Nov 7, 2011

Where to look for ideas you may have misplaced

A couple of days ago, I riffed a bit on research findings about how walking through doors seems to have an adverse effect on memory.

Folks at Lifehacker read about the research too - and had their own angle on it, dictated in part by the site's raison d'etre. Their take was the tip 'to write down what you want to remember before you move into another room' - the emphasis being on ideas that you come upon and may subsequently forget, as happens all too often.

That conclusion is only partly true. Walking through doors affects only one kind of memory - episodic memory which relates to specific events, places and times. The other kind of declarative memory - semantic memory - is responsible for meanings, understandings and concept-based knowledge unrelated to specific experiences, and is immune to doorways.

If the idea or thought had anything to do with the latter, you're not going to forget it even after repeated mishaps of walking through doors. But ideas are also often related to sequential events or thinking around events - this thought leads to that and that leads to an idea.

It is here that the risk of forgetting something as a result of a new memory episode (related to the simple act of leaving a room) is high. But even here, from my own experience, one tends to forget not the idea in particular but the whole chain of thought leading up to it. All it takes is remembering a link in the chain and, sure enough, the idea comes back with the eagerness of a lost puppy.

To be fair, the original BPS Research Digest post doesn't actually clarify these distinctions of memory - but there's something more that it does clarify that Lifehacker gets positively and absolutely wrong.

Here's what the Lifehacker goes on to say:
Another interpretation, BPS Research Digest says, is that the increased forgetting wasn't about the "boundary effect of a doorway" but that the context had changed. In other words, participants had better memory about objects in the room where they created those objects.
The original post mentions the plausibility of context playing a possible role, but only to report that further research doesn't support that hypothesis :
Radvansky and his team tested this possibility with a virtual reality study in which memory was probed after passing through a doorway into a second room, passing through two doorways into a third unfamiliar room, or through two doorways back to the original room - the one where they'd first encountered the relevant objects. Performance was no better when back in the original room compared with being tested in the second room, thus undermining the idea that this is all about context effects on memory. Performance was worst of all when in the third, unfamiliar room, supporting the account based on new memory episodes being created on entering each new area.
In other words, if it's an idea you have misplaced and forgotten, don't bother going back into the original room and looking for it there.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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