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The doors of perception

| Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Why am I here?

The old Baltimore Catechism of my parochial school years had a ready answer (as it so consistently and comfortably did): “To know, love and serve God.” But my current query is of a more specific nature: Why am I here, in the laundry room? Young or old, we’ve all experienced the phenomenon of stepping into a room and forgetting the purpose for our trip. Perhaps the better question is: Why did I forget why I am here?

Notre Dame psychology professor Gabriel Radvansky suggests that the act of passing through doorways may actually cause these memory lapses. In a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Radvansky explained that passing through a doorway serves as an “event boundary” in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away. He concluded that “recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.”

In his first experiment, Radvansky allowed the white mice to take a break and used college students to perform memory tasks. Using a virtual environment, subjects moved from room to room via a door, selected an object on a table and swapped it for an object on a different table. They also performed the same task while moving around in one room without crossing a doorway. The results of the test demonstrated the students forgot more after walking through a doorway compared to moving the same distance while staying in one room.

The second experiment essentially repeated the memory tasks in a real world setting, requiring students to choose objects from a table, then conceal those objects in boxes. After hiding the objects, the students then either walked across a room or traveled the same distance including passing through a doorway. The real world results duplicated those from the virtual experiment: passing through a doorway reduced the students’ memories.

Finally, Radvansky examined whether doorways caused memory loss or if one’s ability to recall information is linked to the location where an action or decision took place. Students in this experiment chose objects to hide, walked through several doorways and returned to the room where they started. The students’ ability to recall the objects chosen did not improve, bolstering the conclusion that passing through a doorway causes the mind to file away memories. Anecdotal observations also support the corollary that passing through doors of certain drinking establishments may accelerate the collapse of memory. Dude, where’s my car?

Office design consultants read Radvansky’s research with an eye towards capitalizing on his discoveries. One designer emphasized that this tendency of persons to forget while passing through doorways is an opportunity to “prepare a blank slate for [your visitors’] new location.” The consultant claimed moving guests through a series of planned entranceways gives the owners of the properly designed environment a “precious few minutes … when your company will clinch or lose influence.” The specific advice was mostly of an obvious and trivial nature (e.g., “Keep all public and client facing spaces well maintained and looking neat and tidy”), with the occasional nod to Radvansky’s work (“Make doorways and entrances as wide as possible so that the transition is more of an experience”).

The theme of doorways and passages wiping memory predates Radvansky’s research. Dante acknowledged the dramatic power of doorways when he admonished travelers crossing the threshold of Hell to “forget all hope, you who enter here.” A gentler rumination on the need to set aside the burden of past memories is found in “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The poem traces the poet’s contemplation on the broken spiral shell of a nautilus, a relative of the octopus that closes off old chambers and moves to new ones as it grows.

Most notably, the elder Holmes sees the effect of moving from one chamber to the next: “Year after year beheld the silent toil / That spread his lustrous coil; / Still, as the spiral grew, / He left the past year’s dwelling for the new, / Stole with soft step its shining archway through, / Built up its idle door, / Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.”

Not to give away the ending, but the final move of the nautilus, as it is for each of us, is to leave “this mortal coil.” While Shakespeare’s meaning of “coil” in Hamlet’s soliloquy is more like “turmoil,” the result is the same. After that final passage, then what happens? Mansions and purer light in heaven? Do we get another shot with our lives? Or does death serve as celestial Windex, as imagined by William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

In Chinese cosmology, Meng-p’o is the old woman who greets you in the underworld and wipes your mind of all memories of life before the soul is reincarnated. No offense to Meng-p’o, but I paid dearly to collect my memories — good and bad, treasured or not — and I am willing to keep them as long as God allows. When I think of my friends and family, of my beautiful wife and wondrous children, I want to make sure that whatever room I finally step into, I am allowed to remember it all. Otherwise, why am I here?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at patrayram@sbcglobal.net

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