This Is Why You Forget What You Were Doing When You Go Into A New Room
We’ve all done it; you get up, walk purposefully into another room, then immediately stop and think, ‘Wait, what did I come in here for?’
The sudden blank can be very frustrating, and we might find ourselves trying to retrace our steps or our train of thought in an effort to reach whatever purpose had led us to the room in the first place. You think, ‘Right, I was thinking about how I need to pick up some milk, and how I’m running low on tea bags, but then I came into the bedroom… why?’
At least, that’s how it goes if you’re British.
Because this phenomenon is one that most humans can relate to, scientists have long sought to find an explanation for why it happens, with theories changing over time.
In 2011, a study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame suggested that the apparent memory loss could be attributed to the ‘doorway effect’, in that we forget items of recent significance after crossing a boundary, whether that be a physical boundary like a doorway, or a virtual one like swapping tabs on your internet browser.
However, a follow-up study by Bond University, published in BMC Psychology, found that crossing the ‘doorway’ itself was not as significant as originally thought, and found that the loss of information is instead down to the wider change in context that comes with the doorway, and the amount of information you’re trying to deal with at the time.
In the study, researchers conducted two experiments; two using real-world locations, and two in which participants wore virtual reality headsets and moved through 3D rooms. Participants had to memorise objects on tables within each room before moving them from one table to the next in the same order.
Sometimes the second table was in the same room, and other times participants had to reach it by passing through a door.
While the researchers found that passing through the door had little effect on memory when it came to remembering objects, they found it had greater effect when they asked participants to perform the same task while simultaneously doing a separate counting task.
Study authors Dr Oliver Baumann and Dr Jessica Mcfadyen explained that the addition of the counting task ‘overloaded people’s memory, making it more susceptible to the interference caused by the doorway’.
Per The Independent, they explained:
This finding more closely resembles everyday experience, where we most often forget what we came into a room to do when we are distracted and thinking about something else.
Baumann said that the brain associates different memories with different environments and contexts, saying, ‘If the brain thinks it is in a different context, then those memories belong in a different network of information.’
He continued, ‘Overall that gives us greater capacity than if you have just one gigantic workspace where everything is connected. But there is a cost to that. By transitioning between compartments we can lose things.’
Apparently, the secret to ensuring you don’t forget what you entered a room for is by ensuring we are ‘single-minded in what we want to do’. However, ‘if we have multiple things going on, forgetfulness becomes noticeable’.
While it would be nice to only have one thing to think about at any given moment, for most of us it’s easier said than done. In that case, the best we can hope for is that our reason for entering the room comes back to us in good time.
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CreditsThe Independent and 1 other
Doorways do not always cause forgetting: a multimodal investigation