Web tour: Scientific American: “Doorway effect” on memory

At first, I was skeptical of the provocatively titled recent article “Why Walking through a Doorway Makes You Forget” in Scientific American Mind Matters. Then I remembered that only a few days before, I’d gotten up from my desk in my home office to retrieve a pen on my bedside table, and upon entering the bedroom and approaching the table, I had completely forgotten why I had gone in there. Apparently, I was experiencing the “doorway effect”.

According to the article by Charles B. Brenner and Jeffrey M. Zacks, a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame has been investigating these types of minor memory lapses. They ran a series of experiments which determined that a shift in location, which involves passing into another room through a door and doorway, causes our memory to discard recently experienced memory from the previous room in order to make room in memory for new experiences in the next room. Interestingly, our memory doesn’t seem to discard recent memory when we move an equal distance elsewhere in the same room. It’s the transition through doors and doorways into different rooms that causes the effect. Plus, it doesn’t seem to help if a shift is back into the room where the memory was encoded; we still experience a memory lapse.

It’s fun to ponder the design implications of this kind of scientific finding. Perhaps it’s a good justification for keeping a home office distinctly separate from a home’s other living spaces, lest work pre-occupations seep into family time. Or perhaps it supports more open spaces in a senior living space, such that activities undertaken in a kitchen at one end of a space aren’t forgotten in a dining area at the other end of a space.

I’d be curious to know if the experiment holds true when the doorway doesn’t include a door. What if the doorway is oversized and doorless?  Might transitions through column-supported soffits have a similar effect? The scientists note that in one of the virtual space experiments, the difference between the various rooms was reinforced by different wall patterns. What, then, if subjects were to travel between real spaces exhibiting markedly different finish treatments in which a nuanced transition is indicated by an opening in low walls with nothing overhead? Would there be a “doorway effect” beyond the transition? I’d love to know. Here’s hoping there’s more research conducted into the implications of architectural space on our thinking and behavior.

by Katie Hutchison for House Enthusiast

The secret behind continuing ed. bliss

I remember an architectural coworker teasing me about my needing time to “take calligraphy classes or whatever”. I wasn’t taking a calligraphy class, and he knew it, but what struck me as so spot-on and funny about his dismissal of my extra-curricular pursuits is that I would have loved to have taken a calligraphy class then or now.

I’ve often pondered what it is about my “non-essential” creative endeavors that captivate me so. I look forward to them the way many anticipate a vacation on the beach or poolside. I find myself completely blissed out in a pin-hole photography class, a creative non-fiction workshop, or a plant-identification field-visit primer. What’s it all about?

mystery-of-being-human books
For a while now, I’ve been turning to books for the answer. There’s been a series of what I’ll call mystery-of-being-human books taking up space on my nightstand over the years, starting first with Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Then, moving on to My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely,  A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink, and most recently Happiness at Work by Srikumar S. Rao, Ph.D.

Of course, I read other books in between these, but it wasn’t until finishing Happiness at Work a couple of weeks ago that I realized how much overlap there had been in the books cited above, to which I had gravitated. For me, they all seem to support an aspect of some inescapable truths; we all long for sublime connections to people, experiences and/or entities outside ourselves, and it is within our power to realize those connections. David Brooks describes such a drive, identified by current research in neuroscience, psychology, sociology and behavior economics, as “limerence”.  Brooks explains in The New York Times that “… the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God”.

choosing how to perceive
Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, had a transcendent experience in the midst of a stroke, which struck the left hemisphere of her brain. In My Stroke of Insight she writes,

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Web tour: Boston Globe: The meaning is the metaphor in thought and design

I’m fascinated by the mind/body connection. This may be, in part, because I’m an architect. I believe that shaping spaces, which our bodies inhabit, can shape the minds inhabiting them, and vice versa. So I often find Drake Bennett’s writing about cognitive and behavioral science in the Ideas Section of the Globe intriguing.

This week Bennett wrote about thinking literally. Bennett reports that cognitive scientists are studying how commonly understood metaphors are the “keys to the structure of thought”. When we describe someone as warm, a situation as heavy, a goal as lofty, or a problem as hard, we are using what scientists call “primary metaphors”. These they believe are more than communication tools but “markers of the roots of thought itself”. Scientists are taking metaphors literally. According to Bennett, "without our body's instinctive sense for temperature -- or position, texture, size, shape, or weight -- abstract concepts like kindness and power, difficulty and purpose, and intimacy and importance would simply not make any sense to us".

To study their theory, scientists are conducting experiments “altering one side of the metaphorical equation to show how it changes the other”. Give folks warm cups of coffee; then ask them to assess a person described to them, and they find that person to be warm. Give some other folks iced coffee; ask them to assess a person described to them, and they find that person to be cold. O.K., it's a little more complicated than that, but, yikes. Are we really that literal and that suggestible? Looks like it.  Bennett writes that “metaphors reveal the extent to which we think with our bodies”.

This would suggest that subtle changes in our environments: how soft, hard, dark, light, smooth, or rough they are would influence how soft, hard, dark, light, smooth, or rough we feel. It’s always fun when common sense prevails. 

Take a look at other House Enthusiast posts (here and here) which also reference Drake Bennett’s writing for Ideas.
by Katie Hutchison for House Enthusiast

Reading recommendation: Architecture and the Brain

by John P. Eberhard with a Forward by Rita Carter

O.K., so it’s not a catchy title. Nor is it a particularly catchy book, but it addresses a topic that's becoming increasingly catchy. What is the role of the brain in our perception of architecture? How can we better understand the effect different types of architecture have on the brain, so as to create architecture that the brain responds to positively? In some ways it’s a bit of a no-brainer really: if we can isolate the architectural characteristics to which we intuitively respond, we can design more responsive buildings.

Eberhard’s book attempts to distill a complicated topic into terms an attentive general reader can grasp. I’m not sure I was attentive enough. It’s a tough slog. I agree wholeheartedly with his premise that architects would find it “useful to know that there was some solid evidence based on fundamental studies to back up their intuitions.” It’s just that I hoped I’d find that evidence at the ready in the pages of his book.

What I did find was a welcome introduction to the field of neuroscience. In an early chapter on our sensory systems, I learned that we have six senses not five. The new-to-me sixth sense is called proprioception. “It tells us where our body is in space –- what is up and what is down, how to catch a ball, and how to find objects in the dark,” Eberhard explains. Clearly this sense is critical to how we perceive architecture, but we're not particularly conscious of it.

Turns out a lot of what we’re responding to in our environment happens on a subconscious level. Emotions work this way. We can have an emotional

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