What Is the Doorway Effect?

Have you ever walked into another room to get something, only to immediately realize you’ve forgotten why you went in? Or perhaps you don’t even realize – you just walk around for a bit, speak to the person in that room, then leave only to realize you don’t have what you went in for!

It’s not just rooms either. Many of us will do this when we go shopping – we’ll enter a particular shop, only to realize that we’re not sure why we’re there or what we want to buy.

You might be worried that this is a sign of age catching up with but actually, it’s a perfectly normal occurrence and even has a name in psychology. It’s called ‘the doorway effect’ and there’s a perfectly good explanation for why it occurs.

What Causes the Doorway Effect?

The doorway effect doesn’t only affect doorways but rather any kind of threshold or change of scenario. And this phenomenon is based on another psychological concept known as ‘context-dependent memory’.

This in turn describes the fact that we actually encode many of our memories in a way that is context dependent. That is to say, that when we memorize something, we then require the context in order to retrieve that memory.

This can be sued to our advantage when learning as well. For instance, it means that the best place to revise for an exam is actually the room that you will be taking the exam in. That way, many of the context-dependent memories will be triggered when you enter the exam hall, thereby helping to improve your score!

This is also closely related to other concepts such as ‘state-dependent learning’ and ‘mood-congruent learning’. In other words, the more closely you can recreate the scenario that you learned in, the easier it will be to retrieve those relevant memories – right down to your mood and any other seemingly inconsequential factors! Context-dependent memory has been demonstrated in numerous studies (1) and there is a very clear potential neurological explanation.

After all, memories are formed by linking neurons to other neurons in our connectome. In order to retrieve those memories, we then need to follow the network of neurons along to find related topics. This is why remembering a person might bring to mind all kinds of other relevant memories – such as activities enjoyed together, facts about that person etc.

A Fly in the Ointment

This theory, while likely accurate, does not go the whole way to explaining the doorway effect however. One study conducted in VR calls this theory into question.

Here, participants would walk through a doorway, only to enter a room that looked the exact same as the previous room. However, they would still demonstrate signs of the doorway effect (2). That means that the context remained the exact same but they still forgot. And this in turn suggests that the doorway itself must be having some kind of effect. The consensus is that walking through a doorway signals to the brain some kind of ‘context shift’. Even though the next room is the same, the brain appears to go through some kind of small ‘reset’ to remove information that is likely to no longer be relevant. Radvansky and colleagues who conducted the experiment suggested that this mode of memory be referred to as the ‘event model’.

One More Factor

And before we close, there is one more consideration to keep in mind – which is that walking into a different room can simply create a distraction. If you walk into another room, then chances are that there will be new things to see, people to talk to and things to consider. This might directly distract you from whatever is on your mind and thereby provide just one more reason for you to forget what you came in for.

Anyway. What was it you were supposed to be doing before you found this article again?

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