Wednesday Bubble: What did you forget? And why?

Posted by on Dec 14, 2011 in aging, memory/learning | 0 comments

If you are like me, you often get up, enter rooms and spend at least five minutes wandering aimlessly around trying to remember why you are there in the first place. And these memory challenges? They tend to worsen as we age and certainly as we move through menopause, not only do to hormones but largely to stress. However, researchers still haven’t completely discerned the ‘what’ from the ‘what’ when it comes to memory, although a current exploration of the topic in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology certainly lends an interesting perspective: doorways.


Yes, doorways, or more specifically, walking through them from one location to another, which according to a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame, causes us to forget information. The reasons, although fairly complex, appear to be linked to a shift that occurs when one’s boundary or environment does; crossing the threshold causes the brain to go into overdrive to update understanding of ongoing events. So, as we analyze our new environment (i.e. the contents of another room), information that was present in our brains before we crossed the threshold is no longer so readily available.

In a series of three experiments, researchers teased out the ‘why’ of recall or lack thereof.  In the first, 31 women were seated in front of a computer simulated game, in which they became totally immersed in moving objects from a table in one room to a table in the same room or in another. However, once they started moving on the screen, the object they were carrying became invisible. And when they were asked to repeatedly recall the objects that they were carrying  immediately after entering the new location, recall apparently became slower and less accurate than the recall right after they moved the object across the room.

In a second task, 28 women and 32 men moved through a real world environment, where they chose and then carried covered physical objects from one room to another and then were asked to take a recognition test. Again, their memory appeared to worsen between the rooms rather than within them.

The researchers then conducted a third task, in which they discovered that context is not important and contrary to what many believe, we don’t encode information when we sit in a room, leave it and then return.

The upshot is that it appears that we keep information at hand until some sort of shift occurs and the brain needs to purge it to deal with new information. That shift is as simple as walking through a doorway and once it’s gone, it may be gone forever and irretrievable.

Do hormone shifts make this worse? Who knows? But, your daily memory loss appears to be only a doorway away.

p.s. Writers Charles Brenner and Jeffrey Zacks wrote a great piece about this study in Scientific American. Definitely check it out for more about this research.


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