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Science

Out of Sight, Out of Mind 147

Posted by Soulskill
from the what-is-this-blank-text-field-for dept.
PerlJedi writes "Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have conducted a very simple study, with some surprising (or at least amusing) results about how our short term memory works. Quoting: 'Sometimes, to get to the next object the participant simply walked across the room. Other times, they had to walk the same distance, but through a door into a new room. From time to time, the researchers gave them a pop quiz, asking which object was currently in their backpack. The quiz was timed so that when they walked through a doorway, they were tested right afterwards. As the title said, walking through doorways caused forgetting: Their responses were both slower and less accurate when they'd walked through a doorway into a new room than when they'd walked the same distance within the same room.'"
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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:19PM (#38362530) Journal
    Alex Trebek: Good evening and welcome to another edition of "Open the Door Jeopardy" where contestants must step through a door after ringing in and answer because answering a 'clue' in the form of a question just isn't confusing enough. Ken Jennings, as our returning champion you start.
    Ken Jennings: I'll start with the category 'I Confess!' for $400, Alex.
    Alex Trebek: Very good ... 'His death and subsequent disagreement of heir resulted in the Battle of Hastings.'
    *Ken Jennings rings in, opens the door and steps through it*
    Ken Jennings: Um ... uh ... um ... I knew it a second ago.
    Alex Trebek: Ooooh, I'm sorry, time is up. Anyone else?
    *the heavy treads of IBM's Watson machine crush the door as it rolls in*
    Watson: Who was Edward the Confessor?
    • by GarryFre (886347)
      I don't need to open a door to know I have a book that have a short term memory leak.
  • by ClickOnThis (137803) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:21PM (#38362562) Journal

    Obviously the subjects' brainwaves diffracted when they walked through the door...

  • by RobinEggs (1453925) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:23PM (#38362604)
    So many famous quotes talk about the gravity of "walking through that door", about the hope of "opening a new door" or "closing a door...opening a window" that I wonder how much people associate doors metaphorically with permission to forget and ignore everything on the other side?

    Of course, ancient Greeks used architecture, specifically an image of a large house, to remember things: a common technique to plan and memorize a speech was to lay it out visually in your head, each room representing a major topic and each door perhaps representing a transition or gravid point. So architecture as memory cuts both ways.
    • by burleywinz (1247404) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:58PM (#38363106)
      I did not know this and will try this technique the next time I have to give a speech. Are you supposed to start in the basement or the attic? Probably doesn't matter. I just hope I don't fall down the stairs.
      • "Are you supposed to start in the basement or the attic?"

        This is Slashdot--I think you know the answer to that question.

    • Not exclusively an architecture thing. This Simonides guy [mnemotechnics.org] came up with a systematic way of associating arbitrary facts with spatial memory.

      Excerpt: Legend says that Simonides of Ceos was the inventor of the method of loci where large amounts of data can be remembered in order by placing images that represent the data into mental locations or journeys.

      The story goes there was a building collapse at a dinner party, killing everyone but Simonides (who had stepped out to receive a messenger). Anyway, the bodies were unidentifiably crushed but Simonides was able to identify the victims based on where they had been sitting.
      Interesting in that it uses spatial memory, something humans are pretty good at, to associate ar

  • by Caerdwyn (829058) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:24PM (#38362614) Journal

    Switching contexts is computationally expensive for our brains, and is a lossy procedure. Any techie can tell you that constant interruptions cause bad code because you lose context and the "gestalt" of what you are doing.

    It's one of the reasons why I've always insisted upon having at least one guaranteed-uninterrupted (nothing short of "the building's on fire... again") two-hour block of time per day in any tech job I have. If I don't have that, don't complain to me that I write bad code, but DO expect me to gripe about it in my status and my supervisor evaluation.

    #!/usr/bin/env python
    import os, sys, time, re, LeaveMeTheFuckAlone

    • by pclminion (145572) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:33PM (#38362762)

      Switching contexts is computationally expensive for our brains, and is a lossy procedure. Any techie can tell you that constant interruptions cause bad code because you lose context and the "gestalt" of what you are doing.

