Those Goddamn Doors

Posted on April 3, 2013



If you have never experienced walking into a room and forgetting what you came there for, please stop reading immediately and go stand in a corner with all the other people this writer has no interest in communicating with.

The rest of you, listen up: Science, taking a short break from predicting tsunamis, erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, sliding hillsides, snow fields, glaciers, burning trees, meteor mayhem, killer viruses, and the Holocene Extinction Event, has finally done something helpful. They have given us something other than ourselves to point to for our memory lapses.

Blame it on the doors (but not on The Doors. If your brain has been fried due to ingesting too many hallucinogenics while repeatedly listening to “Light My Fire” in some seedy student-infested lodging, we can’t help you here)

Psychologists at the University of Notre Dame have discovered that passing through a doorway triggers what’s known as an “Event Boundary” in the mind, separating one set of thoughts and memories from the next. Your brain files away the thoughts you had in the previous room and prepares a blank slate for the new locale.

That means that by the time you’re staring blankly at the kitchen counter, your brain has already moved on from the thought that led you in there, and you can’t always effectively backtrack. “Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized,” chief researcher Gabriel Radvansky said. “Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.”

The best part about this research is that it seems to pertain to people of all ages. So young people, those folks who remind us on a daily basis of all the terrible things we did to our own parents, are just as vulnerable to this as we are.

Radvansky conducted three experiments in both real and virtual environments, observing college students as they performed memory tasks while crossing a room and while exiting a doorway.

In one experiment, Radvansky found that the subjects forgot more after walking through a doorway compared to moving the same distance across a room. This can be explained by suggesting the doorway or “event boundary” hinders an individual’s ability to retrieve thoughts or decisions made in a different room.

The second experiment in a real-world setting required subjects to conceal in boxes the objects chosen from the table and move either across a room or travel the same distance and walk through a doorway. The results in the real-world environment replicated those in the virtual world: Walking through a doorway diminished subjects’ memories.

The final experiment was designed to test whether doorways actually served as event boundaries or if one’s ability to remember is linked to the environment in which a decision – in this case, the selection of an object – was created. Accordingly, subjects in this leg of the study passed through several doorways, leading back to the room in which they started. However, despite going back to the room in which the subject selected the object, memory was not improved.

The most dangerous doorway of all is one which connects the kitchen to any other room of the house. Passing into the kitchen will not only make one forgot what one’s intended task was, but it presents one with a delightful number of new opportunities for action in the refrigerator, the freezer, and the pantry. If one’s kitchen is located in the middle of the house, and one has to pass through it to get to the bathroom, as this writer can attest, it will take many hours to finally extricate oneself. Then, one will not only have forgotten what the task was, but also why his or her pants are wet.

Unfortunately, Radvansky and other scientists were unable to come up with a remedy (other than spending one’s life in a geodesic dome or a studio apartment). The best they could suggest would be to repeat your intended task to yourself as you walk through the doorway. Just make sure the refrigerator isn’t in sight, or even that won’t work. And wear Depends.


Posted in: aging, memory loss