When I was a child, we had a small black book in our bathroom called The Meaning of Liff, by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. It is a “dictionary” of place names, in which each is given a definition. Or, to put it another way, a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet”. So “Spofforth” is defined as “tidying up before the cleaner comes” and “Massachusetts” are “those items and particles which people who, after blowing their noses, are searching for when they look into their hankies.” “Silesia” is “not knowing, at the critical moment, which side of the boat it is best to be sick off.”
The one we used most commonly in my family is “Woking” — “standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for”. It became a favorite, of course, because it was so common, and so true. And many years after publication, it was explained scientifically by “the Doorway Effect”. A study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that “people were two to three times as likely to forget what they were supposed to do after walking through a doorway.” Quoted in the LiveScience blog, lead researcher Gabriel Radvansky, a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame, said:
When we are moving through the world, it is very continuous and dynamic and to deal with it more effectively, we parse things up. …Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away. Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized. …[T]he act of passing through doorways, rather than the fact of being in a different environment, kills memory.
And from Scientific American‘s coverage: “some forms of memory seem to be optimized to keep information ready-to-hand until its shelf life expires, and then purge that information in favor of new stuff. Radvansky and colleagues call this sort of memory representation an “event model,” and propose that walking through a doorway is a good time to purge your event models because whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant now that you have changed venues.”
I learned about the Doorway Effect from the TV show QI – which, ironically, was created by John Lloyd, and yet neither the show’s presenter nor its contestants referred to Woking or the Meaning of Liff during the segment on the Doorway Effect. What they did posit was that it is an evolutionary characteristic — to paraphrase from memory, as you leave the cave, you put aside your thoughts about fire risk, in order to focus instead on the risk of bears or whatever other dangers you might find outside.
I’m writing about the Doorway Effect here and now because I think it has relevance to those of us in lockdown. The journal article, and the associated coverage in the media, positioned the Doorway Effect in something of a negative light, or perhaps just as an amusing evolutionary leftover — gah, we go from the living room to the kitchen and can’t remember things. But of course, we wouldn’t have retained this evolutionary characteristic if it weren’t useful to us. And those of us in lockdown are starting to realize how useful it is. In just one half-hour meeting yesterday, the following comments were made:
- “I miss my commute! I thought I hated it, but I realize now it was a valuable buffer between work and home life, during which I could process my residual work thoughts and get myself into home mode.”
- “I can’t cope with the endless Zoom meetings. It’s too much for my brain to handle. At least in real life you get to walk from one room to another.”
Yes, there are wider reasons why we like being in the car, alone with the radio, or why it’s nice to stretch your legs and breathe some different air as you fortify yourself for the next meeting. But maybe we are also missing the Doorway Effect. Without crossing thresholds, we are going from meeting to meeting, from work to supper, without “purging” the information from the previous context. We are clicking our way into the next call with a brain already full of the previous background data, discussion points and actions — and trying to stuff more in there — and then more, when we join the call after that. And then we are going straight into a family supper while still trying to deal with all that information, all those worries.
Lots of seasoned remote workers talk about the value of a virtual commute — whether that’s going for a walk around the block before and after home-working periods, or even just setting up a workstation in a relatively unused room such that emerging from it and walking across the hall or down the stairs acts as a transition. The Doorway Effect would suggest there is some science behind what they have experienced — and that we should all add a little Woking to our day if we want to get through lockdown with our sanity intact.