      While that is true, it does nothing to diminish the weirdness of this result. Walking from one place to another doesn't seem like much of a "change of context." Especially when your present location has utterly nothing to do with what you're trying to remember.

      • by marnues (906739)
        Weirdness, I don't get it. Walking through a doorway involves a lot of quick sensory work eating away at caches and main memory. These instinctual kernel processes take precedent to user-land thought processes. An obvious survival technique.
        • But what if the brain uses hypervisors?
        • by pclminion (145572)
          Really? You think walking through a door is a mentally taxing procedure?
          • by Baloroth (2370816) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:58PM (#38363116)

            Oh hell yeah. Is the door pull or push? Can I lift the handle, or do I have to push it down?

            And don't even get me started on automatic doors. You need differential calculus to walk through them properly: is the door going to be wide enough open for me to get through it at my present speed, given a low threshold of detection, or am I going to pull a Bieber and smash my face into it?

          • by idontgno (624372) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @07:31PM (#38363550) Journal

            Apparently (parsing TFA's explanation), yeah, it is.

            When you walk into a new scene, your brain performs a series of high-priority tasks to update your current situational map. It would be counter to your survival success to ignore new sensory and context information presented by rounding a corner or entering a cave, especially if that sensory information included such things a predators. Even if what you were pondering as you entered the new scene was, for instance, a very innovative way to knap and flake a stone axe that would really impress the Cro-Magnon chicks. Your pre-historic geek-trance will kill you if you wander all unawares into a cave bear den.

            As a high-priority background task, this situational integration would preempt cognitive resources, such as forcing a cache dump of short-term memory to populate with new page tables, as it were.

            Well, that's my interpretation. Sorry it's not a car analogy or a pizza analogy.

            • What I find fascinating is that all these processes happen and we don't even know it.

              You could ask the guy why he hesitated in his answers and it wouldn't be "Well, my cache got wiped when my environment-mapper interrupt fired". You could probe farther, "What were you thinking about when you first walked through the door?" and you still wouldn't get anything. These processes never enter our conscious mind unless the process finds something (perhaps a bear-shaped shadow in the corner) which needs immediate

              • by Boronx (228853)

                Even then, you're probably already taking bear-attack-preventative action before you even consciously notice the bear.

              • by DZign (200479)

                If you're interested in this, read the book Buyology by Martin Lindstrom. HE did tests how effective marketing/commercials/.. are for decision making using brain scans/eeg/...
                Seems most decisions are made instant by our unconscious, and only (milliseconds) later our conscious mind tries to 'explain' why we made a specific decision.

            • by jyx (454866)

              Well, that's my interpretation. Sorry it's not a car analogy or a pizza analogy.

              I thought Libraries Of Congress was the imperial analogical measurement of information.

              I want to know exactly how many L.O.C. can your brain retain in short term memory when moving between rooms?

              What if the rooms you are moving between are within the Library of Congress itself?

            • by drinkypoo (153816)

              This makes me wonder if standing near the doorway where you can see both rooms would alter the results. If you move into a subset of the visible space, do you have to think all over again or do you move into a subset in your brain?

            • by dzfoo (772245)

              So wait, if you're running away from a predator and enter a cave, you suddenly forget why you got there and why you were in such a hurry? Somehow I see this as not really helpful to survival.

                    -dZ.

      • by bipbop (1144919)
        I can't argue, but I do notice I think very differently in different physical spaces. I find I can solve coding architecture tasks better if I go for a walk outdoors, for example. Sitting in front of my computer seems to be better for detail-oriented work. So while I don't really understand how the brain works, and I wouldn't have guessed the results if you'd asked me beforehand, they do make intuitive sense to me. Changing spaces affects cognition.
      • by deblau (68023)

        You have to context switch from walkToObject(environment, objectLocation) to avoidObstacles(environment, perceptionFilters). Yeah avoidObstacles() is just a function call, but it's a processor-intensive one and it has higher priority.

