The Doorway Effect

This will probably be a familiar scenario to you; you stride confidently into a room full of firm purpose then stop short and wonder why it was that you came into the room in the first place. Is this the first sign of dementia? Are your faculties waning? Are you suffering from alcohol excess or caffeine deprivation? No, you have merely succumbed to the normal, but powerful, psychological influence of a doorway.

This doorway effect was revealed in a series of experiments done at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana where subjects were given memory tasks to do while they just crossed a room and then also having gone through a doorway.

In the first experiment subjects moved from one virtual room to another, picking up objects on a table and exchanging them for objects on another table and repeating the task in the new room. They then carried out the same task, walking the same distance, but without going through a doorway.

The subjects forgot more after they went through a doorway than when they just walked the same distance across a room.

The second experiment was in the real world, not on a computer screen. The participants had to pick objects from a table and hide them in boxes and move either across a room, or go through a doorway into another room. As in experiment one, they walked the same distance in both cases whether across the room or through the doorway. They then had to remember where they had hidden the objects.

The results of the second experiment in the real world were the same as for the first experiment in the virtual world: walking through doorways appeared to impair memory.

In the third and final experiment, the researchers tested whether, if the participants were in the same environment as where they created the memory, even if they passed through several doorways, this would not impair memory. There is a theory that if you can put subjects in the same environmental context as when they did their learning, they retrieve the memories underpinning that learning better.

Alas, this did not happen: the participants were asked to select an object in one room, then they walked through several doorways, eventually ending up back in the same room where they started. The results showed no improvements in memory.

It seems that the act of passing through doorways serves as a prompt for the mind to file away memories. The doorway acts as an “event boundary” impeding ability to retrieve thoughts or decisions made in a different room. So next time you are found standing listlessly in a co-worker’s office trying to remember why you are there, just reassure them that you have merely crossed an event boundary and that it is the doorway’s fault.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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