Do what? This is why you keep forgetting what you wanted to do when you enter a new room

April 20, 2021

Scientists have long sought to explain why it is that we sometimes enter a room to do something important—but forget the task as soon as we get there.

In 2011, researchers at the University of Notre Dame posited that the phenomenon was caused to the “doorway effect”—suggesting that we tend to forget items of recent significance after crossing a boundary. The boundary may be physical like a door, or it could be a virtual one like switching between tabs on an Internet browser.

But now a follow-up study by Bond University in Queensland, Australia, has found that the effect of “doorways,” alone, on forgetfulness is not as significant as earlier studies claimed; thereby providing a new perspective on the phenomenon. The Independent (UK) reports.

The scientists found that it was not just the door, itself, or even the act of walking through it, but rather the change in context that caused the brain to drop the information that it considered irrelevant.

The research team conducted four studies—two, using real-world locations; and two, in which participants wore virtual reality headsets and moved through various rooms in a 3D environment.

The participants were tasked with memorizing objects (a yellow cross, a blue cone, and so on) on tables within each room; and then, with moving the objects from one table to the next in the same order. Crucially, sometimes the next table was in the same room—and at other times people had to move to another room by passing through an automatic sliding door.

The researchers found the change had no effect on memory and that people rarely forgot objects, regardless of whether they went through a doorway or not.

But, when the researchers made the memory test harder—by asking the participants to perform the same task while simultaneously doing a separate counting task—the findings of the doorway effect were prominent.

“Essentially, the counting task overloaded people’s memory, making it more susceptible to the interference caused by the doorway,” Dr. Oliver Bauman and Dr. Jessica Mcfadyen, the authors of the study, told The Independent..

“This finding more closely resembles everyday experience, where we most often forget what we came into a room to do when we are distracted and thinking about something else,” they said.

Explaining the phenomenon, Dr Baumann said the brain compartmentalizes memories from different environments and contexts.

“If the brain thinks it is in a different context, then those memories belong in a different network of information. Overall that gives us greater capacity than if you have just one gigantic workspace where everything is connected,” he explained.

“But there is a cost to that. By transitioning between compartments we can lose things.”

Dr. Baumann said the Bond study also suggested it was possible to “immunize” yourself against forgetting.

“If we are single-minded in what we want to do, nothing will stop us from remembering. But if we have multiple things going on, forgetfulness becomes noticeable.”

Research contact: @Independent

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