The 'doorway effect' or ‘location updating effect’, is a known psychological event where a person's short-term memory goes blank when passing through a doorway or moving from one location to another. It would not have happened if the person had remained in the same place. We also tend to forget items of recent significance immediately after crossing a boundary and often forget what we were thinking about or planning on doing upon entering a different room. Research suggests that this phenomenon occurs both at literal boundaries (e.g., moving from one room to another via a door) and metaphorical boundaries (e.g., imagining traversing a doorway, or even when moving from one desktop window to another on a computer).
Memory is organized around specific events or episodes, such as attending a lecture or having a family meal, rather than being a continuous stream interrupted by sleep. This organization is called episodic memory, which involves receiving and storing information about events that are temporarily dated, along with their time and place relationships.
Numerous psychological studies have indicated that the external context, including the location where events occur, plays a significant role in how memories are separated. This context helps establish distinctions between different remembered events. Memories of events that happen in the environment we're currently in are easier to access compared to those from different places. As a result, when we experience spatial changes and move to a different location, it can act as a boundary marker that separates and categorizes our continuous flow of memories into distinct segments.
Research on the doorway effect involves having people navigate virtual environments while picking up and putting down various objects. During these experiments, participants were given the names of these objects either (1) as they moved across a large room or (2) when they entered a new room (a spatial change). They then had to indicate whether the named object matched the one they had carried and eventually placed down. Findings indicating doorways act as event boundaries contribute towards wider understanding of memory construction and retention. They indicate the significance of structures of the surrounding environment in how memories are objectively recalled, alongside how it is subjectively recalled: the valence of emotions, specific emotion felt, its intensity and duration.
- In 2006, Gabriel A. Radvansky and David E. Copeland performed the first experiments that demonstrated that successful recall of objects became less accessible with a spatial shift and dissociation from the person. This was measured by the moving of associated or dissociated objects through virtual rooms. Radvansky and Copeland had participants engage with short narratives where objects were either associated or dissociated from the participant. For example, a person might wear a sweatshirt (associated), take it off (dissociated), and go for a run. The researchers measured explicit factors like memory probes and comprehension, as well as implicit factors like reading times. The results showed that information about an object became less available when it was dissociated from the person, compared to when it was associated. These patterns aligned with previous research demonstrating how spatial shifts disrupt cognitive processing. However, it remained unclear to what extent the observed spatial effect was due to the association/dissociation of objects with the participant or the actual spatial change. Hence, Radvansky and Copeland aimed to separate and study these two components independently. To achieve this, they introduced rooms of varying sizes that virtually eliminated walls and doorways while maintaining consistent distance. This allowed them to assess the individual impacts of object association/dissociation and spatial shifts. Their conclusion was twofold: the effect related to object association/dissociation persisted, and there was clear evidence that moving through a doorway made highly available information less accessible. Experiment 1 aimed to investigate if information availability about objects changed based on their association/dissociation with a person after spatial shifts. The Standard Associated/Dissociated Effect refers to the impact of relationships between objects and individuals within a dynamic situation in text comprehension. In simpler terms, how people react or feel when reading a story changes based on the relationships and changes over time. The researchers wanted to see if the patterns seen in text comprehension studies would apply in a virtual reality context, as predicted by situation model theory. Alternatively, traditional memory models might predict that spatial changes wouldn't affect memory. The results of Experiment 1 demonstrated that after spatial shifts, participants responded more accurately and quickly when objects remained associated with a person rather than being dissociated. This indicated that people actively monitor the spatial and relational aspects of a situation, affecting how information is stored in memory. This finding challenged memory theories that ignored environmental interactions. Even explicit rehearsal of object names experienced disruption. Thus, memory involves active interaction with context. While the effect was clear, it was uncertain what caused it—whether participants monitored what they carried or the spatial shift itself.
- Participants: They got 41 people (15 were female) from the University of Notre Dame. They got some extra participants, but had to remove data from 10 of them for different reasons.
- Materials and Setup: They used a program to create a virtual environment with 66 rooms. All the rooms were the same size, and each had a table with an object to pick up. There was also an empty spot on the table where the object from the previous room was supposed to be placed. The rooms had different wall patterns to show they were different. The doors in each room were never on the same wall.
- Objects: The objects were made by mixing colors and shapes. Colors included red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white, gray, brown, and black. Shapes were cube, wedge, pole, disk, cross (X), and cone.
- Display: They used a large screen and a computer to show everything.
- Procedure: Participants sat in front of the big screen and were told to move objects from room to room. When they picked up an object, it disappeared, and when they placed it down, it reappeared on the table. The order they did these actions didn't matter. The doors to the next rooms only opened when they did both actions with the objects.
