The Nuance

Why Your Brain Needs Boundaries

And how modern life is ripping them down

Markham Heid
Published in
5 min readFeb 3, 2022


Photo: Avi Richards/Unsplash

It happens to everyone now and then. You walk into a room and find you’ve forgotten why you’re there. Was there something you needed? Or something you wanted to do? Whatever it was, it’s gone.

Psychologists call this “the doorway effect.”

For a 2011 study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers at the University of Notre Dame confirmed that people are much more likely to lose their train of thought or forget something after passing through a doorway.

This is not just a weird mental quirk. It hints at the way your brain relies on spatial and contextual cues to organize information and impose some order on the world.

“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind,” said Notre Dame psychologist Gabriel Radvansky, PhD, in a press release that accompanied his 2011 study.

More of Radvansky’s work explains how your brain uses these event boundaries to partition and package experiences in ways that ultimately aid recall and inform behavior — sort of like the way drawing a grid on top of a random assortment of dots can help you better recognize and recreate their pattern.

‘Modern life can be like walking into a house that is empty, not only of furniture but of floors. There is no structure to support or guide you through living there.’

The gist is that your brain likes to nest its knowledge inside of settings that resemble the real world.

A famous memorization technique known as the method of loci supports this idea. The technique involves visualizing a place — such as your childhood home — and mentally placing things you want to remember at specific locations inside it. According to a 2009 case study, one person used this technique to memorize a string of more than 65,000 digits.

Why does your brain work this way? Experts believe the human mind tries to create links between places and the events that transpire in them so that the next time you’re in the same setting, you’ll…



Markham Heid

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.