Why Do We Forget Stuff When We Leave Rooms? | The Doorway Effect

(Last Updated On: August 23, 2021)

Ever left the room to get something and then immediately forget why you left the room the second you’re through the door? It’s a rhetorical question, because if you can’t relate to the experience then you’re obviously not human. Don’t worry if you think this is unique to you, a 2011 study from the University of Notre Dame coined this the “doorway effect.” So what is the doorway effect, and why do we forget stuff when we leave rooms?

Event Segmentation Theory

You’re probably not going to be sending your memories to people with one-day shipping. But your brain does like to keep things organized, and there’s a lot to organize. Think about your space right now. You’re processing the screen in front of you, ambient noises like a pet or a fan, and the feeling of your keyboard or keeping your phone from dropping out of your hand. If you’re outside, maybe someone is on the barbecue or a food truck is a few steps away, you’re trying to avoid bumping into someone or you’re waiting for the barista to call your coffee order (we see you). 

Now on top of processing everything in real time, you’re also trying to anticipate what might happen in the near future. Sometimes this is unconscious, like when you just get one of those gut feelings that tells you to swerve while you’re driving–only for you to realize after the fact that you just dodged a pothole or another driver going the wrong way. But other times it’s just to make organizing information more efficient in a less… dire manner. Maybe it is super dire–like when someone says they “need to talk” and then you build ten different ways the conversation could go in your head. 

Let’s go back to the cafe example, though. You know that when you place your order at the cafe, you’re now primed to expect your name to be called in a few minutes. You’ve now built a potential model of future events. Organizing your perception of events and your surroundings is called event segmentation theory.

Further Reading: Why Do We Get Gut Feelings?

Location-Updating

So having a bunch of models of the potential future on top of your current present is a lot to keep track of. You may have noticed that the examples we gave are also super temporary. You don’t need any future models for your route when you exit the car, you don’t need any of your anxious models of the “we need to talk” conversation after you’re done talking. 

On the cafe example–you don’t need the predictive model of “my name will be called” once you grab your order and leave. 

So once your brain doesn’t think these models are relevant anymore, it dumps them. What determines this is called an “event boundary.” If you’re one step ahead, then you’ve figured out that changing your location is a very good shorthand for an event boundary. Left the cafe? Well any model you had in there can probably be safely dumped. For your brain, doorways are a pretty safe assumption that you’re entering a new location. 

In fact, this is so strong that even just imagining you’ve gone through a doorway (or changed location) can make you forget things. 

Recent research suggests that these effects probably don’t affect your brain too much when it’s not busy–which is probably why you normally only feel the doorway effect when you’re already doing something (like talking on the phone) or thinking of several other things at the same time. 


See if you know what people forget the most here. Don’t switch rooms while you’re at it. 

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.

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