Where are my keys? 

Rory Rohde

Most of us have had the experience of walking into a room with a purpose, but not remembering what that purpose was. Sometimes we have a general idea (I’m here to get something – but what was it?) and sometimes we have no idea why we entered the room. Often we have to retreat to the previous room in an attempt to remember our original purpose.

According to Gabriel Radvansky of Notre Dame University, who has done extensive research in this area, a doorway is an ‘Event Boundary’. When we leave one room for another our brain ‘closes the file’ on the old room and ‘opens the file’ for the new one. Why this happens is still being researched and speculated on.

Psychologists believe we can generally juggle between 5 and 9 items in our short-term, or ‘working memory’. Because our working memory can only hold a limited number of items, our brain is constantly preforming ‘triage’ on that list, prioritizing it and dumping the lower ranked items when something more important grabs our attention.

Research has also shown that we are only able to focus our vision on one thing at any moment. We ‘feel’ like we’re seeing everything in our field of vision, but we’re really mentally filling the rest of it in (whch explns hw you cn mk sens of ths sntnc). Our eyes scan constantly within that field. Our peripheral vision may draw our attention outside of it, but for the most part we rely on a ‘mental map’ of our current environment, focusing on what’s changing (in my case these letters as I type them), to update that model.

One theory of Event Boundaries is that when we go into another room, even though it’s familiar, we automatically scan it to compare the current state of the room to the mental model stored in ‘the file for that room’. Doing this takes attention – brain workload, potentially dumping the reason we came into the room out of our working memory.

Whatever the reason, none of the research has yielded a solution and none is expected. But simply being aware that this phenomenon happens and knowing the reason behind it may help you combat it in the future. Or at least, you won’t think, “Gosh, I’m a forgetful idiot.”

You might think, “Wouldn’t it be better if I was perfect and never forgot stuff?” But that’s what makes us humans and not robots, and that’s a good thing, People tend to like people who make mistakes (this is called the ‘pratfall effect’), and more importantly, when we are distracted is when we are more likely to be creative, which is what being human is all about.

Richard “Rory” Rohde has worked as a Senior Air Traffic Control Analyst at Fort Hill Group since its inception in 2011. He previously worked as an air traffic controller at Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center for over 25 years. Connect with Rory on Linkedin