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How walking through a doorway increases forgetting

Like information in a book, unfolding events are stored in human memory in successive chapters or episodes. One consequence is that information in the current episode is easier to recall than information in a previous episode. An obvious question then is how the mind divides experience up into these discrete episodes? A new study led by Gabriel Radvansky shows that the simple act of walking through a doorway creates a new memory episode, thereby making it more difficult to recall information pertaining to an experience in the room that’s just been left behind.

Dozens of participants used computer keys to navigate through a virtual-reality environment presented on a TV screen. The virtual world contained 55 rooms, some large, some small. Small rooms contained one table; large rooms contained two at each end. When participants first encountered a table, there was an object on it that they picked up (once carried, objects could no longer be seen). At the next table, they deposited the object they were carrying at one end and picked up a new object at the other. And on the participants went. Frequent tests of memory came either on entering a new room through an open doorway, or after crossing halfway through a large room. An object was named onscreen and the participants had to recall whether it was either the object they were currently carrying or the one they’d just set down.

The key finding is that memory performance was poorer after travelling through an open doorway, compared with covering the same distance within the same room. ‘Walking through doorways serves as an event boundary, thereby initiating the updating of one’s event model [i.e. the creation of a new episode in memory],’ the researchers said.
But what if this result was only found because of the simplistic virtual-reality environment? In a second study, Radvansky and his collaborators created a real-life network of rooms with tables and objects. Participants passed through this real environment picking up and depositing objects as they went, and again their memory was tested occasionally for what they were carrying (hidden from view in a box) or had most recently deposited. The effect of doorways was replicated. Participants were more likely to make memory errors after they’d passed through a doorway than after they’d travelled the same distance in a single room.

Another interpretation of the findings is that they have nothing to do with the boundary effect of a doorway, but more to do with the memory enhancing effect of context (the basic idea being that we find it easier to recall memories in the context that we first stored them). By this account, memory is superior when participants remain in the same room because that room is the same place that their memory for the objects was first encoded.

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.
These findings show how a physical feature of the environment can trigger a new memory episode. They concur with a study published earlier this year which focused on episode markers in memories for stories. Presented with a passage of narrative text, participants later found it more difficult to remember which sentence followed a target sentence, if the two were separated by an implied temporal boundary, such as ‘a while later…’. It’s as if information within a temporal episode was somehow bound together, whereas a memory divide was placed between information spanning two episodes. 

‘Most people with a mental disorder are happy’

In the Journal of Positive Psychology

It’s easy for us to slip into all-or-nothing mindsets. An example would be: a person has some psychological problems so their life must be miserable. But that’s a mistaken assumption.

So argue a team of Dutch positive psychologists, who’ve studied more than 7000 people over a three-year period. Yes, those participants with a psychological disorder were less happy than those without, but the majority (68.4 per cent) of the mentally troubled said they ‘often felt happy’ during the preceding four weeks (this compares with 89.1 per cent of those without a psychological problem). ‘The possibility of coexisting happiness and mental disorders is of clinical relevance,’ write Ad Bergsma and his team, based at Erasmus University and the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction. ‘A narrow focus on what goes wrong in the lives of the client and forgetting what goes well, may limit therapeutic results.’

The researchers recruited their sample, representative of the general population, from across the country. Trained interviewers questioned volunteers in person or over the telephone to establish signs of psychological disorder in the past month, with 16.5 per cent of the sample being judged to have a disorder based on psychiatric diagnostic criteria. Happiness was measured with a single question about frequency of happy moods over the preceding four weeks, on a scale from ‘never’ to ‘always’. Relying on people’s reports of their own happiness, using this one question, is an obvious weakness of the study.

Not surprisingly, among those with a psychological problem, happiness was lowest in those with anxiety and depression (although still a significant minority of these people reported frequent happy moods). By contrast, happiness was highest in those with an alcohol abuse disorder, being nearly as frequent as in the healthy participants. There weren’t enough cases of eating disorders and psychosis to examine these conditions separately.

By following up their sample over time, the researchers established that more happiness at the study start was associated with better outcomes later on, in terms of recovery from mental disorder. Further analysis suggested this was because higher happiness was a proxy for having fewer mental disorders, being younger, and having better ‘emotional role functioning’ (as indicated by managing to spend time on work and other activities). The fact that happiness was associated with later outcomes provides some support for the validity of the way that happiness was measured.

‘Our knowledge of mental disorders is incomplete if we only look at the negative side of the spectrum,’ the researchers said. ‘This study aims to broaden the view on positive functioning and human strengths in the context of mental disorders.’


Children’s moral judgments about environmental harm
In the December issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology

Young children in northeastern USA see harms against the environment as morally worse than bad manners. And asked
to explain this judgement, many of them referred to the moral standing of nature itself – displaying so-called ‘biocentric’ reasoning. This precocity marks a change from similar research conducted in the 1990s, leading the authors of the new study, Karen Hussar and Jared Horvath, to speculate about ‘the possible effects of the increased focus on environmental initiatives during the last decade … Although typically thought to emerge in later adolescence, a willingness to grant nature respect based on its own unique right-to-existence was present in our young participants.’

Hussar and Horvath presented 61 children (aged 6 to 10 years) with 12 story cards: three portrayed a moral transgression against another person (e.g. stealing money from a classmate); three portrayed bad manners (e.g. eating salad with one’s fingers); three portrayed a mundane personal choice (e.g. colouring a drawing with purple crayon); and three portrayed an environmentally harmful action (e.g. failing to recycle; damaging a tree). For each card, the children were asked to say if the act was OK, a little bad or very bad, and to explain their reasoning.

The children rated moral transgressions against other people as the worst of all, followed by harms against the environment, and then bad manners. Mundane personal choices were judged largely as ‘OK’. There were no differences with age.

Asked to justify their judgements about environmental harm, 74 per cent of the explanations given referred to ‘biocentric’ reasons (e.g. ‘A tree is a living thing and, it’s like, breaking off your arm – someone else’s arm or something’); 26 per cent invoked anthropocentric reasons (e.g. ‘Because without trees we wouldn’t have oxygen’). The ratio of these categories of explanation didn’t vary by age, but did vary by gender, with girls more likely to offer biocentric reasons. This fits with a wider, but still inconclusive, literature suggesting that women tend to base their moral judgements on issues of care, whereas men tend to base their moral judgements on issues of justice.

Hussar and Horvath said it was revealing that environmental harms were placed midway between harms against other people and bad manners. ‘This environmental domain [of moral harm] implies a sophisticated comprehension by young children such that consideration is afforded to environmental life over social order, but, at the same time, consideration is afforded to human life over environmental life.’
In contrast with the present findings, research conducted in the 90s found that young children tended to offer anthropocentric reasons for the immorality of environmental harm, only invoking biocentric reasons more frequently in late childhood or adolescence.

‘The participants in the current study are constructing morally-based views about nature and humans’ place within it from a very young age,’ the researchers said. ‘This moral stance was succinctly articulated by one of our participants: “Even if there’s no rules you should respect…(and) be good to the environment.”.’

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment and more.

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