Why you forget what you came for when you enter the room

Forgetting why you entered a room is called the “Doorway Effect”, and it may reveal as much about the strengths of human memory, as it does the weaknesses, says psychologist Tom Stafford.

We’ve all done it. Run upstairs to get your keys, but forget that it is them you’re looking for once you get to the bedroom. Open the fridge door and reach for the middle shelf only to realise that we can’t remember why we opened the fridge in the first place. Or wait for a moment to interrupt a friend to find that the burning issue that made us want to interrupt has now vanished from our minds just as we come to speak: “What did I want to say again?” we ask a confused audience, who all think “how should we know?!”

Although these errors can be embarrassing, they are also common. It’s known as the “Doorway Effect”, and it reveals some important features of how our minds are organised. Understanding this might help us appreciate those temporary moments of forgetfulness as more than just an annoyance (although they will still be annoying).

These features of our minds are perhaps best illustrated by a story about a woman who meets three builders on their lunch break. “What are you doing today?” she asks the first. “I’m putting brick after sodding brick on top of another,” sighs the first. “What are you doing today?” she asks the second. “I’m building a wall,” is the simple reply. But the third builder swells with pride when asked, and replies: “I’m building a cathedral!”

Maybe you heard that story as encouragement to think of the big picture, but to the psychologist in you the important moral is that any action has to be thought of at multiple levels if you are going to carry it out successfully. The third builder might have the most inspiring view of their day-job, but nobody can build a cathedral without figuring out how to successfully put one brick on top of another like the first builder.

As we move through our days our attention shifts between these levels – from our goals and ambitions, to plans and strategies, and to the lowest levels, our concrete actions. When things are going well, often in familiar situations, we keep our attention on what we want and how we do it seems to take care of itself. If you’re a skilled driver then you manage the gears, indicators and wheel automatically, and your attention is probably caught up in the less routine business of navigating the traffic or talking to your passengers. When things are less routine we have to shift our attention to the details of what we’re doing, taking our minds off the bigger picture for a moment. Hence the pause in conversation as the driver gets to a tricky junction, or the engine starts to make a funny sound.

The way our attention moves up and down the hierarchy of action is what allows us to carry out complex behaviours, stitching together a coherent plan over multiple moments, in multiple places or requiring multiple actions.

The Doorway Effect occurs when our attention moves between levels, and it reflects the reliance of our memories – even memories for what we were about to do – on the environment we’re in.

Imagine that we’re going upstairs to get our keys and forget that it is the keys we came for as soon as we enter the bedroom. Psychologically, what has happened is that the plan (“Keys!”) has been forgotten even in the middle of implementing a necessary part of the strategy (“Go to bedroom!”). Probably the plan itself is part of a larger plan (“Get ready to leave the house!”), which is part of plans on a wider and wider scale (“Go to work!”, “Keep my job!”, “Be a productive and responsible citizen”, or whatever). Each scale requires attention at some point. Somewhere in navigating this complex hierarchy the need for keys popped into mind, and like a circus performer setting plates spinning on poles, your attention focussed on it long enough to construct a plan, but then moved on to the next plate (this time, either walking to the bedroom, or wondering who left their clothes on the stairs again, or what you’re going to do when you get to work or one of a million other things that it takes to build a life).

And sometimes spinning plates fall. Our memories, even for our goals, are embedded in webs of associations. That can be the physical environment in which we form them, which is why revisiting our childhood home can bring back a flood of previously forgotten memories, or it can be the mental environment – the set of things we were just thinking about when that thing popped into mind.

The Doorway Effect occurs because we change both the physical and mental environments, moving to a different room and thinking about different things. That hastily thought up goal, which was probably only one plate among the many we’re trying to spin, gets forgotten when the context changes.

It’s a window into how we manage to coordinate complex actions, matching plans with actions in a way that – most of the time – allows us to put the right bricks in the right place to build the cathedral of our lives.

This is my BBC Future column from Tuesday. The original is here

13 thoughts on “Why you forget what you came for when you enter the room”

    1. You have changed your environment not only geographically but temporally (in your memory) and thus the “plates” as explained here. You have returned to the micro level where you initially made your decision to go/do whatever your quest was.

    2. all memories carry some trace of the context in which they are encoded. If you reinstate this context, by going back to the original room, it makes the memory of what you were thinking about more likely to be reinstated.

