The Doorway Effect

Life – Terror. Ecstasy. Fight. Denial. Flight. Failure. PAIN. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Hope. Love. Peace – Death.

Why does walking through doorways make us forget?

Forgetting why you entered a room is called the “Doorway Effect”, and it may reveal as much about the strengths of human memory, as it does the weaknesses.

We’ve all done it. Run upstairs to get your keys, but forget that it is them you’re looking for once you get to the bedroom – or, open the fridge door and reach for the middle shelf only to realise that we can’t remember why we opened the fridge in the first place.

Or wait for a moment to interrupt a friend to find that the burning issue that made us want to interrupt has now vanished from our minds just as we come to speak: “What did I want to say again?” we ask a confused audience, who all think “how should we know?!”

Probably once every couple of weeks (every week)? This happens to me.  We’ve all done it? Walk into a room for something and completely forget what it is. It’s extremely frustrating and can’t make you feel like you’re losing your mind. But a new study has some good news on the forgetfulness front.

This problem seems to be gaining more prevalence the older I become? Age is often linked to the latest modern health pandemic, dementia? At a certain age then we can appreciate those temporary moments of forgetfulness may be more than just an annoyance?

Although these errors can be embarrassing, they are also common. It’s known as the “Doorway Effect”, and it reveals some important features of how our minds are organised. Understanding this might help us appreciate those temporary moments of forgetfulness as more than just an annoyance (although they will still be annoying).

Scientists from Australia’s Bond University have been studying this memory blip referred to as “The Doorway Effect” and they’ve found it has nothing to do with you getting older or experiencing memory loss. The researchers found it only really happens when your brain is working really hard.

As we move through our days our attention shifts between ‘levels’ – Big picture, our goals and ambitions, to plans and strategies, and to the lowest levels, our concrete actions.

When things are going well, often in familiar situations, we keep our attention on what we want and how we do it seems to take care of itself. If you’re a skilled driver then you manage the gears, indicators and wheel automatically, and your attention is probably caught up in the less routine business of navigating the traffic or talking to your passengers.

When things are less routine we have to shift our attention to the details of what we’re doing, taking our minds off the bigger picture for a moment. Hence the pause in conversation as the driver gets to a tricky junction, or the engine starts to make a funny sound.

The way our attention moves up and down the hierarchy of action is what allows us to carry out complex behaviours, stitching together a coherent plan over multiple moments, in multiple places or requiring multiple actions.

The Doorway Effect occurs when our attention moves between levels, and it reflects the reliance of our memories – even memories for what we were about to do – on the environment we’re in.

Imagine that we’re going upstairs to get our keys and forget that it is the keys we came for as soon as we enter the bedroom. Psychologically, what has happened is that the plan (“Keys!”) has been forgotten even in the middle of implementing a necessary part of the strategy (“Go to bedroom!”).

Probably the plan itself is part of a larger plan (“Get ready to leave the house!”), which is part of plans on a wider and wider scale (“Go to work!”, “Keep my job!”, “Be a productive and responsible citizen”, or whatever).

Each scale requires attention at some point.

Somewhere in navigating this complex hierarchy the need for keys popped into mind, and like a circus performer setting plates spinning on poles, your attention focussed on it long enough to construct a plan, but then moved on to the next plate (this time, either walking to the bedroom, or wondering who left their clothes on the stairs again, or what you’re going to do when you get to work or one of a million other things that it takes to build a life).

And sometimes spinning plates fall.

Our memories, even for our goals, are embedded in webs of associations.      That can be the physical environment in which we form them, which is why revisiting our childhood home can bring back a flood of previously forgotten memories, or it can be the mental environment – the set of things we were just thinking about when that thing popped into mind.

The Doorway Effect occurs because we change both the physical and mental environments, moving to a different room and thinking about different things.

That hastily thought up goal, which was probably only one plate among the many we’re trying to spin, gets forgotten when the context changes.

It’s a window into how we manage to coordinate complex actions, matching plans with actions in a way that – most of the time – allows us to put the right bricks in the right place to build the cathedral of our lives.

Sometimes it happens, not only entering a room but also doing something or the other one gets feeling of a loosing attention. Its manageable, and the cognitive switching penalty is the best option.

The Cognitive Switching Penalty is an experience you feel when switching your attention from one subject to another. Your brain takes some time in loading and reloading again the related contexts. Neurologically speaking, multitasking is not that easy. You are not really performing a multi tasks, rather you’re switching your focus from one thing to the other.

To avoid unproductive switching, it’s good to coupled similar tasks together and sort them out based on the set priorities, this way you can facilitate your brain as it requires loading the context into working memory only once.

In the Bond University experiment, participants used VR headsets to move through computer-generated 3D rooms and asked to remember objects from one room to the next. They did well until the researchers added in the additional task of counting backward while they moved around. According to assistant professor Olver Bauumann, this proves that “the doorway effect only occurs if we are cognitively in a vulnerable state

”So there you have it. You’re not crazy. You’ve just got too much crap going on to remember where you put your keys.

Thanks for Reading


Published by Riff

Husband to my inspirational, (long suffering,) wife Gail, father to two, amazing (adult) children, Aubrey & Perri, teacher, former guitarist. When I started this blog I quickly became granda(r) to my beautiful, first grandson Henderson. Grandparenting, something I was relishing but had began to believe I would not get to experience. I now have three incredible grandsons, Henderson, Fennec and just days ago Nate. I Love people. I love my family, my incredible friends, I have love(d) what I do (my Job), I love Music, Glastonbury Festival, Cars, Everton .... I love many things but, most of all, I fucking love life.

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