Doorways, Memory, and Literature


Just a quick post today on a recent Scientific American article. I’m working on a longer post on cognitive science and cognitive linguistics and what I’m doing with this area of research, but for now some off-the-cuff musings on a recent bit of research in cognitive psychology and how it might be relevant to the study of literature. Brecon Cathedral in Wales (photo credit: Dara Jasumani,

The article summarises a research paper (which I haven't had a chance to look into fully yet) that reports on the effect on memory of a change in location. As the SciAm article points out, this is the common experience of walking into a room and forgetting why you went there. Apparently research suggests that this effect isn't simply due to a change of associated context or environment nor distance travelled, but the physical act of passing through a doorway. It seems walking through a doorway, or other similar event, purges working memory.

The really surprising thing is that this effect is evident not only in real-world environments, but also virtual environments. Test subjects were given a video game which involved carrying items around unseen in a virtual backpack in a virtual environment and being tested on their memory of the objects. Sure enough the "doorway effect" was present in these virtual experiments as well.

This got me thinking about possible literary applications of this research. If the "doorway effect" is present in a virtual environment, does reading about such boundary-marking events cause similar memory purges or segmentation? And what is the impact of this on narrative structure and episode boundary marking? I myself have worked a bit on episode boundary marking, particularly linguistic markers, but I've also noticed things like sea journeys marking narrative divisions.

And what about the memory mansion technique (or method of loci), of memorising things by placing them in the rooms of an imagined building? Does this "doorway effect" have an impact on this mnemonic technique?

No doubt some bright spark will do some research on the literary implications of this "doorway effect"…