23 March 2012

Memories and Doorways

Welcome back. I bet you read or heard about it. I missed it. I can’t believe no one brought to my attention. When I saw it described in a recent Berkeley Wellness Letter, I went back and looked.

A memory-stealing doorway.
Sure enough. There, in last November’s Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, was a paper by researchers at Notre Dame. They found that walking through doorways causes forgetting.

That is mind-boggling! You walk into another room to do or get something and forget what it was you had in mind. It’s not you. It’s the doorway!

The Study--Three Experiments

In case you also missed the news, I’ll summarize the study’s three experiments. Each involved a different group of students.

The first experiment was performed on a computer. Students selected an object on a table and exchanged it for an object at a different table. The tables were either in the same room or different rooms. Results: The students forgot more about the object after moving through a doorway than they did after moving across a room.

The second experiment was real world. Students selected an object from a table, concealed it in a box, and carried the box to a table in the same room or a different room. Results: Again, the students forgot more if they moved through a doorway.

The third experiment was similar to the first virtual-world experiment, but it tested whether returning to the starting point would make a difference. On a computer display, students took the object through several doorways, returning it to the original table. Results: Memories didn’t improve.

Analysis of Results

Like the Huffington Post, Daily Mail, Discover Magazine and other reports of the study, I’ll forgo an in depth assessment. Nevertheless, I have questions.

1) Did the students have enough incentive to remember? The students received partial course credit for participating. Did partial credit lead to partial recollection--not enough incentive to carry a thought through a doorway? (Since the researchers are bribing rather than paying students, they could offer a full credit course with some nebulous yet enticing name, such as “Explorations of the Mind” or “Through the Open Door.")

2) How did the researchers account for the really inquisitive students? On entering a new room, real or virtual, wouldn’t the inquisitive students start looking around and get distracted?

3) Would toddlers have done better than students? The objects used in the computer- based experiments were shapes of different colors; the objects used in the real-world experiment were blocks of different shapes and colors. If the objects were anything students cared about--smartphones, debit cards, I-Pads—would the results be different?

Extending the Results

Putting aside my reservations, I am indeed curious if doorways affect the memories of other members of the animal kingdom. I don’t mean real people as opposed to students. I’m wondering about cats. 

Boss the cat, in her prime. You  would 
never know by looking.
I’ve written about the forgetfulness of my wife’s cat, Boss: “Boss is a bit shy and may run away, but will likely come back, having forgotten why she ran away.”  

 In Boss’s latest demonstration, when Vicki entered the house, returning from a long stay in Wisconsin, Boss ran the other way. (I doubt it had anything to do with Wisconsin.) Boss reappeared later acting as if Vicki was never gone.

Compare Boss’s response to that of Henry, our son’s cat. As I’ve reported, Henry is living with us rather than with Noah this year, because Noah hates me. When Noah visits on a college break, the mere sound of his voice is enough to cause Henry’s eyes to widen, heart to flutter and invisible jet pack to fly him to the front door.

Wrap Up

I’m not suggesting that the Notre Dame study be repeated with cats. Nor am I suggesting that students are less than adequate subjects for doorway memory experiments. I’m only saying that…

I’m sorry; I had to go to the bathroom. What was your question?

Thanks for stopping by.


Gabriel A. Radvansky, Sabine A. Krawietz and Andrea K. Tamplin. 2011. Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 64:8:1632–45.

Gabriel A. Radvansky  and David E. Copeland. 2006. Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Situation models and experienced space. Memory & Cognition 34:5:1150-1156.


  1. 23 03 12

    Good thing you didn't walk through a doorway before you sent the blog!


  2. Great post! I love the research. So, the gist is that we should avoid doorways in order to avoid forgetfulness? Quite a fancy photo of Boss. Still wishing last Friday's post on caps/hats had included the photo of Your Lovely Wife.