Why Did I Come In Here Again?

Going to walk through that doorway? Your thoughts may not make it to the other side. i i

hide captionGoing to walk through that doorway? Your thoughts may not make it to the other side.

|Chris|/Flickr
Going to walk through that doorway? Your thoughts may not make it to the other side.

Going to walk through that doorway? Your thoughts may not make it to the other side.

|Chris|/Flickr

Pretty much every time I go anywhere to get anything at home, I forget what I'm doing. A new study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology shows that this constant room amnesia is not my brain's fault, and it actually seems to have a lot to do with doorways.

The study looks at a concept called the location-updating effect, which suggests that people show poorer memory for objects after a shift from one space to another. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame did a series of experiments — some virtual and some designed to imitate the real world — where volunteers had to remember certain objects that they carried in a box while moving through a series of rooms.

The authors write:

The different rooms are different contexts, and memory may be poorer when the environmental context differs from the original context because there are fewer retrieval cues available.

My solution to this problem usually involves doing some type of weird, hushed chant for the whole journey up the stairs or from the living room to the kitchen. Get the scissors, get the scissors, get the scissors, get the scissors.

This forgetfulness cannot simply be attributed to the new room. It's not just because you saw a picture of your mother hanging on the wall, or because you saw a some dirt on the floor that reminded you that you need to sweep. The actual doors seem to bear the brunt of the blame.

The participants walked through rooms with different wall patterns and one or two rectangular tables, at most. To make the experiments more realistic, some participants had to return to the original location after making a spacial shift, walking through a few doorways. Still, they found "no evidence
that returning to the original room improved performance" on the memory exercise.

Essentially, a shift at an event boundary introduces a need to update one's understanding of the ongoing events, and this updating process is effortful ... This updating process can reduce the availability of information in memory for objects associated with the prior event.

So basically, your mind tries to do a little mini-reboot to process the slightly new environment and that other thing you were trying to remember gets blown to pieces.

Interestingly enough, I rarely forget my tasks when I'm at work going from my desk to the kitchen, for example. And now that I think about it, there are no doors along that route. I wonder if there's a parallel between doors and windows, computer windows that is. Perhaps, that would explain why I so often forget what I'm doing when I'm sitting at my desk, looking at my computer.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: