You are busy working on a paper for class when you realize you are thirsty. Glancing around, you see there isn’t a delicious, thirst-quenching beverage to be found. O, woe is you. Thankfully, the kitchen is just down the hall. You get up from your desk and stride purposefully out of the room. Man, you are going to get so much work done once you grab that glass of tea. You’re going to dig right in, finish scanning that article on table manners during the reign of Alexander the Great, and then you are going to write a seriously bitchin’ paper about feast etiquette and entertainment in Macedonia. Seems an odd topic for a paper, but your professor has always seemed a bit off. Then again, after 30+ years of teaching, maybe she’s just tired of seeing the same shit again and again. Maybe she’s trying to switch things up to save her sanity. That would make sense- if you had to read the same papers year after year, you’d probably try a different tack as well- oh, look, the kitchen. You walk in and…
Shit, fuck, and damn, just what the ever-loving hell did you come in here for?
We’ve all been there. You walk into a room and promptly forget why you are there in the first place.
In fact, it’s such a common occurrence that I’m honestly surprised there’s been so little research into it. Then again, the subjects of memory and forgetting have been leading neuroscientists and psychologists on a merry chase for years. And without a solid, reliable foundation in an area, why would anyone bother studying some tiny, mostly insignificant facet?
But as more and more is learned about how our brain operates and processes memories, there is more call for studies that branch out into the minutiae of the subject. So it was really just a matter of time before someone decided to take a closer look at doorway amnesia (actually called location-updating effect).
That someone was Gabriel Radvansky, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. He conducted a series of three experiments to study the doorway amnesia dilemma.
This experiment took place in a variety of virtual environments (some of which, according to one article, were “similar to what users would see in the game Half-Life“- while I’m not going to go out of my way to attempt to determine the veracity of this detail, I think picturing Half-Life environments will be more fun for us, dear galleons, and so we’re going to assume it’s true). Subjects moved between two virtual rooms, exchanging an object on a table for an object on a different table. They also performed the same task in a single room, where they never had to pass through a doorway. Subjects were asked to remember objects they carried while moving between spaces and to recall items currently being carried or recently put down.
Result: Subjects forgot more after walking through a doorway than when moving the same distance across a room.
This experiment took place in the real world (IRL, OMG). Subjects took items from a table and concealed them in boxes. They either moved across a room or traveled the same distance but passed through a doorway. Again, subjects were asked to remember objects they carried while moving between spaces and to recall items currently being carried or recently put down.
Result: A replication of the virtual experiment’s results. Subjects forget more when passing through doorways than when they don’t have to pass through them.
Finally, to test if there were environmental factors at work, an experiment was performed that looked at whether information learned in one environment is retrieved better when the retrieval occurs in the same context. Namely, if returning to familiar rooms (having a series of doorways that circle back to the original room) could help the subjects recall what they previously forgot. Once more, subjects were asked to remember objects they carried while moving between spaces and to recall items currently being carried or recently put down.
Result: Didn’t matter if they returned to familiar environments- the subjects were still more likely to forget things if they had to pass through doorways.
So, what is it about doorways that seems to trigger these little bouts of forgetting?
“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,” Radvansky said.
It’s like when you are playing a video game, running from Area 1 into Area 2. When you hit the boundary in Area 1, you have your sword out. The loading screen pops up. When you start out in Area 2, your sword is suddenly sheathed again, even though you never put it away. The mind works like that. You walk out of Room 1 with the memory of what you are going to get in your mind. But there’s a brief little loading screen between Room 1 and Room 2. A moment where certain aspects of the mind reset. And so, when you enter Room 2, sometimes you find you’ve forgotten what you were out to get. Just like in the video game, you have to pull your sword (memory) back out again. It might not take long, but it’s a bit of a hassle.
That “loading screen” moment is your brain doing a quick adjustment to your changing environment. Kind of like hitting the refresh button on your browser (…I should probably stop with the similes, ja?). Certain parts of Room 1 are compartmentalized in your memory as belonging solely to Room 1. These aren’t needed in Room 2 (which is defined as separate by the doorway boundary). But sometimes that compartmentalization is a bit off, and the mighty need for a cup of tea that you had in Room 1 is now solely the province of Room 1 in your mind. When you passed through the doorway, your brain hit refresh and the compartmentalized things from Room 1 were minimized and a window for the compartmentalized things for Room 2 opened. Unfortunately, in Room 2, that cup of tea is deemed unimportant.
I mean, your parched throat is saying otherwise, but it’s taking your memory a moment to catch the glitch in that refresh process. Meanwhile, you’re hovering awkwardly in the kitchen, swearing under your breath and glancing around, hoping something will pry that stupid memory free and-
THERE IT IS. YOU WANT A GODDAMN CUP OF TEA.
The brain is an utterly amazing, fascinating thing… but it’s not without its little hiccups. Like location-updating effects.