Can design influence memory?

Courtesy of Flickr CC License / chatirygirl

Have you ever rushed across your house to get something from another room, but by the time you got there you completely forgot why you were there? This might seem like a trivial question for architects, but it might have more to do with architecture than you might think. Your memory appears to be affected by how many doorways and rooms you go through.  This sounds absurd, but a recent study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology has been able to measure this effect at several different levels of environmental immersion.[1] The study comes out of Norte Dame Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky’s lab. Much of Professor Radvansky’s work explores how spatial organization can influence the mental narratives we construct to learn, retain and apply information. Radvansky believes, “many architects already intuitively grasp many of the concepts [his] work examines, but [his] research could further improve their understanding of how spatial design affects a building’s users.”

The location-updating effect:
When Professor Radvansky gave a group of students a series of different colored objects to remember, and then asked them to either cross a room or pass through a doorway into another room, the subjects showed differences in memory.  Even though the participants traveled the exact same distances, they exhibited a decline in memory when they went through a doorway.

Perhaps the most maddening aspect regarding this effect is that it holds true at different levels of immersion.  The effect has now been tested at three different scales: a 66” diagonal display screen simulation, a 17” diagonal monitors simulation, and a full-scale immersion in a real environment. This finding suggests that the effect arises more from a conceptual framework than a perceptual one.

Screenshot of simulation Courtesy of Gabriel Radvansky

Radvansky says this makes sense if we construct mental narratives to organize and retain information. When we cross through an event boundary we parse one event into two. Next, we foreground the most current event. If we then try to retrieve information that was carried over the event horizon, the two events compete and interfere with each other. This is known as the location-updating effect.  Conversely, when there is only one event, such as a single open room, associated with a particular goal, idea, and/or information it is much easier to remember; there is no need to update the location in this situation.

Does this mean architects should design as few thresholds as possible? Should all offices and houses be large open-plans? Radvansky doesn’t think so. The doorway study is only a small portion of a much larger body of research. Radvansky says, “it all depends on the room’s program. For instance, other research suggests that setting aside specific rooms for specific tasks can be more beneficial than a large open plan that incorporates many different tasks. The divisions help keep the organization of our mental narratives more stable and easier to remember.”[2] Thus, Radvansky explains, “If we require collaboration, then open-plans seem to be more beneficial for memory than individualized room, and vise versa for specific tasks.”[3]

Of course, there are other concerns besides memory when it comes to deciding how specific or flexible a space should be, but research like Radvansky’s should undoubtedly be factored into the equation.[4] Collaborating with researchers like Radvansky could greatly enhance architects’ ability to meet their clients’ needs. By aiding the mental narratives that we construct to navigate the world, architects’ designs will be more salient, and perhaps more memorable to those that inhabit them.

(a little something fun for you gamers out there)
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Perhaps this research partly explains why this game so difficult.

If you enjoyed this article check out more by Christopher N. Henry here.


[1] Radvansky, Gabriel A., Krawietz, Sabine A., & Tamplin, Andrea K. (2011). “Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64, 1632‐1645

[2] For Radvansky’s work in this area see: Radvansky, G. A., & Zacks, R. T. (1997). The retrieval of situation‐specific information. In M. A. Conway (Ed.) Cognitive Models of Memory, pp. 173‐213. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Radvansky, G. A. & Copeland, D. E. (2000). Functionality and spatial relations in situation models. Memory & Cognition, 28, 987‐992.

Curiel, J. M., & Radvansky, G. A. (2002). Mental maps in memory retrieval and comprehension. Memory, 10, 113‐126

[3] All quotes are from a phone interview with Professor Gabriel Radvansky November 8, 2011.

[4] For other possible concerns about open-plans see: Oommen, Vinesh G., Knowles, Mike, & Zhao, Isabella (2008) Should health service managers embrace open plan work environments? A review. Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management3(2), pp. 37-43.

Heerwagen, Judith and Diamond, Richard C. “Adaptations and coping: occupant response to discomfort in energy efficient buildings,” Proceedings ACEEE 1992 Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, 1083-90, 1992.


Cite: Henry, Christopher N.. "Can design influence memory?" 16 Nov 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 May 2015. <>
  • A H

    are there any buildings actually designed with “environmental psychology” in mind?

    • Christopher Henry

      Here is an interview you might enjoy with Jan Gehl that discusses environmental psychology and urban design:

      • A H

        Thank you very much Christopher, I want to incorporate “environmental psychology” into my thesis and anything you throw my way will only help. I’m looking to explore the influence our built environment has on ones productivity, mood, etc…in an educational setting.

    • Jeremy Hunter

      A H, anywhere where money is made, environmental psychology is used: they want to manipulate the environment so you will spend more money. Everything from coffee bars to supermarkets will use environmental psychology… just think: if they can have vans delivering food, there’s a reason why their trolleys always have wheels that send you off in any given direction.

  • Oscar Lopez

    Extremely interesting! Great article! I too am interested in memory and architecture but for me I am focusing on the impact that places of contention have on the psyche of people who are forced to leave their homes/towns/cities and then either choose to return and rebuild and at what capacity they choose memory as a building element. Do they choose to rebuild completely or leave traces of built memory as a reminder. Very interesting, I am a huge fan of your Autism articles as well. Great work mate.

    • Christopher Henry

      Your explorations into whether people return and rebuild completely or leave reminders of the past sounds fascinating. I would be interested to read any studies that have been done on the topic. Thanks for the comment, and I am glad you have enjoyed the other articles.

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  • Mike

    I can see how this will lead to a new certification requirment, all buildings will need ‘memory accessible certification’ with all manner of expensive ‘memory consultants’ involved to sign off new designs…

    Ok I’m kidding, fascinating research, explains why retracing your steps can help you remember where you put your keys, or why you went into a different room in the first place.

    • Christopher Henry

      haha, I hope this doesn’t lead to more letters after architects’ name, MAA (memory accessible accredited).

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  • jrmr

    YAY Portal! i love it so much, best game ever ;)