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Memory and Walking Into a Room: Why We Forget

Tags: Stress

Have you ever gone into a room and completely forgotten what you were there for?

Age doesn't seem to be an issue here either, it happens at any age.  So why? 

One answer, according to a study in 20111, is that it could be the simple act of walking through the door -  and that action may cause a change in our brain.

The study found that our memory could change when we pass through the doorway because doors are a portal between one environment and another - e.g. the living room to the bedroom. 

The brain registers the new environment at the moment of going through the door and takes a second to process the memory from the previous environment (so  you won't forget where  you came from) - and to register where you are now.  Researchers called this an 'event boundary'.

In the process of going into the new environment (i.e. through the door), the moment to process where you came from and to process where you are now involved memory processing that cuts out a lot of extraneous information.

One bit of that information is why you went through the door into that new environment - hence - we don't know why the heck we came into the room.  I suppose that information about the environment is vital to our limbic system2 or 'stress brain'.  More vital, perhaps, than the object we came to retrieve or that thing we were going to say to someone.  That's why we often need to return to our previous environment to remember what it was.

So doorways are portals to new environments.  Perhaps this is a reason doors are so symbolic.

Since the 'stress brain' seems to be involved (memory is processed here), it comes as no surprise that these 'memory lapses' are more likely to happen when we are stressed and this is not just because of 'event boundaries'.

Sress involves the production of adrenaline and cortisol to pump up the body to fight or run.  These substances also cross the blood/brain barrier and get into our brain, 'fogging' up our cognitive and memory processes and can cause havoc.  Short term memory loss and inability to make descisions are both symptoms of stress.

What do do about it.

Avoid too much stress3 ('just enough' can actually help you to remember, this is helpful when studying for exams).

Don't get frustrated if you have a 'memory lapse', this creates more stress and therefore less ability to remember.

If you have a memory lapse - take a breath and give the brain time to process the 'event boundary'.  It's more likely that you will remember what you came for.


  1. Study by Dr Gabriel Radvansky at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, published in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
  2. For limbic system or emotional brain - see my article  What causes stress and anxiety and why we have two brains.
  3. See my article on  "First Aid" techniques
  4. The photograph at the beginning of this article was taken by me in India, Delhi, 2007.