Think back to the last time you walked into a room, and then immediately forgot why you had walked in there.
It's suddenly very difficult to remember - a huge effort to access those simple memories that were there just moments ago.
"Why did I come in here?"
There was something, it seems clear as day but it's just out of reach in your head... and the harder you try to grasp for it, the harder it is to remember what it was.
The experience is very much like waking from a dream, and watching the dream fade quickly from view.
In fact, I think this is exactly the same thing.
What you're experiencing here is a fundamental aspect of the functioning of the human mind, known by psychologists as as The Doorway Effect.
But before we talk about The Doorway Effect, I want to discuss a different aspect of the Human mind, which I believe underlies it.
A thing called "lineality."
What is Lineality?
Lineality describes our mental tendency to separate things, to divide things neatly into distinct groups.
We divide and categorize every aspect of our world.
Is that pain, or pleasure?
Where do I end, and the world begin?
Who is a stranger, who is an acquaintance, and who is a friend?
Is it morning, noon, afternoon, evening, or night?
What season is it now? What month of the year? What hour, minute, second of the day? What millennia? What century? What year? AD or BC?
Everything in our world gets grouped and segmented, automatically.
You even physically organize your world in this way. Your house likely consists of a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a couple of closets, a garage... every one of these locations contains different things, and you do different things there.
When we look at time, we divide our days into morning, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. We divide our weeks into weekdays, and weekends. We divide our years into months, quarters, and seasons.
When we look at people, we group them by gender, age, sexual orientation, skin color, language, culture, heredity, country of origin, body type, intelligence level, religion, political affiliation, fashion sense.
How about homeless, poor, low class, middle class, upper class, and rich?
When we look at places, we group them by key characteristics- indoor, outdoor, city, country, wilderness, subterranean, ground-level, elevated. We also group them by ownership- public, private- and governance- cities, states, and countries. We divide the world culturally into East, and West, with subdivisions like East Asian, West Asian, South Asian, with ever increasing further distinctions like Japanese, Korean, Chinese.
Every one of these "mental models" remixes the same set of things into different lineal groupings, which we then relate to differently.
Our minds continually need to organize and measure the world around us...
Working with Limited Attention
The book Thinking Fast & Slow is a seminal work by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner who introduced the world to cognitive biases.
In the book, the human mind is divided into two key systems;
- System 1 - the Subconscious mind, which is a fast, multitasking system for decision making.
- System 2 - The Conscious mind, which is far slower (try to dance while you are thinking about every movement, it doesn't work), and which has a very single-threaded mode of operation.
Your attention is limited, which means that when you want to focus on something, it's essential to push everything else out of your awareness.
We do this intentionally when we seek a quiet, distraction-free place for study or meditation, or slip on headphones while we work out.
Our also mind appears to have a number of automatic mechanisms to assist with this problem- and it starts with lineality, the discrete subdivision of the whole world into manageable little parts that we can deal with in isolation.
But our brain takes lineality much, much further....
It not only segregates things into groups- but for some important groups, it allows us to "enter" and "exit" that group mentally.
When we're "in" that group psychologically, that group is our whole world- and no other group matters.
Mentally, it's is as though we've walked into a room, and closed the door behind us. As far as we know, the whole universe consists only of that room, and there is nothing outside that door.
This is known as The Doorway Effect.
The Doorway Effect
The Doorway Effect describes two related things-
- First, it describes the context-sensitive nature of the brain- in which it likes to operate in one "room" at a time psychologically.
- Second, it describes the context-switching experience itself. The unloading one set of thoughts, rules, behaviors, and memories, and the loading of an altogether different set, in response to some trigger.
We're most aware of The Doorway Effect when we're physically changing location-
You walk from the living room to the kitchen, and then cannot remember what you came into the kitchen to get. You walk back into the living room and BOOM "Oh yes, of course... that's what I wanted."
This is The Doorway Effect in action, triggered literally by walking through a doorway - hence its name.
This happens all the time...
Imagine that you look in the refrigerator and realize you need milk. You hop in the car, go to the store, and come back with $100 of groceries. But no milk. It's not until you open the refrigerator...
"Holy crap... how did I forget the milk?"
So why does the brain do this?
