Sorry, I Left My Memory in the Other Room

Ever forget the reason why you walked into a room seconds after you enter, even though you know you are there for a reason? You stand in the doorway wondering, “I know I came in here for something!”

If you answered yes, you may go as far as to rationalize that this is why it happens:  ‘Well, our lives are so overburdened, and that’s why so many of us buzz around like caffeinated cheetahs crossing things our mental checklists. So many things to remember: gym clothes, umbrella, kids’ soccer practice and piano lessons…’

And then it happens — just as you walk into another room to perform one of those super important tasks, you can’t, for the love of God, remember what it was!  It’s annoying … and as it turns out, pretty common. A recent study out in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology validates this kind of forgetfulness and says the trigger may be as benign as passing through a doorway.  Who knew?

The study authors refer to the phenomena as the “location-updating effect,” which suggests there may be a decline in memory when you move from one location to another. The location change doesn’t have to be dramatic; walking into the next room is all it takes.  The study questions whether this memory lapse has to do with a shift in context or whether there is something more to be learned about how we experience certain environments.

The working theory is that when you enter a new room or environment, your brain works to update your understanding of what’s going on around you. As it turns out, this is a lot of work (it’s “effortful”, the authors say) for your buzzing brain.

The study consisted of three experiments in which college students performed memory tasks either while changing their location in a room or while exiting a doorway into another room.  The lead author, University of Notre Dame psychology professor Gabriel Radvansky, found that students forgot more when walking through a doorway than when they just moved across the room.

Radvansky suggests that doorways create a sort of “event boundary” and prevent us from being able to retrieve thoughts and decisions we, ironically, likely left in the previous room.

This isn’t the first study in this area. Previous research has shown that environment can affect memory and that we are better at accessing information we have learned if we try to retrieve it in the same social context.  Guess that means it’s a good thing that most of us work in the same office every day. Otherwise, our jobs might be a lot more taxing on our memories.

The series of experiments within the study, conducted at University of Notre Dame, had participants move through both virtual environments and real ones, suggesting that there may be some validity to this idea.

But even personal experience may point to this forgetting phenomenon.  When this study was sent around the Medical Unit here at ABC News, there was a roar of approval for the theory.

Senior producer Ann Reynolds said, “I get an invitation and I think, ‘Are we busy that night?  I’ll check the calendar.’ I know the calendar is in the kitchen, so I think ‘kitchen’ — and when I get there, I think, ‘What could I possibly have wanted in the kitchen at 10 o’clock at night?’ So I head back to the bedroom, where I see the invitation I was wondering about. … Arrrgh.”

Arrrgh is right.  But at least now, we have the beginnings of understanding why.