    • by eulernet (1132389) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @07:13PM (#38363322)

      Switching contexts is computationally expensive for our brains, and is a lossy procedure. Any techie can tell you that constant interruptions cause bad code because you lose context and the "gestalt" of what you are doing.

      In fact, it's a little more subtle than that.
      What is expensive is not switching contexts, as you can check by reading 2 web pages simultaneously, it's pretty easy.

      But your performance degrades a lot when you try to multitask with your two cerebral hemispheres (for example computing and drawing at the same time).

      Also, when you have similar tasks, you have an internal limit, and you can easily store tasks that fit within your limit.
      When a task is closed, you'll forget it immediately, to free space for an incoming task.

      My own limit is around 3.

      This is called Zeigarnik effect:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspense#Zeigarnik_effect [wikipedia.org]

    • I was wondering if somebody was going to mention this.

      The fact is, when you walk into a new room you are seriously distracted. You are taking in the new sights, furniture arrangements, etc... As you say, it requires quite a bit of processing. I am not in the least surprised that they would temporarily "forget" something else.

      I bet the would get exactly the same results if they sneakily popped a balloon or dropped a metal pan right behind the subject, creating a loud noise, and tested them immediately
  • Meetings (Score:5, Funny)

    by sunderland56 (621843) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:24PM (#38362628)
    This is why I hate going to meetings and feeling stupid. Come to my cube and I'll know the answers.
    • by marnues (906739)
      There is a lot of truth to that. Conference rooms mean boredom to me so my brain loads the boredom context. If I need to say anything meaningful I need to bring notes. My cube (now just desk) is a place where I work and my brain loads my work context. It doesn't amaze me at all that the more we learn about the brain and effective software design, the more similar the 2 become.
  • I would think (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:26PM (#38362654)

    I would think this is due to the brain first checking the next room. It being a new place, we probably want to be well aware of the room before being too far in. Thus our attention is taken away from whatever we are thinking about a minute ago.

    • by Rary (566291)

      What's particularly interesting is that it's not just the act of moving into a new (and unknown) room, but the act of moving into a different room than the one you were just in, even if that other room is one with which you're already familiar. In other words, it's not the newness, but the shift.

  • I this why I forget what I needed whenever I walk into the next room?
    • by marnues (906739)
      My understanding is yes. In part, the other room may have a load of other things forgotten that the brain now views as a priority, because your immediate surroundings take precedent to a thought connected to now remote surroundings (the other room).
    • I have this problem even when I walk to different rooms with no actual doors in between.

  • Doorway or .. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ackthpt (218170) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:35PM (#38362786) Homepage Journal

    Changing mental focus causes forgetting. Can you multi-thread?

    Walking across room: : Command: Get blue pencil trudge trudge trudge See: pencils Take: blue one. w00t!

    Walking across room, through door: : Command: Get green string trudge trudge trudge See: Door Look for: Knob Act: Turn knob Act: Push door Door does not open. Act: Pull door Door opens trudge trudge trudge Halt. Query: What am I in here for? Pencil? Chair? Left-handed widget extractor? Rope? Hook? Trebuchet? Keys? Potrzebie? Fail!

    I frequently find distraction breaks my thread of thought and I lose the frayed thread end. Rather like going up stairs - "Uh. What did I come up here for?" Go downstairs - "Uh. What did I come down here for?" I've been doing this ever since I spent 20 minutes searching my parents house for the screwdriver I was holding in my hand all the time - I was about 12 years old at the time - I'm an expert in this field!

    • by Spectre (1685)

      ... Trebuchet!

      (all other thoughts in head now gone)

    • Well, in your example, you clearly had to travel twice as far in the second example. It took 3 trudges in the first example. The second example was 3 trudges, open a door, then 3 trudges!
      • by ackthpt (218170)

        Well, in your example, you clearly had to travel twice as far in the second example. It took 3 trudges in the first example. The second example was 3 trudges, open a door, then 3 trudges!

        Both rooms were of equal size. I'll have you know this is a controlled experiment. Thankyewverramuch.

