Have you ever walked into a room and suddenly forgotten why?
Research done at the University of Notre Dame, published in
2011 in the Quarterly Journal of
Experimental Psychology showed that memory is often affected when we pass through a
doorway. This is known as the Doorway
The author of this original research, Dr. Gabriel Radvansky
suggests that our brain manages the continuous flow of information by breaking
up experiences into small, more meaningful blocks of information called mental event models.
When we move from one situation to another – or even from one room to another – our brain updates to a new network of information, or a new mental event model that does not include information from the previous one.
So, as we switch gears, we may forget things from the previous event. This can occur whether we leave or enter a room, switch computer tabs, or work to refocus after an interruption.
The good news is that this shows that our brain is working as
it should, adapting to the continuous flow of information and
compartmentalizing properly. Dr. Radvansky suggests that in most cases, the
process is helpful because this shifting of our mind from one event to the
other, and forgetting what happened before is our brain’s way of clearing the slate – making way for new
information. However annoying, it facilitates focus and accuracy by preventing
us from perseverating on thoughts that are not relevant to the current moment.
How you can compensate for the doorway effect
The study suggests there are ways to create a connection
between one mental event model and the next to help you to recall your original
Carry a reminder into the next room: For example, if you want to
hang a picture and you need to get a hammer, take a picture hook with you when
you go to the toolbox. The picture hook in your hand will remind you of what
you need when you get there.
Start again: Returning to the room where the original thought was
established will return you to the previous mental event model. If it doesn;t
come to you immediately, look around the room, or return to the spot where the
thought was initiated. Something in that spot may jog your memory and help you
retrieve the information. Even simply thinking about where you were when you
first thought about it can be effective as well.
A few more tips to add
When it comes to attention and memory, there are two golden rules that will always serve you well.
Single tasking (by avoiding multitasking): Focus on one single task
makes you more likely to stay focused and see it through to the end with high
quality results without forgetting anything important, even with minor
Performing tasks mindfully: If you’re watching a movie and want
a snack, but you forget why you’ve walked into the kitchen, you may need to be
more mindful. Next time, as you walk into the kitchen, say aloud, “I’m going into the kitchen for a snack.”
(Do this even if you’re alone – no one will hear you anyway.) The act of saying
that phrase aloud as you’re walking to the kitchen will connect the memory of
your objective from one mental event model (from the TV room) to the next one
(to the kitchen).
The ability to create separate networks and compartmentalize
is just one aspect of normal function that makes our brain so spectacular. The
ability to rapidly determine what’s relevant and what’s not is the key to peak
performance as the brain simply cannot remember everything all at once.