Just this morning, I walked into my bedroom with full intention only to halt after entering it, struggling to remember why I was purposefully walking in. Was it to get some money from my wallet? Was it to fetch something from the cupboard? I went over several possibilities, ultimately giving up and just telling myself it wouldn’t have been something that important if I’d forgotten it so soon. Turns out, it was. I realised only much later that I had to get my charging cable hanging by my bedside. I only remembered when my phone promptly died in the middle of an important call.
If you too have wondered whether you’re growing older and hence regularly forgetting why you entered a room, scientists from Australia’s Bond University may have some new answers for you.
The annoying memory blip has been for some years now referred to as “The Doorway Effect” or “location updating effect”, a phenomenon where some people passing through a doorway into another room end up forgetting things. And it’s more common than you’d think. The term was coined after a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, who found that people tend to forget things after passing through a doorway because their brain refreshes since memories from the old room were less likely to be relevant in the new room.
But in a new study published in BMC Psychology journal, scientists have discovered that while the doorway effect is real, it only really happens when your brain is working really hard.
Oliver Baumann—an assistant professor of psychology at Bond University and one of the authors of the study—and his team replicated the earlier studies in order to find out what happens to the brain while in action.
For this, 74 volunteers were asked to move through computer-generated 3D rooms where they had to remember objects from previous rooms while wearing VR headsets. But the researchers did not notice the doorway effect during this phase. “So then we made it more difficult and got them to do backward counting tasks while moving around to load up their working memory,” said Baumann in a press release.
The researchers then noticed that the doorway effect started occurring. Participants were forgetting things, which pointed researchers to the conclusion that overloading the participants’ memory made them more susceptible to the effect of the doorway.
"In other words, the doorway effect only occurs if we are cognitively in a vulnerable state,” Baumann added.
The team observed that the effect was considerably less than in previous studies. "We believe this is because in our experiments the rooms were designed to be visually identical. There was no change of context happening when crossing a doorway, as was the case in the previous studies.” said Baumann.
Baumann believes that unlike what previous studies stated, it is not the doorway but the transition to a different environment that causes people to forget things. “A good example is moving around in a department store,” he said. “Taking the elevator between retail levels may have no effect on our memory, but moving from retail to the carpark might cause us to forget something that we need to buy.”
He further confirmed that the brain compartmentalises information from different environments and stores them in a separate network of information if they belong to a different context. “Overall that gives us greater capacity than if you have just one gigantic workspace where everything is connected,” added Baumann. “But there is a cost to that. By transitioning between compartments we can lose things.”
The curious case of suddenly forgetting is also way more common than you’d think. A recent study by the University of Edinburgh found that men and women in their 20s regularly forget why they entered a room or where they put their keys. Half of the volunteers in the study said they forget why they entered the room at least once a week.
But forgetting, even though frustrating, might not be as bad as you make it out to be. In most cases, our tendency to segment our lives into distinct events is actually advantageous. Our information capacity is limited so we can't remember too much information in one go.
Thus, it's more efficient for us only to retrieve information about the current situation, rather than remembering all the information from everything we've recently experienced.
But if we want to escape the enchantment of the doorway, our best chance is to keep a focused mind. So keep thinking about the dishes when you enter the kitchen next time, so that you don’t end up simply forgetting, grabbing a snack, and walking out to watch yet another episode of that new show.