If you've read the book Thinking Fast and Slow, you can appreciate the understanding that the "System 2" conscious mind is very limited in its capacity. Realistically, the most scarce resource you have it not time, but rather attention. Your attention can only be on one thing at a time.
To make this work efficiently, the brain evolved a mechanism by which it creates "rooms" in which your thought, memories, rules, behaviors all exist.
And only one "room" can be loaded at a time.
And this behavior helps your System 2 "conscious" mind deal with the problem of too much information.
Our mind simply organizes our world to deal with bring the most relevant information to the front, where its clearly visible to us.
Location, Location, Location
Central to this organization of "rooms" is physical location.
Have you ever gone back to your home town, or your primary school, and felt like a kid again? Those emotions, rules, memories, all resurface with a vengeance.
The theory goes that long ago, our survival depended on remembering where the banana trees were, and also where the quicksand and deadly snakes were. Location mattered a lot to both our resources and our safety.
So gradually, as certain locations became very important, our brain began to organize our thoughts, memories, and feelings by location, creating psychological "rooms" to focus our attention on what was most important at any given moment.
So then what exactly is a "place"?
Surprisingly, that's a bit vague.
A place can definitely be physical, such as your kitchen, or the local grocery store. Work versus home, versus your gym, versus the local pub.
Places also seem to include emotional states. When you study a test in a nice relaxed library, and then enter the exam room in a more anxious mental state, it's a different context and some of those just-studied facts feel locked behind a door.
The same experience happens when you present a well-rehearsed speech, and literally forget everything. When your brain enters a different emotional state, your context can switch with it.
The same effect happens when you're waking from a dream. The Dream feels so real, it was just there... aaand suddenly it's gone. Very quickly you can no longer remember the details. It unloads so quickly. If you've ever tried it, sometimes you can go directly back to sleep, and return to the same dream.
It's not gone... just in a different mental room that you can travel to and from.
I think that these mental contexts, exist in a lot places...
- rooms of your house
- different cities, and countries
- social groups, when you're with different people
- computer games
- different emotional states
- smells, colors, sounds, music
- alcohol and recreational drugs
Have you ever gone to Facebook to send a message, and then 30 minutes later, had no idea why you went there to begin with?
Have you ever looked through a photo album, and felt memories, and even emotions flooding back, like you were just there?
Have you ever wondered why, when you feel depressed, every sad memory from your whole life is in your head at the same time?
And when you feel very happy, there has never ever been anything wrong in your life?
Welcome to The Doorway Effect.
Now we know more, and here's what we want to explore...
- Can the impact of the Doorway Effect be minimized? Sometimes it's quite inconvenient.
- Are there beneficial ways that we can use the Doorway Effect to our advantage?
The answer to both, is yes.
Mastering The Doorway Effect
Minimizing the Negative Impacts of The Doorway Effect
It's often inconvenient to have something trigger a content-switch, and then suddenly forget something important.
The next time you enter the kitchen, and forget why, stop. Don't go back into the living room- instead, imagine yourself walking back into the living room.
With practice, you can learn to switch contexts intentionally and at-will, rather than only reactively in response to external triggers.
Similarly- when you're at the grocery store, stop for a minute. Imagine you're in your kitchen. You go through the pantry, check the refrigerator, look inside, open the cupboards.
You make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for tomorrow.
All in your head, fully imagined.
Is anything missing?
Practice referring to your shopping list only as a last resort.
This kind of technique is especially used by hypnotists to surface repressed memories, which are "locked" behind a door. But you can do it to yourself, to improve your ability to navigate the rooms of your own mind.
Using The Doorway Effect to your Advantage
Personally, I find that the doorway effect is incredibly useful, when I use it precisely for what it was designed for - to minimize distraction, and maximize focus on specific things.
Most people do this somewhat unconsciously. You may have specific places where you feel most effective at work, most relaxed, or most creative.
You can cultivate these.
For me, I create and cultivate specific locations exactly for this purpose. Places where I notice myself having heightened
- Creativity. I personally find creativity everywhere in my world- but if I stay too long in one physical location, it wanes. As I write this, I am changing location about every 90 to 120 mins between cafes, bars, the gym, my hostel, continually mixing it up. Practicing this enables me to maintain strong momentum in my creativity and thought flow.
