A Doorway From Your Mind

We all know what it’s like to walk into a room and once there, have no idea why we entered in the first place. We feel that we waste a lot of time trying to remember and lamenting the effects of ageing.

Gabriel A. Radvanskya, Sabine A. Krawietza & Andrea K. Tamplina  examine this phenomenon in a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology titled Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations.

Christian Jarrett at the BPS Research Digest discusses the paper.

It isn't as straightforward as this.

Dozens of participants used computer keys to navigate through a virtual reality environment presented on a TV screen. The virtual world contained 55 rooms, some large, some small. Small rooms contained one table; large rooms contained two at each end. When participants first encountered a table, there was an object on it that they picked up (once carried, objects could no longer be seen). At the next table, they deposited the object they were carrying at one end and picked up a new object at the other. And on the participants http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/computer-memory-pyramid.gifwent. Frequent tests of memory came either on entering a new room through an open doorway, or after crossing halfway through a large room. An object was named on-screen and the participants had to recall if it was either the object they were currently carrying or the one they’d just set down.

What they found was that even in a virtual reality, walking through a doorway resulted in poorer recall than moving the same distance within the virtual room. They then moved the experiment into meat space.

In a second study, Radvansky and his collaborators created a real-life network of rooms with tables and objects. Participants passed through this real environment picking up and depositing objects as they went, and again their memory was tested occasionally for what they were carrying (hidden from view in a box) or had most recently deposited. The effect of doorways was replicated. Participants were more likely to make memory errors after they’d passed through a doorway than after they’d travelled the same distance in a single room.

The next question asked was about context memory. Are we more likely to remember things if we place ourselves in the same context as when the memory was recorded.

Radvansky and his team tested this possibility with a virtual reality study in which memory was probed after passing through a doorway into a second room, passing through two doorways into a third unfamiliar room, or through two doorways back to the original room – the one where they’d first encountered the relevant objects. Performance was no better when back in the original room compared with being tested in the second room, thus undermining the idea that this is all about context effects on memory. Performance was worst of all when in the third, unfamiliar room, supporting the account based on new memory episodes being created on entering each new area.

These concepts reinforce research conducted by Youssef Ezzyat and Lila Davachi

They had 23 participants read six narratives containing dozens of sentences about a protagonist performing everyday activities. Each sentence was displayed one at a time on a screen. Crucially, a minority of sentences began: ‘A while later …’, thereby conveying a temporal boundary in the narrative; the end of one episode and start of another. For comparison, a small number of control sentences began: ‘A moment later …’, indicating that the ensuing sentence was part of the same episode, not a new one.

After a ten minute break, the participants were given a surprise memory test. Presented with one sentence from the earlier narratives, their task was to recall the sentence that had followed. The key finding here was that the participants were poorer at recalling a sentence that came after a temporal boundary. It’s as if information within an episode was somehow bound together, whereas a memory divide was placed between information spanning two episodes.

This suggests that moving through a doorway has spatial effect similar to a temporal break in memory forming.

Of course, this does get worse as we age. This is due to such things as white matter loss, a loss of deactivation in medial parietal regions, and changes in filtering mechanisms.

So now you know. But you’ll likely forget when you walk into the next room.

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