The brain is the least understood organ in the human body: Three pounds of tightly organized and highly specialized cells that guide every thought, action, and heartbeat, of your life. It is where we store memories, how we balance our checkbooks, and where we feel emotions. But every so often our brains let us down.
One particularly infuriating, if not life threatening, example of this is the well-documented phenomenon of walking into a room and forgetting why you are there. Why is it that the one organ of our body that can keep us breathing while we are sleeping seems to be unable to remind us of why we stepped into the kitchen?
This is the question that drives Notre Dame scientist Gabriel Radvansky, who has spent close to 20 years trying to find the answer. Last year saw the publication of a breakthrough paper from his research team that shed some light on the problem.
Published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Radvansky used a combination of computer-based and real-world experiments to assess how people’s memories responded to changing environments. The tasks were simple: pick up an object, such as a red cube or a purple disc, from a table and carry it over to another table. The second table would either be in the same room or in another room. In the computer simulated experiment, the fifty-or-so student participants had to traverse a 55-room environment picking up and putting down variously colored and shaped objects, and every so often they were asked what they had just put down.
In a similar experiment, Radvansky used the three rooms of his lab to test the participants’ level of recall as they passed from room to room. In both types of experiments, passing through a door and into a new room resulted in an increased error rate in responding. That is, passing through a door seemed to make people forget what object they had just carried through it.
The underlying brain phenomenon responsible for this is what is known as an “event boundary”. Our brains compartmentalize events and tie them to the environment, or room, in which they occurred. By moving from one room to the next, the brain effectively creates a file containing all the information about the first room, and what you did there, and tucks it away. It then starts to focus on the second room. Thus, remembering what you intended to do upon leaving the first room is a lot harder than if you had simply crossed from one side of the room to the other.
Is there a way to stop this from happening? Not really. You could try mumbling the task to yourself as you move from room to room, or write yourself a note on the back of your hand. Or, as Radvansky once joked, “Doorways are bad. Avoid them at all costs.”
Journal Ref: Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further exploration. Radvansky, G. A., Krawietz, S. A., Tamplin A. K.; Q J Exp Psychol (Hove) DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2011.571267
Katie recently received her Ph.D. in molecular biology at Brown University and is currently working as a freelance science writer, illustrator, and communicator, based in Providence, RI. She has been blogging for two years, both on her own website, KatiePhD.com, and around the science-web.
I came across this article as a gift from a High School buddy who recently made contact. Some 14 or 15 of us seem to get in touch with each other about every 10 years (not the years of a high school reunion so I’m never sure what causes the sudden return of friendly camaraderie). Still, I thought some of you might be interested. Enjoy.