Why Do I Forget Why I Entered a Room the Minute I Enter It?

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Photo: Giordano Poloni/Corbis

There was a reason I came in this room. There must have been. Keys, was it? No, those are in my hand. Why … did I come in here? This scene plays out with alarming regularity in my apartment, and it apparently has a name: It’s called the “doorway effect,” writes cognitive scientist Tom Stafford for the BBC. Stafford explains that understanding this annoying everyday memory blip can help you understand more about the way human memory works.

He starts by telling a story you’ve likely heard before:

[A] woman … 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!”

Most likely, the moral you’ve taken from this little tale is the importance of looking at the big picture. For our purposes, though, “the important moral is that any action has to be thought of at multiple levels if you are going to carry it out successfully,” Stafford writes. The doorway effect happens when we move between those levels. You move from one room to another, and somewhere along the way the larger context of your overarching plan gets lost.

In 2011, psychologists at the University of Notre Dame attempted to study the doorway effect, and they theorized that the brain compartmentalizes much more than we perhaps realize. Maybe the plan was to grab your headphones in the bedroom so you can listen to a podcast while doing the dishes in the kitchen, but by the time you make it to the bedroom, that plan is long forgotten, left behind by the dirty dishes. What happened in the kitchen stays in the kitchen, in a sense. The human memory is a strange thing indeed.