As we get older, it’s common to begin to notice your body letting you down. You can’t run as fast or as far, it takes longer for wounds to heal, eyesight begins to suffer some subtle changes, and it becomes more difficult to maintain your old weight. Most people expect and accept these changes in others, but we fight any signs of aging in our own bodies.
Even more difficult is accepting the mental changes that seem to come with the years. When I returned to school at age sixty, the experience reminded me that my talent for rote memorization was even worse than it had been at eighteen. Overall, people worry most about those mental changes.
Friends will joke about how they can’t remember things anymore and how young people can learn so much faster. Any failure of memory is blamed on old age. We suffer “senior moments” and complain that we didn’t used to lose the keys all the time. In my own case, I’m pretty confident that I’ve always had senior moments, starting as a high school senior. And it continues. This morning I walked into the bedroom to grab something before leaving the house, and promptly forgot what it was I had gone after. There I stood, in the middle of the room, mind completely blank, knowing only that I had gone after something important. I had no idea what it was that I so desperately needed. Frustrating.
Come to find out, I’m not the only one. Ask your friends if they haven’t experienced that universal, embarrassed feeling of walking into a room only to suddenly forget what they needed. It’s such a common experience that Gabriel Radvansky, a University of Notre Dame researcher, published an article titled, “Walking Through Doorways Causes Forgetting.” This is no joke. “Walking through doorways” was published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Radvansky and his colleagues had volunteers, young volunteers, playing a computer simulation in which they would pick up objects from a table and carry them to another table. Once they selected an object from the first table, it would be carried in a virtual box so they couldn’t actually see it anymore. The researchers scheduled frequent pop quizzes to ask the participants if they remembered their object and what color it was. Of course, remembering didn’t seem to be a problem.
Then they gave the computer game a new wrinkle. They created adjoining virtual rooms and asked the participants to carry their boxes into those connecting rooms. Suddenly, the participants ability to remember what object they had selected fell drastically. The change was so drastic that the experiment was expanded to use real rooms instead of a computer simulation.
They used a laboratory that included several rooms set up in such a way that the volunteers could carry their selected objects from one table to another table in the same room, to a table in an adjoining room, or back and forth from one room to another and back to the original room. There was some question about whether people would remember better if allowed to return to the room where they had first seen the objects. In other words, would they remember things better in the setting where they first learned the information? The results were the same. In fact, they were even more conclusive. When people walked through that doorway, they forgot what they had been carrying in their box. Returning to the original room didn’t help a bit.
Professor Radvansky theorizes that our brains experience so much input that they have to organize and prioritize constantly. One way the mind can organize is by the use of “event boundaries.” That is, our minds tie events to the environment in which they occurred. When we go from one environment (room) to another, the mind closes the file on that experience and begins to focus on what happens in the new location. We can retrieve information from the first room, but it is much more difficult.
Forgetting as we walk from one place to another is not a sign of aging or stupidity. My own theory is that, as we age, we become more aware of any sign of declining abilities. We nervously watch for any sign that we are losing it, and we get very sensitive to a phenomenon that has always been there. In other words, forgetting something bothers us more than it might have when we were younger.
Doorway forgetting is fascinating evidence of how our minds organize and access information, but it’s not dementia.