The Gate Effect Theory Explains Why You Forget What You Were Doing
Have you ever walked into a room ready to accomplish something, only to know nothing about what you were about to do? Same. It turns out to be a real psychological event and a brain function called the “gateway effect.” The term refers to a case where a person’s memory wanes as they walk through a door.
“We experience the world as a continuous stream of information,” says Gabriel Radvansky, PhD, one of the researchers in a University of Notre Dame study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2011, which looked at the “door effect”.
Radvansky explained to an American publication Good + Good that we mentally break down the experience into small meaningful events called “mental event patterns”. When we move from one event to another, we perform a mental process called “event updating”. With this, we remove relevant information from the previous event and start focusing our attention on the new event.
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In other words, walking through a door is a good time to purge your event patterns, because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you’re in a new room.
“The doorway effect occurs because we change both physical and mental environments, changing rooms and thinking about different things,” psychologist Tom Stafford writes for the BBC. “That hastily imagined lens, which was probably just one plate of many we’re trying to spin, gets forgotten when the context changes.”
Dr. Radvansky gives Good + Good the example of going from your bedroom to the kitchen to get a glass of water, which can often make you forget about the task as soon as you enter the kitchen. In this case, the bedroom is one event model, while the kitchen is another.
“Because these patterns contain the same elements, they can compete with each other during memory retrieval, causing some mental competition, leading to some forgetting, even though both memories point to the same information,” says Dr. Radvansky.
Radvansky also labels the action of moving into the new room as an event boundary. Examples of other event boundaries include changing computer windows or changing spatial locations.
Although the gate effect can be frustrating, it’s actually a sign that your brain is working as it should. If he didn’t, he would continue to think and occupy himself with things that are irrelevant to the current situation.
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“We can’t keep everything close at hand, and most of the time the system works perfectly. It is the system failures – and the data from the lab – that give us a completely new idea of how the system works,” write Charles B. Brenner and Jeffrey M. Zacks in American Scientist.
If you really want to figure out what you were supposed to do in the room or in the new computer window, Dr. Radvansksy says one of the best things you can do is go back to the room where you originally established your goal or learned something. .
“There may be something in that original location that can act as a memory cue to help you reclaim the knowledge of what you were supposed to remember in the first place,” he says.
Another thing you can try is simply thinking about where you were before or what you were doing, as this will help you remember.
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