Experts explain why, when walking into a room, we forget what we were looking for

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  • Walking into a room and forgetting what you're doing there is known as the doorway effect
  • Previous studies attributed this 'memory wipe' to passing through a doorway or boundary
  • A new study provides greater insight into why this happens

Most of us have been there: you walk into a room with the purpose of doing something, and once you get there, you've forgotten what you wanted to do. 

This phenomenon was previously described as the 'doorway effect', as previous studies attributed the forgetfulness to the act of passing through the door or crossing a boundary. 

A recent study aimed to replicate this effect virtually and physically, and found that the doorway effect is real, but only under certain conditions. 

Virtual reality rooms

Researchers from the University of Queensland and Bond University in Australia conducted a series of experiments where participants were instructed to move through 3D generated rooms while trying to remember items from previous rooms. 

“At first we couldn't find the doorway effect at all, so we thought maybe the people were too good – they were remembering everything,” said co-author, Oliver Baumann.

“So then we made it more difficult and got them to do backward counting tasks while moving around to load up their working memory.

“Forgetting did now occur, telling us that overloading the participants' memory made them more susceptible to the effect of the doorway. In other words, the doorway effect only occurs if we are cognitively in a vulnerable state.”

Follow-up experiments

Baumann and colleagues also conducted follow-up experiments, where participants had to either walk down a corridor (with or without curtain boundaries) while completing memory tasks, or watch a video of a person navigating through the same corridor. The researchers explained that the set-up of the curtain boundaries resembled that of the previous study demonstrating the doorway effect.

However, the team found no evidence of the doorway effect in these experiments.

The researchers noted that it was not necessarily the doorway itself causing memory erasure, but rather moving from one location to a significantly different one. Participants were also less forgetful compared to previous studies, because, in the present study, rooms were virtually similar. 

Baumann explained: “A good example is moving around in a department store. Taking the elevator between retail levels may have no effect on our memory, but moving from retail to the parking area might cause us to forget something that we need to buy.”

Baumann said that the study suggests that when our working memory is overloaded – by multitasking, for example – it is easier for our memory to be wiped by doorways or even abstract things.

In order to avoid this from happening, the team suggests keeping the current task you are busy with at the front of your mind until you have completed it. 

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