Have you ever entered a room and realized you have no idea what you are doing there? It goes like this – while watching TV or doing some work on the computer, you feel like getting a drink or some snacks. However, after you walk into the kitchen, you find yourself wondering why you went there in the first place. It happens all too often, and most of us have experienced it at least once. Now, scientists may have finally cracked the mystery. They call it the “Doorway Effect,” and it essentially describes a phenomenon where walking through doorways and into a new room produces a temporary memory loss.
It is natural to be a bit baffled when you forget something you thought of merely seconds ago. However, when the Doorway Effect takes place, most of us shrug it off, thinking we are too preoccupied with other more important aspects of our lives to remember the small stuff. While that may seem like a logical explanation, it is not completely accurate. Our momentary forgetfulness may tell us more about the critical features of our mind and how they are organized than we may realize.
To better understand these different features of the mind, we need to reflect on a simple story. Here, a woman meets three builders while they are on lunch break. Out of politeness, she asks them about their day and what they are doing. The first guy says “I’m stacking bricks on top of bricks by covering each layer with sod.” When asked the same question, the second guy replies with “I am building a wall.” Finally, the third guy responds with “I’m constructing a cathedral.”
Most people think that the moral of this story is that we should always look at the big picture. However, psychologists say that the key takeaway here is that we need to think about the several stages of a project or action to successfully complete it. The third builder’s viewpoint may be inspiring, but he would never get there without putting one brick on top of another as the first builder described.
In our everyday lives, we perform various tasks, and our attention keeps shifting from the big picture that is comprised of our ambitions and goals, then the granular strategies and plans, and finally, the fundamentals which are the concrete actions. In comfortable and familiar situations, we focus our attention on the end objective and the rest seems to go smoothly. We pause and take notice of what we are doing only when facing a surprising or unfamiliar turn of events.
For example, a seasoned driver can change gears, check indicators, and manage the wheel while talking to the other passengers in the car. He is not thinking about every little action until he is met with an unfamiliar situation which demands his attention at a more granular level. For example, reaching a tricky junction where he has to stop talking and focus on driving and maneuvering.
Psychologists believe that this way of assigning importance and attention helps us to perform complex tasks and behaviors in our day-to-day lives. Therefore, the Doorway Effect is triggered when our mind switches our attention from one level to another.
In the early days of brain studies, researchers believed that the human memory is comprised of numerous sections, where experiences are neatly stowed away forever so that they can be accessed as and when we want. However, in recent years, we have discovered just how complicated and sophisticated the brain is, and how it is capable of changing throughout our lives.
New findings suggest that our memories are far from being clear or linear. Instead, they are episodic and split into segments. Moreover, memory formation also varies from person to person. For example, your memory of a particular incident is likely to be different from someone else’s memory of the same incident.
A team of researchers, headed by Gabriel Radvansky of the University of Notre Dame, conducted a series of studies that observed how the Doorway Effect occurs. The first study made use of the virtual world of a video game. In the game, there were 55 rooms both big and small. The small rooms had one table and the large rooms had two tables on either side. There would also be a colored geometric object on top of each table.
The participants were told to move inside the rooms using arrow keys on a keyboard, pick up an object from one table and move it to the next table, where they would find a new object to pick up and move. After picking up, the object would become invisible to the player/participant. Sometimes, the participants would have to walk across a room to place the object on the next table. Other times, they would have to walk the same distance, but through a doorway and into a different room.
The game generated pop quizzes every time the player went through a doorway to test their memory. Surely enough, the study revealed how passing through doorways weakened the player’s memories and made them forget. The second phase of the study followed the same design and principle but in real life. Surprisingly enough, participants produced the same results even in the real-world environment.
The Doorway Effect tells us that our ability to remember things does not simply rely on what happened, where/when it happened, or how hard we tried. Instead, some of our memories are more readily available, but they also have a short shelf-life. This temporary memory expires so that new information can be absorbed. The study revealed that going through doorways and changing the surrounding environment triggers the expiration of short-term memory.
So, the next time you experience the Doorway Effect, you can rest assured that it is supposed to happen!