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Can design influence memory?

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Courtesy of Flickr CC License chatirygirl
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. 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 work examines, but 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.

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.

Screenshot of simulation Courtesy of Gabriel Radvansky
Screenshot of simulation Courtesy of Gabriel Radvansky

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.” 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.”

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. 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)

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

Photographs: chatirygirl

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

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

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

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 Management, 3(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:Christopher N. Henry. "Can design influence memory?" 16 Nov 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>