This phenomenon is known as the doorway effect.

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If you've ever gone to a room with a purpose in mind only to forget what that reason was upon arrival, know that you're not alone. Scientists called this phenomenon the "doorway effect," and it's a real symptom of our brains being overloaded. In order to discover exactly why this happens—and how individuals can improve their memory—a team of researchers conducted a series of experiments using virtual reality. A total of 74 volunteers were asked to remember certain objects, such as a blue cone or a yellow cross, as they moved through various computed-generated 3D rooms. They were then asked to walk down partitioned corridors, or watch other people doing the same routine while completing memory tasks.

handing opening door
Credit: TommL / Getty Images

"At first we couldn't find the doorway effect at all so we thought maybe people were too good—they were remembering everything," said psychologist Oliver Baumann from Bond University in Australia. "So then we made it more difficult and got them to do backward counting tasks while moving around to load up their working memory."

These studies revealed that it's not necessarily entering new rooms or doorways that cause a memory wipe, but rather an abrupt total change of scenery that forces our minds to process something entirely new. For example, researchers say that moving through different floors of a department store may not cause a memory lapse, but moving from the department store to the parking garage may cause us to forget something important.

"Forgetting did now occur, telling us that overloading the participants' memory made them more susceptible to the effect of the doorway. In other words, the doorway effect only occurs if we are cognitively in a vulnerable state," says Baumann.

Understanding how the brain processes and compartmentalizes information can help us to stay focused in an important situation. If you want to avoid forgetting what you went into a room for, try to stay focused and keep the task at the front of your mind until it's done, say researchers.

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