What was I Looking for Again? Why We Forget Things when We Enter a Room

Why can't you remember what you were looking for?Why can't you remember what you were looking for?How many times have you walked into a room to get something, only to promptly forget what you were looking for once you got there? We chalk it up to aging, adult ADD, or even "Mommy Brain," but it turns out that there's actually a link between walking through a doorway and short-term memory lapses, according to psychologists at the University of Notre Dame.

"Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an 'event boundary' in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away," said Gabriel Radvansky, whose study was published in the
Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. "Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized."

In a series of three experiments, Radvansky had college students move colorful objects from one table to another. Some of them had to take an object from one room, leave it on a table in another room, and then return to the first room with a different object; a control group moved items between tables in a single large room, walking the same distance as the first group but never going through a doorway.

The results were the same in a virtual (online) environment and in real life: People who had to go into a different room to pick up an object were two to three times more likely to forget which object they were supposed to retrieve. The more doorways they had to pass through, the more likely they were to forget what they were looking for -- something Radvansky called a "location-updating effect."

"Specifically, as people parse events, information that was present prior to an event boundary, such as a shift in location, becomes less available after the shift," Radvansky explains in his study. In other words, when you change your location, decisions made in one place don't always carry over to the next.

But returning to your original location won't necessarily jog your memory -- your brain has already filed that first thought away, checking "get glasses" (or whatever) off of your mental to-do list the moment you walked out of the room.

There are tricks you can try in order to boost your memory. Joshua Foer, author of "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" suggests creating a "memory palace" by mentally populating a well-known location (like the house you grew up in) with images of the items you need to remember. It works because "Humans are good at using spatial memory to structure and store information whose order comes less naturally," he writes in his book. When you "walk" through the memory of your old home, you automatically remember the images you put there.

Just be sure to avoid the doorways.




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