So these days humility is the name of the game, and chances are good this has also happened to you. You walk from one room to another with the express purpose of—wha … ? It’s another memory lapse. When it happens to me, I smack my forehead to chide my neurons, and sometimes that helps. Laughter always does. Did I really need that Pop Tart?
There’s good news, however, and since it comes from the world of science, I already feel smarter. This kind of memory lapse has a name: the Doorway Effect. If we move through space with a specific intention, we are more likely to forget that goal if we go through a doorway than if we walk the same distance from one side of a room to the other. It turns out that each time we go through a doorway, our reptile brain tells us to jettison everything we can so that we are fully alert to the present: new is dangerous. From an evolutionary standpoint, the doorway effect makes perfect sense.
For me, the phenomenon raises interesting questions about memory. It’s an overworked metaphor, but life really is a series of doorways, a series of initiations. First kiss, first job. First marriage. To what extent do we have to ‘unremember’ the past to be free to invent the future?
I recently visited London, England, and made a pilgrimage to 43 Portman Square, where I worked as a clerk when I was twenty. Those six months were both frightening and thrilling: far away from home, I was discovering who I was, who I could be. (It turned out I could be a big fan of pubs.) The façade of the old building was as I remembered, but peering through the double doors, I could see that the interior was vastly different, spacious, light filled. At first I was disappointed that my body didn’t remember my exhilaration or my fear—but then I felt lighter, easier. I didn’t need to carry the weight of memory through that door. I had already arrived, safely.
I still feel frustrated when my short-term memory sticks it to me, but one of the perks of getting older is that we can take the long view. Sometimes our forgetting is a reminder to ask some important questions: What do we really need to bring with us each time we pass through a doorway? A sense of wonder? Yes. Humility? Yes.
And maybe a Pop Tart. Said she, archly.