Darn that Doorway! It’s Easy to Forget

April 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm

We’ve all experienced it. Or at least I have, and I was beginning to think it was my advancing age, declining memory, and increasing forgetfulness. You’re sitting in a room, working on a particular project, when you realize there’s something you need to get from another room. Quickly, you rush to the next room to ….. and then it hits you, you’ve forgotten why you came into the room. While it may have been something as simple as finding a pen, or picking up a needed piece of information or equipment, you stand in the middle of the room, scratching your head, trying to recall exactly what it was that drew you through that doorway which took you to a different room, in search of something which at the time seemed critical. If you’re like me, you once again reflect that you must be the dumbest smart person you know—I mean, forgetting what you were doing by going from one room to the next—that’s inexcusable.

But while this may cause some personal self-deprecation, and raise issues of concern for my sanity, I usually move forward, rationalizing that perhaps it wasn’t that important, too much time had passed, or I wasn’t paying attention. Shrugging off my concerns, I continue on, comfortable in the fact that there has to be a simple reason for this brief moment of forgetfulness.

But it turns out it might be more than that, and it’s useful to consider the impact that going from one room to another, passing through a doorway, has on our ability to remember. It was highlighted by researchers from the University of Notre Dame in a paper entitled “Walking through a doorway causes forgetting”(http://bit.ly/Hdw2m0) published in 2011.

It is their contention that the act of walking through a doorway, merely changing the environment which one is experiencing, has a negative impact on our ability to remember a task or item which we had in mind prior to that “doorway effect.” It is interesting in that this applies to both a physical doorway confronting us in real life or a virtual doorway imposed on a computer screen. Really? Now I feel better.

It’s a concept called the “encoding specificity principle.”  Fundamentally, it asserts that memory is most effective when the information and context present initially (encoding) in our thinking is also present at retrieval. So that “task” or “needed equipment” which seemed totally reasonable initially, is enhanced by the immediate environment and location. By moving to a different location, my ability to remember the desired task is impacted by the loss of surrounding cues which while unrelated to the specific issue, have an impact on my ability to recall my initial encoded thought.

While there are those who argue whether this is a causative or correlative relationship, it is an interesting and potentially important element for us in our personal lives, and perhaps as we address health care issues, and the aging population. Think about how increasingly important context and comfort with environment are with early Alzheimer’s patients, not to mention just the effect of aging. As we ask patients to do more for themselves, become more involved in their health care, we are requiring them to do a better job “remembering” what they need to do. If they live in a place with doorways, either real or metaphorically, how can we help them ensure they’re minimally impacted by a concept which is likely foreign to most of us—encoding specificity principle.

I’m convinced this has potential value, and is something I need to remember. Now if I can only avoid going through any doorways, I’m in good shape for remembering it later today. Houston, I think I have a problem…..

Entry filed under: General Info, Patient Engagement. Tags: .

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