- Memory Probe Trials: There were 51 trials where they checked participants' memory. When they entered a room, a color and shape name showed up on the screen. They had to say "yes" if it matched the object they were carrying or the one they just put down. If it didn't match, they said "no." They used mouse buttons for "yes" and "no" and arrow keys to move in the virtual space. Some trials tested the associated object, some tested the dissociated object, and some were not related at all. The experiment took about 10 to 15 minutes. Experiment 2 aimed to understand the contribution of object association/dissociation and spatial changes in the effect observed in Experiment 1. The researchers introduced rooms of different sizes, virtually eliminating walls and doorways to maintain consistent distance. This allowed them to analyze the independent impact of these factors.
- Participants: They got 54 people (26 were women) from the University of Notre Dame to take part. They had to exclude data from 11 participants for different reasons.
- Materials and Procedure: They used the same tools and methods as in Experiment 1 to create virtual environments. They made two types of rooms - some were big, and some were small. Essentially, they removed walls and doorways to change how the rooms looked, but the distance traveled remained the same. This change affected whether there was a change in the space.
- No-Shift Trials: In these trials, when someone entered a large room, part of it was darkened, and there was an invisible barrier to stop them from going to the wrong part of the room with the wrong table. The barrier disappeared after they put the object on the correct table and picked up the next one. A memory question came up when they entered the second half of the room.
- Shift Trials: In these trials, they made a space change. But not every time there was a change did they ask a memory question.
- Results: Experiment 2 found that the effect they saw in Experiment 1, where the connection between objects and a person affected memory, was seen again. This effect persisted even when there was no space change. Additionally, making a space change had its own effect. Passing through a doorway made information that's usually easy to remember harder to access. However, less important information was less affected. This shows that different things, like how things are connected and the space context, impact how people understand situations. Overall, this research provides insights into how memory is influenced by our interactions with our environment. It demonstrates that the doorway effect disrupts memory due to the need to update our mental representation when transitioning to a new room. This updating process demands cognitive effort and coordination, affecting processing and leading to errors. While more research is needed, this study sheds light on the interplay between physical experiences and mental understanding.
- 2011, Gabriel A. Radvansky, Sabine A. Krawietz, and Andrea K. Tamplin from the Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame Experiment 1 aimed to understand how reducing the level of immersion impacts the location-updating effect. If this effect requires high immersion because event updating demands direct experience and structural environment influences, reducing screen size might diminish immersion and the effect. Alternatively, if the effect results from tracking information across events, regardless of immersion, the location-updating effect should still be observable. In this experiment, we used standard 17'' diagonal monitors instead of larger ones (66'') to reduce immersion.
- Participants: Fifty-five participants (31 female) were recruited from the University of Notre Dame participant pool and received partial course credit for their participation.
- Materials and Setup: The virtual environment was created using the Valve Hammer program. Standard 17'' diagonal monitors were used for display. The environment had 55 rooms, varying in two sizes with equated travel distance in shift and no-shift conditions. Each room contained one or two rectangular tables with objects to be picked up. Doorways were not on the same wall to prevent repetition.
- Objects: Objects were combinations of colors and shapes, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white, grey, brown, and black. Shapes included cube, wedge, pole, disc, cross (X), and cone.
- Procedure: Participants were seated about 0.67 meters from the display and instructed to pick up objects, move to the next table by walking across a large room (no shift) or through a doorway (shift), place the object on the table, pick up the next object, and so on. Picking up and placing objects was done by touching the table. Progression through rooms was controlled by closing doors behind participants and opening them after objects were placed on the table. Probe trials involved participants responding "yes" if the probe matched the carried or set-down object and "no" otherwise. Positive and negative probes were presented in both shift and no-shift conditions. The procedure lasted around 15 to 20 minutes. This experiment investigated the impact of reduced immersion on the location-updating effect, shedding light on whether immersion level affects event updating or if tracking information across events is the primary factor influencing this effect. In summary, even with a less immersive setup, there was still a location-updating effect. Memory performance was worse after a change in location, indicating that updating the mental representation of an event can disrupt memory. However, when looking at the error rate data, the absence of an event updating effect in the response time data is unclear. This outcome cannot be interpreted as reduced forgetfulness since the pattern of error rates remains the same. A plausible explanation is that the smaller display size decreased the portion of the visual angle (248 vs. 808) that needs active monitoring, resulting in overall faster response times (358 ms faster on average in this study) and potentially masking the observation of a response time difference. Experiment 2 aimed to determine if the location-updating effect could be observed in a real environment with maximal immersion compared to mediated experiences on a computer screen. Real experiences are considered nonmediated, while virtual environments might lack cues that real settings offer for accurate performance. Previous evidence suggests that virtual environments can lead to cognitive deficits tied to their impoverished nature