Most of us have had this happen: You have a list of tasks to do and walk around your home or office, intent on accomplishing them. The first one is easy — empty a garbage can or grab a document. You do it and quickly move onto the next, but when you exit the room, you can’t manage to recall what the other tasks were. Try as you might, you mind draws a blank.
But don’t blame it on getting older or lack of essential vitamins and nutrients in your diet. There’s a much more likely culprit: the doorway you just walked through.
In November of 2011, a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, published a study which suggested that entering and exiting rooms can cause our short term memories to fail us. Their theory: our brains take items in our short term memories and stick them into virtual compartments, with different ideas in different areas — much like a house or office has different rooms. When we cross through doorways in the physical world, our mental world also passes through what psychology professor and head researcher Gabriel Radvansky calls an “event boundary” — an action which, in his words, “separates episodes of activity and files them away.” Basically, when your body leaves the room, your mind leaves that “to do” list behind.
Unfortunately, one simply can’t return to the room to pick up this virtual “to do” list. In one of the experiments Radvansky and his team conducted, his test subjects were asked to walk around from room to room only to end up where they began.
The full study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, is available here.
Bonus fact: Legend has it that goldfish have very short memory spans — perhaps no more than a few seconds. But this turns out not to be true. In 2004, the Mythbusters trained a goldfish to complete an underwater obstacle course; the goldfish was able to accomplish the task a month later.
From the Archives: The Missing Person Living in Savannah: His short term memory is fine. His long term memory? Gone.