    1. easy – the same process, but instead of realising that you have lost track of your subgoal, you fail to realise and out of habit just carry out an appropriate subgoal for the circumstance, but one which is inappropriate for the actual task you are carrying out

      These are called “action slips” if you want to google it

  1. Of course the Doorway effect doesn’t apply when you pass under your kitchen doorway and feel a distinct pins and needle tingling effect over and inside your head that is so strong it pushes the blood down so that before you can make it to the hallway elevator you have just enough time to lower your head and pass out. That’s called the “fainting” effect. You wake up inside the apartment again not knowing how you got there. You go outside and see a pool of blood where you stood and feel a gash on the side of the head. Only happened once thank goodness. Your neighbor very casually tells you months later that he dragged you back into the apartment. Nothing wrong here move on.

  2. That “hierarchy” of actions (this should really be continuous, rather than randomly discretized into plans, goals and actions*) doesn’t explain the phenomenon at all, it merely makes the situation more complicated without explaining any data. The scenario is that I remember something now (“get key”) and act on it, but a little later I don’t anymore. Whether I stay at the level of concrete actions and somehow wound up not remembering the next action given what I’ve just done (“grab key | run upstairs”) or switched to thinking about the higher level plan (“grab key | go to work”) doesn’t explain why that happens sometimes and at other times it doesn’t (i.e. how do jumps in the hierarchy come about).

    A more useful explanation is simple (context) learning. If I see the key not being in the bowl I always keep it in, I might go upstairs to get it. But that highly informative thing in my environment (the empty bowl, that at least now I’ve just learned is predictive of having to get the key) isn’t there anymore, so chances are increased that I won’t remember what to do next. The study reported on BPS also mentions this, but their control condition to rule this out is, of course, insufficient, as whatever happens in between being in the room and re-entering it will result in further (un)learning (“interference”).

    * even if it were – how is thinking and planning not itself a concrete action? hierarchies like this are just bound to cause more problems than they solve, especially since this one doesn’t solve any, however intuitive and obvious the differences between whatever we use those words for appear

    1. You may be right

      For me, thinking about the hierarchy of actions helps explain why you move your attention away from a goal (because really it is just a subgoal in a hierarchy – your ‘real’ purpose is something more general), but maybe it isn’t need to explain the phenomenon.

      A related thought is whether the hierarchy of actions has any psychological reality as an organising principle, or if it is just a convenient way of thinking about the way actions have to be organised. My instinct is that complex action can’t be carried out without a heirarchical organisation of action, implicitly or explicitly in our mental machinery, but maybe I’m wrong.

      It is interesting to think about what direct evidence there is for the hierarchical organisation of action (as opposed, say, to things like the context effects you mention).

      Lashley makes some points about this in 1951 “The problem of serial order in behavior”

      Click to access The_Problem_of_Serial_Order_in_Behavior.pdf

  3. Now I don’t want to seem all preachy but the mindfulness gurus would tell you that it all comes of not being in the present when you are fetching those keys. You’ve switched into autopilot mode as you go off on your mission and put all your resources into thinking about lots of other stuff that you can’t do anything about right now but will serve the purpose of just making you a bit more stressed than you already are. I know this from bitter personal experience because over the years I’ve probably spent several months of my life in total forgetting keys, phone, wallet, going to look for them and then forgetting what I was looking for. I wouldn’t say it doesn’t happen any more but being a bit more mindful has definitely helped me.

  4. One digital equivalent is when, for example, you open a word processor and then forget what you were going to write. I find this is particularly likely if the computer churns a little too much. And then there’s the phenomenon when a speaker on a podcast I’m listening to hesitates in their speech, and suddenly I’ve forgotten what they were talking about. (Incidentally, I’m on the autism spectrum, and I think that influences my vulnerability to such effects.)

  5. Tom, I really enjoyed reading this blog post. This “doorway effect” seems to happen to just about everyone no matter how smart or organized he or she is. Although I experience this effect on the daily, especially when I go downstairs to retrieve something and forget what the item is when I get down there, for some reason I never took the time to think about what’s going on inside of my mind to cause the situation to occur. When you mentioned that our memories can associate themselves with a physical environment, it reminded me of how after I go back upstairs when I don’t remember what I went downstairs to get, I immediately remember the item I wanted to retrieve. It is amazing how our minds can forget the simplest things because they are concentrating on so many complex ideas at any given moment.

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