relative to real environments. The study speculated that the scarcity of spatial cues in virtual environments might explain why location shifts are more disruptive. However, according to an event cognition perspective, the need to monitor and update an event model should apply to real situations as well. To adapt the experiment's principles to real-world constraints, three larger rooms were used from the laboratory. The study included three location shifts where participants moved between rooms. Within each room, a no-shift condition involved performing a task at one table and then crossing the room to perform the next task. For practicality, half of the participants concluded their last trial by returning to the original room. To ensure sufficient observations, six objects were moved during each trial. This approach allowed the study to explore the location-updating effect within a real-world context while addressing logistical challenges. Sixty participants (28 female) from the University of Notre Dame took part in Experiment 2, earning partial course credit. The study aimed to assess the location-updating effect in a maximally immersive real-world environment, contrasting with virtual settings. Participants navigated a three-room environment, with varying room sizes and movement conditions. Colored blocks were used in trials where participants picked up objects and then completed a recognition test, preceded by a distractor task. Each trial comprised 12 recognition probes, and the procedure lasted around 15 to 20 minutes. Experiment 2 confirmed a location-updating effect in a real-world setting, paralleling findings from virtual environments. Memory decline was evident after spatial shifts compared to simple room crossings, aligning with an event cognition perspective. Updating event models upon location change led to memory costs, causing previously relevant information to become less accessible. In Experiment 3, an alternative explanation for the location-updating effect was explored. This explanation suggested that forgetting might arise due to differences in environmental context during retrieval compared to encoding. Different rooms could serve as distinct contexts, potentially leading to poorer memory retrieval when the context differs. To investigate this, Experiment 3 introduced a return condition, where participants went back to the original location after a spatial shift. Additionally, a double shift condition involved two spatial shifts without returning to the original room. The results aimed to differentiate between an event horizon model and encoding specificity accounts of memory disruption. Forty-eight participants (28 female) from the University of Notre Dame were involved. Virtual environments were displayed on a 66'' diagonal Smartboard, enhancing immersion. The virtual space comprised 88 rooms of varying sizes. Objects were placed on rectangular tables in each room. The procedure included memory probe trials after spatial shifts, with 64 trials in total. The experiment lasted around 15 to 20 minutes. The findings aimed to shed light on whether memory disruption is influenced by the number of rooms traversed or the change in contextual cues during retrieval. In general, the response time data closely mirrored the findings from the analysis of error rates. Notably, the absence of improvement when returning to the original context is a crucial observation. This robustly dismisses the possibility of a context-based explanation for the location-updating effect.
- In 2016, Kyle A. Pettijohn and Gabriel A. Radvansky from the Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame
- In 2021, Jessica McFadyen, Christopher Nolan , Ellen Pinocy, David Buteri and Oliver Baumann at Bond University
In a 2021 study, researchers at Bond University tried to replicate the doorway effect in four experiments: in both physical rooms and virtual rooms, and both with and without the participants doing a “distractor task” (counting backwards). In one experiment -- in virtual rooms, and with a distractor task -- doorways caused a statistically significant increase in false positives (i.e., false memories), but not false negatives (i.e., forgetting). In the other three experiments, doorways had no effect. The researchers suggested that this was consistent with real life, in which "we might occasionally forget a single item we had in mind after walking into a new room but, crucially, this usually happens when we have other things on our mind . . . ."
One of the study authors, psychologist Oliver Baumann, speculated that it might be “possible to ‘immunise’ yourself against forgetting. ‘“If we are single-minded in what we want to do, nothing will stop us remembering. But if we have multiple things going on, forgetfulness becomes noticeable.’”
Real World Effects
Separate studies on the presence of a doorway effect elicited incongruences with typical rhythms of life. Some suggest it may be reasonable to expect that humans should instead be rather facile with dealing with movement from one location to another, and its effects on memory recall – especially with objects one was recently carrying. It has been separately proposed that the doorway effect might be attributed to self-preservation behaviours, evoking alertness towards the lurking of predators on the edge of openings when crossing such thresholds. Hence, guiding one's attention from an internal to external perspective. Implications extend to realms of verbal learning and comprehension, whereby the presence of the effect even on small, short-term memory loads, demonstrates the importance of one's environment on subsequent performance especially for more complex tasks (recalling exam material, interpersonal details, human engagement etc.).
Implications of physical environment with memory extend its role in eliciting revealed behaviours including notions of cognitive empathy gaps, which are underlined by deviations in mentalising processes of one's emotive states. Examples of how broader contributions to the relations between environment, memory, and behaviour were demonstrated by London-based behavioural consultancy, Cowry Consulting's "Preventing falls with pink walls" project that aimed to reduce unsafe behaviour at construction sites. Changes to the physical environment were made by painting break room walls Baker-Miller pink, restructuring with plants, softer lighting, and communal tables to differentially segment the space were seen "to reduce anxiety, stress and aggression".
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