The Doorway Effect


Story at a glance: 

  1. Walking through doorways does really cause us to forget
  2. Events are processed one at a time and concentrating on something takes up most of our thought processes
  3. Different parts of memory compete with each other

Ever had that moment where you walk into a room to get something only to completely forget why you’re there? You’ve probably done it so many times you might even start wondering if you’ve got a dodgy memory!  Well there’s two pieces of good news, one, you don’t. Your memory is fine! And two, you’re not alone! In fact you’re so not alone that researchers have been studying this memory phenomena and have even coined it, The Doorway Effect.

In a psychology experiment by Dr Radvansky and colleagues from the University of Notre Dame (1), they ran a series of computer tests exploring people’s memories.

They investigated what we call memory lapses, psychologists call this an event-horizon model. One aspect of the event-horizon is the theory that events we experience are processed one at a time. The second aspect is that when we concentrate on something it takes up the majority of your thought process and everything else gets pushed into the background. A little like when you have a window open on your computer. You might have several windows open at the same time, maybe you’re searching a topic on the internet but at the same time typing a word document. You’ve got two windows open but you can only focus on one window at a time. And thirdly they explored the idea that different parts of your memory system compete with each other to retrieve information.

Ok, so how exactly does this work?

You think a thought sitting on the couch in the living room, “I need that pen I saw in the kitchen.”

That thought opens up a window in your brain: The Get A Pen window.

As you get out of your seat to head across the room, another window opens: the part of your brain that registers the location of the furniture you need to navigate, the random items that register in your brain, such as noticing the carpet could do with a vacuum. It’s assessing the location of your couch, the direction you need to head and where the doorway is to leave the room.

All of this gets put into your memory.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.

As soon as you pass out of the first doorway, your living room doorway, and into the second doorway, your kitchen doorway, your memory shifts. All of a sudden you’re interpreting new data, the location of the kitchen bench, the fridge, the stool that’s been pulled out from the breakfast bar. And as your memory starts to fill up with that new information, simultaneously it pushes the old information into the background. That’s right. Essentially all of the old information is relegated to the background. Your window with the pen information has been replaced with the new window about the kitchen.

Researchers believe the physical act of moving through the doorway actually starts the upload of new information.

How do we get around this?

Well there’s no clear research on it, but you could potentially repeat as you are walking from the living room to the kitchen, “Pen, pen, pen, pen.” In the hope that each time you do, the pen window continues to pop up first on your screen. So whilst you might end up sounding a little like you’ve lost your marbles, at least you’ll get your pen!



(1) Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations. Radvansky GA1, Krawietz SA, Tamplin AK. QJ Exp Psychol (Hove) 2011 Aug;64(8):1632-45

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