- Perspective, usually for me I get more perspective the further I am physically from a thing. This is why for my quarterly reflection trips, I prefer to travel somewhere. It's very important, because it allows me to focus on reflection (past oriented thought) rather than being distracted by present and future-oriented thought, like work todo's.
- Motivation, like the gym, or at yoga.
- Relaxation and release. Massage, and sauna, and shower.
Use the doorway effect to "step outside" of a situation and gain new perspective on it.
I find this is particularly useful in problem-solving, in my work. Leave my desk and go to the gym, or take a shower, or go for a walk - that change of context changes how I see the problem and how I approach it.
Once I discovered this, I began using it intentionally. Stuck on some weird technical problem? Stop fighting it. Go to the gym. Almost always, my brain discovers the solution in the middle of a gym session.
The more deeply I explore this, the more I notice myself learning how to use this effect to my advantage, rather than fighting the natural design of my mind.
Here's what I recommend so far...
- Learn your "rooms." Where are your contexts? What places, emotions, people, etc are significant to your mind?
- Learn your triggers. What causes you to switch contexts? Going certain places? Opening Facebook? Seeing certain people? Or a certain logo? Hearing a certain song, or smelling a certain scent?
- Learn how to switch rooms, by understanding and using your triggers intentionally.
- Learn which rooms are most useful for given tasks.
- Learn how to prepare, clean, and decorate your rooms so that each of them is most effective. If a room is good for creativity, how can you maximize that?
If you want to go much deeper, look into the practice of building a memory palace, which uses this context-switching very intentionally as a tool to maximize memory.
I find this context-switching experience especially interesting between the realms of "being asleep" and "being awake."
As you're waking, just as you become aware of the world, you can keep your eyes closed and sort of stand "in the doorway" between the sleep state, and the awake state.
Some very interesting stuff exists there, because there are zero conscious rules in that world. Problems take on an entirely new possibility.
I can turn on my voice recorder and sort of sleepily utter what is on my mind. This is pretty fascinating thing.
When you travel to new, never-visited places, the room is always empty. The room is always new. There's always new experiences to learn. There's always new things to see. Your brain can have no pre expectations.
You can even do this to some degree in your own city, going to a new cafe, or walking in a new park or reserve.
But when you go traveling properly, you'll encounter new cultures, new languages, unfamiliar situations- this will take you entirely outside of your mental rooms, to a place which is entirely new.
That's a very, very powerful way to stretch your brain, and allow new thoughts and new perspectives to grow your mind.
Revisit old places, occasionally, as a part of life reflection
As I'm writing this, I am in Queenstown, NZ, running a series of BROJO Inner Circle sessions here.
It's a very interesting experience for me because I haven't been to Queenstown for about 7 years - and both times I visited previously, I was here with my ex girlfriend.
That relationship ended 5 years ago.
It was quite surprising to see how, even seven years later, everywhere I walk and everything I feel memories flooding back.
I am experiencing both the experiential memories of what we did together, and the emotional memories of how I felt at that point in our relationship. And they are surprisingly intense- like looking at an old photo book, seeing snapshots of memories and feelings, frozen in time.
None of this experience was even hinted at when I planned my trip, boarded the plane, flew to Queenstown, landed, took the bus... in fact, I had entirely forgotten those past experiences.
But once I arrived in central Queenstown, they flooded back as though I had been transported through time.
This is a great example which illustrates very clearly to me how powerfully the brain stores memories in contextual "locations" and automatically retrieves them when you're back in that context.
This can be terribly inconvenient, and uncomfortable.
Going back to your home town, visiting your parents, or hanging out with old high school friends, can remind you of an era of your life that you're happy to be past.
Not only will those thoughts and feelings come back as you enter that room, your "old self" is there too. You'll see your same old behaviors, and feel like you've regressed somehow.
Don't worry. That old you may never be "gone", but it's just a snapshot of that part of your life, locked in a room that you rarely visit.
This experience is very valuable in that it can show you how much you have changed. If you want to reflect deeply on your past experiences, revisit those places.
You'll get more clarity than you ever got before.
This aspect of the human mind fascinates me. As you explore this, please share your discoveries with me.
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Do other mammals also experience lineality, and the doorway effect? Or is this uniquely a human mind function?
