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Scientists measure the "doorway effect," and it supports a novel model of human memory
By Charles B. Brenner and Jeffrey M. Zacks | December 13, 2011 |

The French poet Paul Valéry once said, “The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best.” In that spirit, consider a situation many of us will find we know too well: You're sitting at your desk in your office at home. Digging for something under a stack of papers, you find a dirty coffee mug that’s been there so long it’s eligible for carbon dating. Better wash it. You pick up the mug, walk out the door of your office, and head toward the kitchen. By the time you get to the kitchen, though, you've forgotten why you stood up in the first place, and you wander back to your office, feeling a little confused—until you look down and see the cup.

So there's the thing we know best: The common and annoying experience of arriving somewhere only to realize you've forgotten what you went there to do. We all know why such forgetting happens: we didn’t pay enough attention, or too much time passed, or it just wasn’t important enough. But a “completely different” idea comes from a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame. The first part of their paper’s title sums it up: “Walking through doorways causes forgetting.”

Gabriel Radvansky, Sabine Krawietz and Andrea Tamplin seated participants in front of a computer screen running a video game in which they could move around using the arrow keys. In the game, they would walk up to a table with a colored geometric solid sitting on it. Their task was to pick up the object and take it to another table, where they would put the object down and pick up a new one. Whichever object they were currently carrying was invisible to them, as if it were in a virtual backpack.

Sometimes, to get to the next object the participant simply walked across the room. Other times, they had to walk the same distance, but through a door into a new room. From time to time, the researchers gave them a pop quiz, asking which object was currently in their backpack. The quiz was timed so that when they walked through a doorway, they were tested right afterwards. As the title said, walking through doorways caused forgetting: Their responses were both slower and less accurate when they'd walked through a doorway into a new room than when they'd walked the same distance within the same room.

Read the rest here.

The article conludes:

Why would we have a memory system set up to forget things as soon as we finish one thing and move on to another? Because we can’t keep everything ready-to-hand, and most of the time the system functions beautifully. It’s the failures of the system—and data from the lab—that give us a completely new idea of how the system works.

And a commenter notes:

Is it a doorway, or is it passing a distraction? Have the male subjects walk by an attractive woman or some other distraction.

Views: 105

Replies to This Discussion

interesting;to be thought about....

This sooooo happens to me!
Really glad to learn it's a feature, not a bug =) 

This is interesting! Yes, I bet it's a distraction, and not a doorway in itself. This happens to me often without going through any doors.

I assume that it's caused by the fact that when entering a room we at a glance survey the place first and (barring unexpected distraction) then concentrate on a given task. By changing room, we need to re-scope the new location and that this is what sort of resets our attention. 

Yes, I think that is a very good explanation.

It's a good thing emergency rooms are open spaces for the most part.

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