Why You Forget What You Were Doing When You Walk Into A Room


Why You ForgetThe brain is the least understood organ in the human body: Three pounds of tightly organized and highly specialized cells that guide every thought, action, and heartbeat, of your life. It is where we store memories, how we balance our checkbooks, and where we feel emotions. But every so often our brains let us down.

One particularly infuriating, if not life threatening, example of this is the well-documented phenomenon of walking into a room and forgetting why you are there. Why is it that the one organ of our body that can keep us breathing while we are sleeping seems to be unable to remind us of why we stepped into the kitchen?

This is the question that drives Notre Dame scientist Gabriel Radvansky, who has spent close to 20 years trying to find the answer. Last year saw the publication of a breakthrough paper from his research team that shed some light on the problem.

Published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Radvansky used a combination of computer-based and real-world experiments to assess how people’s memories responded to changing environments. The tasks were simple: pick up an object, such as a red cube or a purple disc, from a table and carry it over to another table. The second table would either be in the same room or in another room. In the computer simulated experiment, the fifty-or-so student participants had to traverse a 55-room environment picking up and putting down variously colored and shaped objects, and every so often they were asked what they had just put down.

In a similar experiment, Radvansky used the three rooms of his lab to test the participants’ level of recall as they passed from room to room. In both types of experiments, passing through a door and into a new room resulted in an increased error rate in responding. That is, passing through a door seemed to make people forget what object they had just carried through it.

The underlying brain phenomenon responsible for this is what is known as an “event boundary”. Our brains compartmentalize events and tie them to the environment, or room, in which they occurred. By moving from one room to the next, the brain effectively creates a file containing all the information about the first room, and what you did there, and tucks it away. It then starts to focus on the second room. Thus, remembering what you intended to do upon leaving the first room is a lot harder than if you had simply crossed from one side of the room to the other.

Is there a way to stop this from happening? Not really. You could try mumbling the task to yourself as you move from room to room, or write yourself a note on the back of your hand. Or, as Radvansky once joked, “Doorways are bad. Avoid them at all costs.”

Click Here For Article References:

Journal Ref: Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further exploration. Radvansky, G. A., Krawietz, S. A., Tamplin A. K.; Q J Exp Psychol (Hove) DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2011.571267

Image Credit: ©peshkova – Fotolia.com



  1. Now I have a headache …

  2. Jennifer Bonham says:

    What happens if it happens a lot?
    Is that bad?

  3. Write it down….

    • steve austin says:

      If you can remember to back out of the room you will remember why you went into the room. I call it the magic door recall.

  4. Martyn Strong says:

    Do a study of video viewing and its effect on this problem.

  5. The idea isn’t just rooms. It’s any kind of distraction or interruption. I was doing one thing, then something happened which caused my mind to purge everything and start on this new task. I experience it all day long as I’m a receptionist and my phone rings an average of once every minute. As the calls are not for me, I can kind of answer and transfer mindlessly if I’m working on something. But when the call is more difficult than, “John Smith please” and they have a question or aren’t sure what they’re looking for, my brain will purge all information attached to what I was doing before the phone rang. Once I hang up, I sometimes just sit there and stare, with my mind blank trying to figure out what the heck I’d been working on. So although they’re using the doorway as an example, because it’s a common problem that happens to all of us, it is obviously not the only thing that’s going to wipe your slate clean.

  6. Dr. Grant Bright says:

    We call this, “destinesia.” Rushing is the cause. When someone says, “Let me run to the bathroom,” We say, “Just walk…it’s ok.” Please use our term,. We are lobbying for it to be in the DSM 10….and we have one vote on the committee.

  7. We have been training people how to create cognitive preparedness for such processes as “Event Boundaries” or absentmindedness as it is labeled so often. Our memory can be trained to hold such information on a tip of the finger so to speak by EPIMEMORY- The minds eye. All we need is a mental location to store information we call a File, a picture of the task,process, item or data needed and what we call Glue- an action of visual bonding the picture to the file until needed. One of the files we teach is a body file. The first file being your toes. So I will give you the example using that file. If you are sitting in you recliner at a commercial decide to get a snack and walk into the kitchen only to have your phone ring distracting you. The situation of Event Boundary loss occurs.

    F P G formula is if you were going to get a sandwich stuff the sandwich between your toes or something even more novel or animated. When you get off of the phone then look down at your toes and the snack will remind you because of the action you visually bind it with to your toe file.

    You simply must always review your file to recall the queue. Its actually called encoding specificity principle which says a stimulus can cause you to retrieve a memory as long as the memory is tied to a queue. The file (toes) is a queue, the picture of the sandwich is a queue, and the action you filed the sandwich to your toes with is a queue. So the beauty is one queue activates the other two. Works for our students and has me for 25 years.

    “America’s Memory Guru” Memory Technologies Institute Cognitive Psychologist Harold Mangum Corporate Mnemonics Instructor

  8. Michaelina says:

    Move to a one-room, house, apartment or loft. Problem solved,

  9. I often make up a little ditty about whatever I want to remember. I can sing it mindlessly until I don’t need it anymore.

  10. No way to make this not happen? Well, if it really is something like a mental action where we associate places and events to thought processes, its a simple matter of “meditating” (I would really describe this as being mindful though) on why you’re doing something and how you’re doing it. Often when just in a room doing something, your brain focuses on things that you CAN do in that room, and if you can quickly tuck that into the task you WANT to do, it makes it easier to add rooms to your current “thought list” rather than the room containing said thought list. Of course, doing so can end up being significantly more work – but you’ll also start to realize going about your day becomes much easier, especially when conflicts arise.

  11. But a room and a door is just a human perspective, what if one perceived the world as his or her room.

  12. 20 years research and the answer is ‘I dunno, your thoughts are attached to that room? Try mumbling lol’

    Do you take cash for donations to your cause?

  13. Sean Kozel says:

    Could this also possibly explain why retracing your steps is so successful when trying to find a lost object?

  14. This ‘feature’ of the brain may also be exploited in order to remember information – see “Method of Loci”.


    …Now where are those blasted keys I was looking for…

  15. yes that usually works for me or I state I am going to the. .. to get my. ..The same with turning things on and off. if I speak what I am doing I have no anxiety later that I might have forgotten it.

  16. My first home was a large 3 bedroom appartment with seperate lounge kitchen etc
    so lots of rooms, I used to live alone and would find my self wandering into each separate room and these random thoughts would hit me until I was just so confused I would have to go out for a walk.
    Now I know why ! 🙂

  17. If I am not thinking of what I Have to do I walk back into the other room and then
    remember what I had to do


  18. Eddie Huffman says:

    Or you could just go back to the room where you were to help you remember. That often works.

    • I find that if I say aloud what I am going for that helps, it seems to ring in my ears and linger.

  19. Beverly G says:

    I have always found it helpful to walk back into the room where the thought originated, there is usually a visual trigger there that caused the thought in the first place!! 🙂

  20. Thank you! all my over 50 friends thank you for solving the mystery!
    Ilissa Banhazl, Marriage and family therapy in Glendora, CA