  • Survival mechanism (Score:5, Interesting)

    by HangingChad (677530) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:38PM (#38362824) Homepage

    As the title said, walking through doorways caused forgetting

    I could see how that would be a survival instinct. When you cross a barrier into another space, job one for your brain is taking stock of where you are and processing possible threats. It's not that you forget what you have in your hand, your brain has merely busy with another set of priorities.

    When our ancestors moved from the cover of the woods to a grassy meadow, when they entered a cave, or rounded the bend of a river they were effectively going through a door to another space. The surviving human brains would have been attuned to both threats and opportunities, which would be a priority processing task kicked off by crossing the barrier threshold.

    • I agree. A new situation needs causes the brain to clear the memory ready to assess the new input.

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      As the title said, walking through doorways caused forgetting

      I could see how that would be a survival instinct. When you cross a barrier into another space, job one for your brain is taking stock of where you are and processing possible threats. It's not that you forget what you have in your hand, your brain has merely busy with another set of priorities.

      When our ancestors moved from the cover of the woods to a grassy meadow, when they entered a cave, or rounded the bend of a river they were effectively going through a door to another space. The surviving human brains would have been attuned to both threats and opportunities, which would be a priority processing task kicked off by crossing the barrier threshold.

      Now we walk into a room and look for RIAA, MPAA, FBI, CIA, CBP, IRS, CHP, Bucket o' Lawyers, Rambus, Apple's IP hounds, Fine Print, Wall Street Bankers, Lobbyists, WBC, FUD, Moderation, Metamoderation, Firehose, &c., there could be a giant space walrus with photon-flippers, but we'd completely miss it and stroll into its clutches.

    • "When our ancestors moved from the cover of the woods to a grassy meadow, when they entered a cave, or rounded the bend of a river they were effectively going through a door to another space. The surviving human brains would have been attuned to both threats and opportunities, which would be a priority processing task kicked off by crossing the barrier threshold."

      Maybe this is why talking/texting on a cell phone while driving is dangerous. The person is essentially straddling a threshold between two spaces-

    • by dzfoo (772245)

      In the meantime, the charging sabre-toothed tiger from which you were running away finds you confused and eats you.

      I wonder how we made it this far...

  • by mark-t (151149) <markt&lynx,bc,ca> on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:41PM (#38362886) Journal

    ... And I find that at least half the time, I can mentally retrieve whatever it was I was thinking of by going to the last spot I was in where I am certain I remembered it or was thinking about it, and then physically going through the motions of whatever it was that I was doing there last time, be it sitting down, walking in a particular direction, or what have you.

    It's a very weird phenomenon... like deja-vu in reverse.

    • by peragrin (659227)

      you are just helping your short term recall.

      I do that simply because I set down something important and have to go figure out where I left it.

      I had one cow worker who would lose their coffee cup in the warehouse once a month. I would simply walk the warehouse searching at hand level, elbow, and shoulder level until i found it. They set it down at a conveient height and walked off without it.

      sometimes I do forget a singular items off a large list of material that I quickly memorized. however by walking ba

  • by martin-boundary (547041) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:44PM (#38362916)
    Experimenter: Please walk this way.

    Subject: I think that door just sighed.

    Experimenter: Ghastly, isn't it? All the doors on this experiment have been programmed to have a cheery and sunny disposition. Now, how many objects in your backpack?

    Subject: Uh, really? That's, uh ... I'm sorry, what? Ah, I forget... what?

    Experimenter: *scribbles on clibpoard*

  • Dance Steps (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jamvger (2526832) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @06:48PM (#38362980) Homepage
    It is well known that when learning a new dance step, it is much easier to keep the room in the same orientation when rehearsing it. One gets particularly confused trying the step facing another direction before the step begins to be committed to muscle memory. Dancers call it "room memory" [wikipedia.org].
  • by davide marney (231845) * <<gro.aidemten> <ta> <yenram.edivad>> on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @07:01PM (#38363152) Journal

    After you have some unpleasant experience -- break up with your girlfriend, argument with your boss -- just walk into another room and start doing something else

    • by treeves (963993)

      Better yet, *while the unpleasant event is still in progress*, get up and walk out and go somewhere else. Works for me every time. At least as far as I can remember, it does.

