Science-- there's something for everyone

Monday, November 28, 2011

Doorway of forgetfulness

When I was in graduate school, my lab was divided between two rooms, each of which contained much used equipment and supplies.  We referred to the passage between those rooms as the ‘Arch of Forgetfulness’.  It was a common occurrence to find someone hesitating near an entrance with a puzzled look on her face.  Apparently, this phenomenon is not restricted to graduate students.  According to research by Gabrie Radvansky and her colleagues from the University of Notre Dame, forgetting why you entered a room is a universal experience.

The scientists conducted a series of experiments in which people progressed through either virtual or real rooms picking up objects (such as a white cone, or a blue cube) from one table and placing them on another table.  Sometimes the tables were within the same room, but at other times the participants had to pass through a doorway before depositing their items.  In all cases, the objects were hidden after being picked up (becoming invisible if virtual, or being concealed within a box if real).  Along the way, the participants were asked to remember what they were carrying.  In both the real and the virtual worlds, people did a better job remembering their objects if they hadn’t just crossed a doorway.

Returning to the starting position did not improve people’s memories either.  This last result surprised me a bit, as I seem to recall that reentering the first room did jog my memory.  Of course, upon returning to my lab bench I would have been faced with the same lack of ingredients that had set me on my journey to the other room in the first place.  That’s quite different from trying to remember if I had last picked up a red wedge or an orange cylinder.