If you sometimes forget why you went into a room—was it to make a phone call, look something up on the Internet, take something out of the fridge?—you’re not alone. It happens to the best of us, old and young alike.
A study from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, published recently in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, offers an explanation for such memory lapses. The conclusion, in short: the doorway is to blame.
In a series of experiments, college students moved through both real and computer-generated virtual rooms, after examining objects that were then concealed from them. The students had more trouble recalling what the objects looked like after they had passed through a doorway into a new room than they did when they traveled an equal distance in the same room.
According to lead researcher Gabriel Radvansky, Ph.D., a professor at Notre Dame, memory for recently experienced information is affected by the structure of the environment. Doorways, in particular, serve as a prominent “event boundary” that compartmentalizes memories, thus making you lose your train of thought as you walk between rooms. Most other things in your environment are more subtle and don’t have as big an impact on subsequent information processing.
Keep in mind, forgetting is not necessarily a bad thing, says Dr. Radvansky.
“Sure, it’s bad when you want to remember and you forget. But the reason we don’t hold onto things when we go from one event to another is that those things are often no longer relevant. This kind of forgetting helps us switch gears from one situation to another.”
Still, if you’re intent on remembering why you are going into the bedroom or kitchen, say, try mentally repeating your intentions to yourself as you cross the threshold.