• Final Mile

Walking through doorways can make you forget

You are sitting at your desk in your room surfing the internet. Suddenly you feel the urge to nibble on something. You get up from your desk, walk out of your room door and head towards the kitchen. By the time you’ve entered the kitchen you’ve forgotten why you stood up in the first place, and you stroll back to your room and get back to your desk feeling a little confused. We have all been through this common and annoying experience of arriving somewhere only to realize that you’ve forgotten why you went there in the first place. Maybe we didn’t pay enough attention, or too much time had passed or it just wasn’t important enough. But a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame propose a completely different idea, that “Walking through doorways causes forgetting.”

Gabriel Ravandsky and his team seated participants in front of a computer screen running a video game. Participants had to walk up to a table, pick up a colored solid object and place it on another table. The object was invisible to them, as if it was in a backpack. The other table could simply be across the room, or on some occasions participants had to walk the same distance but through a door into a new room. From time to time, the researchers gave them a quick 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.  And as the title indicates, walking through doorways caused forgetting: 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 room. For eg.: a Yellow cone would be recollected as a yellow cylinder or a blue cone. This effect was also observed in a real world setting where participants either walked within or inbetween different rooms.

The next task was to prove that this effect wasn’t just caused by ‘encoding specificity’, which states that memory is best when the context during testing matches context during learning. Participants therefore picked up an object, walked through a door, and then walked through a second door which would get them back to the first room. If matching context is what counts, then walking back to the old room should boost recall. It did not.

The doorway effect suggests that there is more to remembering than the time that passed, how hard you tried or how important it is. Radvansky and colleagues suggest we only keep information in hand until required and continually purge this information in favour of new things. One way in which this purging occurs is when we physically walk through a doorway as the environment in the old room is no longer relevant. Some other changes may induce a purge as well, for eg. a friend knocking the door, laptop battery running out, etc.

This doorway effect could have significant interventions in changing behaviour. How often does it happen that we’ve visited a mall and are in two minds whether we should buy a particular product or not. We decide we will get back to it later, and move on to other sections. You come home and realize you never went back to buy that product at all. In fact you simply forgot about it. May be having too many sections or rooms in a mall might not be a good idea. On the other hand  when you want people to forget what they were just doing and get alert to what is happening in the current environment that they are in, doorways could come to good use.

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