Have you ever been in your living room and thought “Man I really want a cookie.” Then you stand up and walk through to the doorway toward your kitchen and think “what did I come in here for…?” Or have you ever been walking out of a class with a hall pass in hand, on your way to talk to the counselor about your schedule and the second you walk through the door you think “why am I in the hall? Why was I leaving class?” Or have you ever been in an office and stood up to bring that coffee mug back to the kitchen and walked out of your office, and suddenly had no idea what you were doing–only to walk back to your office and set the mug back down.
If any of these aforementioned examples ring true to you, rest assured, you are not alone. In the field of Psychology, this phenomenon is known as the “doorway effect” and it was proven in a study by a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame (1). In the study, the participants first were asked to sit in front of a computer screen where they would pick up something (on the screen) then use the arrow keys on the computer to walk to a new destination; while walking the object that they had just picked up was not visible to them. It was determined that the participants who walked through imaginary doors had a much more difficult time remembering what they had picked up then those who walked to the new destination without going through any doors. Yet this study was completed utilizing only participants on computers.
The researchers at Notre Dame decided to see if this effect had any real-world efficacy in a real-world situation. In the second study, the participants were handed objects in real-time that they then placed into shoe boxes before walking to several new destinations. Sometimes they were asked to walk through a door way and sometimes they were asked to simply walk across a room. When they got to their destination they were quizzed on what they had in the box, the participants who walked through doorways had worse memory than those who walked the same distance, but did not walk through any doorways. Finally, the researchers tested another situation: if walking through a doorway and then back into the same surroundings that the participant began had affected their memory, while other participants were asked to walk the same distance in the same surroundings while making sure not to go through any doorways. Once again, the participants who walked through the doorways showed a memory loss greater than those who did not work through any doorways. The study concluded that people are more likely to forget when walking through doorways because the mind can only hold so many memories and, apparently, the part of the brain that deals with memory spontaneously decides that walking through a doorway is a good time to empty out some memories. Because a person’s brain can only hold so many memories it leaves behind the ones it decides are less important. And this is all happening at a subconscious level–which means that most people will not be aware of it, until they realize that they “forgot something.”
The next time you work through a doorway and forget why you entered that room, know that you are not the only one–it happens to everyone from time to time. And the next time you are studying for a test and can’t remember the answer that you knew just a few minutes ago out in the hallway, don’t forget about the “doorway effect”. Every time you forget something while walking through a doorway, remember that forgetting is something that happens to everyone and that your brain is simply doing what it is programmed to do.
You can read the original study here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17470218.2011.571267