Perhaps you are already familiar with the idea that walking through doorways makes people change their minds– literally. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrates that walking through doorways makes people forget the task at hand, like what you went upstairs to get, or what the alarm on your phone is supposed to signify. Anecdotal evidence– e.g. “I forgot what I came downstairs for…”– suggests that this is a common experience for most people at some point in their lives. But what does the neuroscience community have to say about the cause for this phenomenon?
As University of Notre Dame Professor Gabriel Radvansky explains, “Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away. Recalling a decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.” In other words, the act of passing through a doorway initiates the mind’s process of “filing away memories”, even if they aren’t yet ready to be filed.
Memory is fickle like that– and the science to definitively demonstrate this phenomenon is slippery. But if true, this burgeoning understanding of the threshold effect (our words, not theirs) is also a profound metaphor about the value of changing up your environment.
Some are beginning to speculate that if doorways can help you forget, they might also offer a fresh start. If you’re obsessively ruminating over something or can’t seem to get out of your head, try walking through a doorway into another room. Better yet, go outside. Humans have always benefitted from subtle breaks in routine– even if the break is as simple as walking through a doorway.
If you are obsessively ruminating over something or can’t seem to get out of your head, try walking through a doorway into another room, or going outside. Humans have always benefitted from subtle breaks in routine– even if the break is as simple as walking through a doorway.
Crossing a threshold is a powerful, symbolic act. I would suggest using this “forgetting” reaction to your advantage– in the midst of panic attacks, during heated arguments, or in periods of excessive rumination. Walking through doorways will not save you nor will it magically offer a solution to whatever is bothering you. It does, however, work rather effectively at breaking patterns of cyclical thinking. The impact is minimal, the payoff is potentially much greater, and it’s very likely to help you “snap out of it”. At the very least, walking through a doorway is much gentler than a cold shower or a slap in the face.
The Threshold Effect
This is due in part to the fact that cyclical thinking often results from a subconscious feeling of being trapped. You might feel trapped between two undesirable decisions; or trapped between fear of failure and fear of the unknown; you could be struggling with indecision about a job, relationship, or a financial aspect of your life; or struggling to reconcile something that you may be denying about yourself, which is its own form of entrapment. These thoughts can all take on an obsessive quality.
The passing through a threshold between indoors and out is particularly effective, in my experience, at helping me make decisions or get in touch with my intuition. (Gut feelings occasionally need coaxing, and changing up your environment is a good way to bring fresh perspective. Consider the examples of an athlete who goes for a run to “clear their head”, or an artist who travels to get inspiration.) However you approach it, what’s clear is that the answers to your problems might not be looming on the other side of the door, but taking the time to pass through it at least orients you in the right direction. Perspective comes, at least in part, when you decide to make the effort.
Want more brain hacks? Read our article on How to Cure Racing Thoughts at Night.