      • by jovius (974690)

        The most optimal action would probably be to just stay in your room doors shut to avoid any unpleasant events.

  • Forgetting is a very important skill -- it's a big huge part of something that we call focus.

    With the exception of completely arbitrary doors, I'd argue that every door our there separates two head-spaces for a damn good reason.

    The experiment that you want to do next is to see if crossing back through the doorway re-strengthens the original memory. I would hope that it not only restrengthens the original memory, but that the original memory winds up being stronger after returning through the door (that's t

  • Some people are better at this and some better at that. I couldn't find numbers mentioned in the scientist article, only that "Memory was worse", not how much worse, in whatever sense, for how many people, for which people, etc.

  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @08:07PM (#38363950) Homepage

    In the first place, this has been known since the time of the ancient Greeks, in the form of the memorization technique known as the "method of loci." Rhetoricians memorized their speeches by associating each part of the speech with a room in their house, and as they gave the speech would mentally walk through the house. This is in fact the source of our expressions "in the first place," "in the second place," etc.

    In the second place... uh... I forgot what I was going to say.

  • When I loaded the new room, the old one get LRUed.

  • No doors. When I run my business I want my employees to be ahead of the game. Everything will be open to everyone all the time. There will be no 4 sided objects or anything that even resemble a doorway in fact. My employees will be the best! On an unrelated note, anyone know of an open field for sale in Kansas?
  • by bronney (638318) on Tuesday December 13, 2011 @10:24PM (#38365096) Homepage

    And the door is triple sized so the blind doesn't even know he walked through a door. What if it's a normal size door and he felt that he walked through something but being blind from birth, the door concept must have been real different from us.

    Are they better at remembering things?

    What if they change the experiment to automatic doors, glass vs. wood, etc. It'd be interesting.

  • by Bozovision (107228) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 @07:08AM (#38368020) Homepage

    If this research is validated, then there may be implications for UI design...

    Gnome 3, for example, works using an application space focus, rather than a window focus. In one way that's quite appealing - it gives you full focus on the task at hand without the distraction of the 12 other programs you are running at the same time. The problem that lots of people have reported/commented on is that it makes it very difficult to be task focused when a task involves more than one program. Part of this may be to do with the doorway context switch impeding short term memory retention on the task at hand.

    I've used Gnome 3 as an example, but it's far from alone; Metro & Apple full-screen apps spring to mind, though there's a mitigation with Apple full-screen in that it's not forced upon you.

    I wonder if there's a way to enjoy the focus of application-centricity without the disadvantages? For instance, I can imagine keeping a map of the other applications visible, or a representation of the overall desktop/workspace, as you move th'rough the doorway between applications, and/or as you work in an application space. (Slashdot, you may want to vote this up so that it isn't deleted when this item is archived, so that there's some evidence of prior art when large megacorp tries to patent this UI idea.)

    Something like that might be enough to jog short term memory and stop the context loss.

    Or of course, we could decide that window centric works best, but work on ways to easily group windows into tasks.

    Workspaces/Desktops are one way to accomplish this. The problem that I find with workspaces is that they are a clumsy way to manage tasks when I have an application that spans different tasks. But on the other hand, actively managing windows by marking and grouping them introduces unwelcome management overhead.

    I would welcome a system whereby windows and applications were grouped together, either automatically or on the cue of the user, by virtue of the fact that they had been used together. (Again - oh no megacorp! - more prior art! ) For instance, one embodiment of this might be to group windows or applications based on the transfer of info between them. Cut and paste for example shows a transfer of info, and could be used as an indicator of affinity.

  • The story goes that at the height of the cold war DARPA was working on some machine language translation software. English to Russian and Russian to English. When the felt that they had finally got it right they set the system up to take a phrase in English, translate it to Russian, and then translate that back to English to see how closely the phrases matched.

    The first researcher stepped up to the console and typed in: "Out of sight, out of mind."
    The computer returned: "An invisible lunatic."

    Sorry, seeme

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