In A Nutshell
It’s called the doorway effect, and it’s what happens when you walk into a room and completely forget why you’re there in the first place. Work from a handful of different researchers has been pieced together to help explain what’s going on. It’s likely that the parts of our brain that we rely on to process navigational and spatial information are regularly wiped of information when it’s no longer relevant. Walking through a door is a good indication that our environment is now different, and old information gets dumped in favor of new surroundings.
The Whole Bushel
We’ve all been there. We’ve all walked into a room and completely forgotten why we’re there. We’ve probably all wondered, too, if it was a sign of old age sneaking up on us. Thankfully, it isn’t (necessarily). There’s a scientific explanation for forgetting why we’ve gone into a certain room, and it’s actually stranger than old age.
It’s called the doorway effect, and it seems to be quite real. To really explain what it is and how it works, we have to back up a bit to work done by researchers from University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
They were looking into how our brains process information about where we are in the world and what’s around us. That includes everything from navigating your morning commute to recognizing your own desk in a row of a dozen desks.
It all comes down to specific cells in the bran called grid cells and pyramidal place cells. When the neurons in our brain fire, they create very specific patterns based on what’s around us. That’s translated into what the researchers described as a sort of internal GPS system, which allows us to not only keep track of where we are at the moment, but likely play a part in letting us figure out how to navigate from A to B.
For some reason, walking through a doorway interrupts the brain’s ability to do what it does best.
Navigational memory is an odd sort of memory. It’s thought that in order to keep processing, the information that’s stored in these systems wipes itself every once in a while. (Have you ever gotten home from work with little to no memory of what happened on your uneventful commute?) Old information leaves, and new information about our current environment replaces it.
Researchers from Notre Dame looked at just what kind of impact doors had, and they think that it’s likely our brains use doorways as a sort of cue that it’s a good time to wipe memory because we’re entering into a new environment.
Weirdly, it’s not just real-life doorways, either. The team from Notre Dame ran some studies on the memory skills of people who were running through a video game setting. They were tasked with picking up an object from a table, then going into another room and putting it down on another table. The object became invisible after being picked up. As soon as people stepped through the virtual door, they were much less likely to remember what it was they were holding than if they went from table to table with no doorway in between.
Going back into the original rooms doesn’t usually help people remember, until they see something that refreshes the situation, getting rid of the theory that it’s a contextual thing.
Walking though a doorway seems to quite literally cause us to glitch—along with other interruptions like a phone ringing or someone interrupting our thoughts. A system that’s likely built to help us streamline our thinking has a design flaw: the door.
Show Me The Proof
Scientific American: Why Walking through a Doorway Makes You Forget
Genetic Literacy Project: Our GPS brain: What is the ‘doorway effect’ and how do we orient ourselves