Ever walked through a door only to forget why you walked through there in the first place? It happens to everyone, and to some people -including me- it happens a frustratingly large amount. But why is it that when we walk out of the study to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, we forget the delicious beverage we came in there for? Let’s take a moment and explore the science behind this quizzical phenomenon.
Believe it or not, it has a name. It’s known as the Doorway Effect. Psychologist Dr. Radvansky and his colleagues at the University of Indianapolis are studying this effect in an attempt to try and understand it. To do this, they recruited guinea pigs -not furry rodents in this case, rather brave humans- to conduct tests on.
First, they used a computer program where people can “pick up” virtual shapes on screen and move them from one table to another table. In some instances the table was in the same room, and in others they needed to enter a new room to reach the table. All test subjects had to travel the same distance in either case, and the object was placed in an ‘invisible backpack’, meaning the participants couldn’t see the shapes as they transported them. At random times during the activity the researchers would quiz the participants about the object they were carrying (asking about its shape and colour). They found that after subjects had walked through the doorway they consistently took longer to answer and got the answer wrong more often.
The second experiment was the same, only conducted in real life, where participants placed the selected objects in a shoe box and were quizzed in the same manner. These tests also provided the same outcome. From these results, the researchers proposed that it was either the doorway itself or the transition to being in a new room that caused memory loss.
This is what brought them to experiment three. This was almost the same as experiment 2, only the participants sometimes walked out, and then back into the same room. If the memory loss was due to being out of the room, coming back into it should reverse the effect. However in the actual tests, it did not. This suggests that the memory loss is due to simply walking through the door in the first place.
This brings us to the question, why would the best computer in the world -our brain- be fooled by a simple doorway? It all has to do with the fact that the world is a very dangerous place, and our brain can only access so many things at once. Whether we realise it or not, part of our brain is constantly looking for dangers and storing information about our surroundings. As a result, when we walk into a new room our brain “dumps” the information from the previous room and instead looks for new dangers.
Unfortunately, this also means we have a tendency to dump the rest of the stuff we were thinking about as well, including that delicious cup of tea you were so looking forward to. So next time you walk into a room only to stand lost and confused, it not an early onset of dementia, it’s just your brain making sure you don’t die.
Thank you brain, we love you brain.
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