Doors and the new year
What a relief it was to read about something called “the doorway effect,” where you move from one room to another and then can’t remember what you wanted to do in the other room.
I always thought it was just another variation of the senior moment, where advancing age makes you forget not just what you wanted to say, but what you wanted to do. I have seen this doorway effect even in my young children: they come rushing into the room full of zest and excitement in anticipation of doing something and then announce that they can’t remember what they were so excited about.
It looks like this phenomenon is quite common, enough to have gotten psychologists interested and to get support for research projects. One team from the University of Notre Dame, headed by Gabriel Radvansky, recently published findings from one of their research projects in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. The journal article had a catchy title, “Walking through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Further Explorations,” but the report itself was quite difficult to read, filled with mathematical calculations so common in experimental psychology. But the topic was interesting enough and a number of American newspapers, as well as an online blog of Scientific American, picked up and “translated” the findings for lay readers.
The psychologists conducted three different experiments to try to unravel what was happening. One explanation proposed earlier for this phenomenon was the “context effect”: a change of rooms means a change of context, which can make people forget. Again, I’m sure many readers have had this problem: you meet someone in a restaurant and just can’t remember who that person is. It sometimes turns out that the person is a close relative, yet you are unable to recognize the person because your interactions have been mainly in the context of family reunions held in homes, so a restaurant setting doesn’t have quite the fit your brain needs to recognize the person.
In the case of the doorway effect, the Notre Dame psychologists created three experimental groups of students and had them “moving,” using a computer, from one virtual room to another as well as real-world rooms. To test memories, the researchers made the volunteers play video games involving combinations of colors and shapes.
To test the “context” effect, they had volunteers moving from one virtual room into a new one, and then into another room looking like the one where they came from, supposedly to bring back the original context. The researchers found people still experienced memory loss even when they moved back into an original room or context.
The Notre Dame psychologists propose that what we are seeing here is an “event horizon model.” The movement from one room to another seems to involve a location-updating mechanism, but it isn’t so much the movement from one physical space to another that brings about the forgetting. The doorway becomes an event boundary and as you make the transition, memories of the previous event (and the previous room) are sacrificed in favor of the current event. Unfortunately, your plans for doing something in the new room are actually part of the old room, or the old event, so the memories there might have been erased when you moved rooms.
It does make sense. Psychologists have known, for a number of years now, that our short-term memories are constantly being erased. Bus conductors, for example, will usually remember whether a passenger has paid or not. Others are even more adept, collecting the fare and remembering how much change they owe to particular passengers. But the minute a passenger gets off the bus, memories of that passenger will be erased from the conductor’s memory.
If we are to use parallels from our computers, our brains erase short-term memories to make space in our hard disks. The doorway effect helps to create space for the new room or new event, but results in accidental erasure of older memories that you needed.
I am enjoying the way the Internet has allowed more of these scientific research articles to be posted and disseminated, and how they stimulate discussions. The responses of readers to the Notre Dame research was a mixed bag, many totally off tangent but others are intriguing and insightful. Some readers brought up their own funny and embarrassing experiences of the context effect, one reader, for example, writing about how once he did not recognize his own sister-in-law!
One reader wondered if perhaps it’s not just doorways in the real world that throw us off. What about when we move around the Internet, moving from one webpage to another and forgetting the reason why we went into the Internet in the first place? I can empathize, since I use Internet searches a lot when doing my columns, moving from one web portal (a doorway!) into another and clicking on numerous links to open rooms and smaller rooms and then realizing I am lost, and hey, what was my original topic of interest?
The doorway effect is a product of evolution, a way of protecting us from overloading our brains. Knowing about the doorway effect should make us more conscious about creating little memory-joggers, including something as simple as writing down what we intend to do in the next room.
New Year’s resolutions
I was thinking, too, about the doorway effect and the coming new year. In a way, the event horizon model should apply as well to our transitions from one year into the new one. For starters, we might want to be more modest with our New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions to change for the better are always good, but we have to be sure those resolutions are realistic, and they don’t reflect inflated insecurities and anxieties. For example, do you really need to lose weight, or are you only trying to look like those models on billboards who are probably anorexic? More importantly, are we bound to remember those resolutions when we move into the new year?
December 31 and January 1 do induce a kind of doorway effect and our brains tend to ditch the grandest of plans we had in the old year. Perhaps a healthier approach is not to try to carry too much of our failings from the past year into the new. Think here not just of a small door but a grand portal, full of new links and new exciting horizons.
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