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The Doorway Effect

Have you ever arrived somewhere only to forget why you're there in the first place? The Doorway Effect explains why.

It’s late at night and the deadline for your English assignment is approaching quickly. The devil works hard but you’re working harder to fix those grammatical mistakes you told yourself you were going to fix last week. Finally, you dot the last period on your paper, click the submit button with sweaty fingers, and head downstairs to retrieve your well-deserved midnight snack. But wait — you find yourself in your kitchen staring at the cupboards and wondering, “Why am I here? What was I going to get?” The thought of treating yourself to a Cosmic Brownie exits your mind and you’re confused about why you went downstairs in the first place! This psychological phenomenon is called the “Doorway Effect” and it reveals the complexities of human memory.

Memory is the “process by which information and data are encoded, stored and retrieved.” Despite its fundamental importance, the science behind memory remains largely a mystery. What we do know is this: When we learn something, connections between neurons in the brain, or synapses, are formed, remapping the brain. The number of connections that can be made is innumerable but they can become weaker or stronger depending on exposure. The more we are exposed to an event, the stronger the connection. The same concept applies with less exposure. Furthermore, recent research has shown that memory can be affected by the structure of the environment; The ability to retain information is influenced by its distribution across different locations. Gabriel Radvansky and his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame conducted a study where participants had to place several objects into a shoebox, carrying it to a table located either across the room or through a doorway into a different room. They were then asked questions about the appearance of the objects. Although the distance was the same for both sets of participants, participants who walked through the doorway had slower responses and less accurate descriptions. The “doorway effect” or location updating effect suggests that a shift in location introduces a need to update one’s understanding of the ongoing events. The effect also applies to virtual environments like video games or even when a person is asked to imagine crossing through a doorway or threshold. The physical environment changes and so does our mental environment.

Image from Unsplash

The event segmentation theory further explains that our brains create representations of events called event models to predict upcoming information. When conceptual or perceptual features of a certain activity changes, prediction becomes increasingly harder. At such point, the memory of “what is happening now” is updated. Features that influence changes in memories are called event boundaries; Doors are considered event boundaries because going through a doorway is usually indicative that something new is about to happen. When we go through a doorway, our event model from the new and old room “compete” with each other, making it difficult to retrieve information.

The brain is the command center for our body and with it being made up of 100 billion neurons, it allows us to do incredible things. We have the ability to think, plan, and speak but even then, the simplest of tasks can slip out of our minds. So, the next time you catch yourself befuddled in the middle of your kitchen, you can blame those pesky doors.


[1] Stafford, Tom. “Future – Why Does Walking through Doorways Make Us Forget?” BBC News, BBC, 8 Mar. 2016,

[2] “Inside the Science of Memory.” Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library,

[3] Gabriel A. Radvansky, Sabine A. Krawietz, Andrea K. Tamplin. “Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations”. Psychology Press. 64 (8), 1632 –1645. 2011.

[4] Kyle Pettijohn, Gabriel A. Radvansky. “Walking Through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Event Structure or Updating Disruption?”. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 69(11):1-27. Nov. 2006.

[5] Christopher A. Kurby, Jeffrey M. Zacks. “Segmentation in the perception and memory of events.” Trends Cogn Sci. 12(2): 72-79. Feb. 2008.


Hello! My name is John Nguyen and I'm from Brevard, North Carolina, a tiny town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm currently a junior and I plan on majoring in Biology. Aside from STEM, I'm involved in the band as the principal bass clarinetist, baritone section leader, and drum major. I'm a student researcher, a member of NHS and AJAS, the president of InterACT, and I'm an ISEF alumnus. I'm excited to be apart of this amazing network of young scientists!

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