Walking through a doorway affects memory

Ruth Griffiths

Have you noticed how older people often talk about “the hereafter”? We walk into a room and exclaim, “What am I here after?”

We’ve all experienced it: The frustration of entering a room and forgetting what we were going to do or get.

It’s a well-documented psychological effect called the “doorway effect” or “location updating effect”. It’s when a person’s short-term memory goes blank when passing through a doorway or moving from one location to another. Most often the memory loss would not have happened if the person had remained in the same place.

Research from University of Notre Dame suggests that passing through doorways is the cause of these memory lapses.

“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,” says Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky.

“Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.”

In her experiment Radvansky asked college students to perform memory tasks while crossing a room and while exiting a doorway.

In the first experiment, subjects used a virtual environment and moved from one room to another, selecting an object on a table and exchanging it for an object at a different table. They did the same thing while simply moving across a room but not crossing through a doorway.

Radvansky found that the subjects forgot more after walking through a doorway compared to moving the same distance across a room, suggesting that the doorway or “event boundary” impedes their ability to retrieve thoughts or decisions made in a different room.

The second experiment in a real-world setting required subjects to conceal in boxes the objects chosen from the table and move either across a room or travel the same distance and walk through a doorway. The results in the real-world environment replicated those in the virtual world: walking through a doorway diminished subjects’ memories.

The final experiment was designed to test whether doorways actually served as event boundaries or if our ability to remember is linked to the environment in which a decision – in this case, the selection of an object – was created. Previous research has shown that environmental factors affect memory and that information learned in one environment is retrieved better when the retrieval occurs in the same context. Subjects in this leg of the study passed through several doorways, leading back to the room in which they started. The results showed no improvements in memory, suggesting that the act of passing through a doorway serves as a way the mind files away memories.

When I was a child my mother would sometimes enter a room and say she had forgotten what it was she wanted to tell me or what she had come to do in that room. She usually went back to the room where she had come from because, she said, “the idea she had forgotten was hanging in the air,” in that room.

I think Prof. Radvansky would have loved to have had my mother participate in one of her experiments.