Is it possible that the doorway effect, and the lineal nature of the mind, is stronger in males, than females?
Quantum Reality and the Doorway Effect
You can totally ignore this. It is probably meaningless. I kind of rather hope it is totally meaningless.
But the little I know about the Observer principle in Quantum Physics suggests that reality only exists when you are aware of it.
If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The quantum reality perspective on this is NO, it does not. In fact, the tree does not even exist as atoms until someone is there to observe it.
But consciousness, attention, awareness, observation- these are quite vague concepts that carry deep significance both in religions like Buddhism, and in quantum physics.
What does it mean to be aware of something?
If I enter a room, and close the door, and no one is outside that door, does the rest of the universe disappear, since I can no longer perceive it?
A fascinating rabbit hole of philosophy and science, to be sure.
The reason I bring this up is that it raises an unique corollary question in this article. Is it possible that when we're "in a room" in our head, that in essence the reason those other rooms unload is that they literally blink out of existence in some way.
I'm not proposing this as likely, just as... a fascinating thought.
Identity and Lineality
Identity is intriguing and I think it connects quite strongly with the Rooms context, and with Lineality.
Identity is an effort to define who we are in the context of the world around us. In that process, we use lineality to describe ourselves in comparison with others.
Friend v. foe
Danger v. not danger
Like me v. not like me?
The question "who am I" probably can't really exist if we are the only person on Earth.
In this world, that question doesn't have a meaning. I suspect that "Who am I" really means "How am I different, and distinct, or similar to, others." "What lineal groups do I belong to?" "Who are my people?"
Autism fascinates me because of the autistic savant. The fact that savants exist leads me to suspect that autism is not a birth defect, or an environmental ailment (e.g. mercury poisoning) - but rather an attempt at a significant step in evolution.
I've shared this possibility before, and there are a number of possible brain changes that could be happening, as a evolutionary response to how we use our brain in modern times.
We use our mind heavily to do science, logic, mathematics.
We push our attention to the limit, continually trying to multitask. Dopamine on overload trying to draw our attention in 50 directions at once- this is the environment we've created for ourselves.
Are autistic people as lineal as non-autistic? Is Autism a natural evolution in which the mind is attempting to break down those lineal walls and expand the amount of information that we have access to at any given time?
The reason I suspect this is that the autistic savant- those few people who are "successfully" autistic, and have the ability to process ridiculous amounts of information in ways that our non-autistic minds cannot.
Synasthaesia is a great example of this- the ability for example see mathematics as colors and shapes, which most of us would separate as entirely different experiences.
In "normal" human minds, our System 2 is very strongly single-tasked, only focusing on one thing at a time, System 2 stresses out quite easily if you try to overload it, which explains things like test anxiety.
You end up with a mental square-peg-round-hole problem quite often when your brain tries to understand and manage emotions, which are not rational thought constructs in a direct way.
So, perhaps the the reason that we are so obsessed with linear reality with linear realizing our world is that it makes it possible for our system to mind to function as efficiently as possible on a very scarce resource, which is attention.
In the few cases I've hear of severely autistic people "coming out of their shell", what they have related is a kind of sensory overload. An acute awareness of everything, as an overwhelming experience.
In software engineering, this cognitive overload is known as "drinking from the firehose."
In fact, this idea of memories attached to space is so powerful, it's the basis for an entire technique known as the memory palace.
In this technique, you imagine a large house, every room is different, and each room has things in it to that you can visually remember. A painting on the wall. A table with 3 books on it.
All of this, purely imagined, and you walk through it in your head.
A Process for Using the Doorway Effect
- List all of the places you're aware of where you feel and/or think differently. Especially where you notice emotions... peace, anxiety, happiness, confusion, fear. If just going to this place brings up those emotions, you can be confident that this is a "room" for you.
- Find the rooms where you are best at doing particular things, like reflecting on life, relaxing, focusing hard on a project, or allowing creativity to flow.
- Begin using these places for those activities.
- Learn from these places what you can, why is this place good for X.
- Seek new places which have those characteristics and see if they also work well for you, or even better.
- Seek to create those places in convenient locations for you- a favorite place to write, a favorite place to meditate, a favorite place to workout hard, etc.