Study – doorways may cause memory lapses

Have you ever walked into a room and forgot what you were doing? It turns out there may be a psychological reason for this mini-mental breakdown everyone is somewhat familiar with.

Indeed, University of Notre Dame Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky believes the very act of passing through a doorway may cause memory lapses.

“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,” Radvansky explains in the the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.


“Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.”   


Radvansky conducted three experiments in both real and virtual environments where all of his subjects were college students. He had them perform memory-related tasks while they crossed a room and while they exited a doorway.


In the first experiment, the subjects used a virtual environment and moved from one room to another. They choose an object on a table and exchanged it for an object at a different table. They did the same thing while moving across a room but not crossing through a doorway.


Radvansky discovered that the subjects tended to forget more after they walked through a doorway compared to moving the same distance across a room. This suggests the doorway or “event boundary” limits one’s ability to recall thoughts or decisions made in a different room.


The second experiment was set in the real-world and required the subjects to conceal the objects they picked from a table boxes. They then moved across a room (or traveled the same distance) and walked through a doorway. The results for this setting mirrored the results from the virtual world: walking through a doorway indeed limited the subjects’ memories.


The final test was used to determine if doorways actually act as event boundaries, or if an individual’s ability to remember is linked to the environment in which a decision was created. Previous research  indicated that environmental factors affect memory, while information learned in one environment is better recalled when it occurs in the same context.


The subjects of the latter study walked through many doorways which led back to the room where they started. The results showed no improvement in memory – suggesting that the act of passing through a doorway is a way the mind files memories away in the brain.