we’re doing a mental process called ‘event updating’. With that, we’re removing information relevant from the prior event and starting to focus our attention on the new event.

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In other words, walking through a doorway is a good time to purge your event models because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you’re in a new room.

“The doorway effect occurs because we change both the physical and mental environments, moving to a different room and thinking about different things,” writes psychologist Tom Stafford for the BBC. “That hastily thought up goal, which was probably only one plate among the many we’re trying to spin, gets forgotten when the context changes.”

Dr. Radvansky gives Well + Good the example of moving from your bedroom to the kitchen to get a glass of water, which can often lead to you forgetting the task as soon as you walk into the kitchen. In this case, the bedroom is one event model, while the kitchen is another.

“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.

Radvansky also labels the action of passing through to the new room as an event boundary. Examples of other event boundaries include switching computer windows or changing spatial locations.

While the doorway effect can be frustrating, it’s actually a sign your brain is working as it should. If it weren’t doing this, it would continue to think about and attend to things that aren’t relevant to the current situation.

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“We can’t keep everything ready-to-hand, and most of the time the system functions beautifully. It’s the failures of the system — and data from the lab — that give us a completely new idea of how the system works,” write Charles B. Brenner and Jeffrey M. Zacks in Scientific American.

If you do really want to figure out what you were meant to do in the room or new computer window, Dr. Radvansksy says one of the best things you can do is to go back to the room where you originally established your goal or learned something.

“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,” he says.

Another thing you can try is simply thinking about where you were before or what you were doing as that’ll help you remember.

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