An article in Scientific American, published in December, 2011 by two grad students from Washington University in St. Louis, discusses a study by researchers from Notre Dame. The paper the researchers published was titled, “Walking through doorways causes forgetting.” I remember hearing an NPR report on the “doorway effect,” and finding some vindication for behavior that I have demonstrated for a long time. In the midst of doing something, I will think of something else to do — something unrelated to the first task — and stand to walk into another room to do — what? I will have forgotten the task. I do this all the time, and no longer worry about it. It is merely mildly irritating. (I can be told to remember three things, have a short conversation and accurately recall the three things I was told, thereby acing my Alzheimer’s test.) The Notre Dame researchers posited that the brain works in many ways to achieve memory, one of which is the event model: we remember events best, when asked to recall them in the same context as when we learned them. “Some forms of memory seem to be optimized to keep information ready-to-hand until its shelf-life expires.” The brain readily dumps old information in favor of incoming new stuff. This happy-jack information, while reassuring me that I am within the normal scale of human behavior, does not help me to understand why I forget to be a decent human being when I cross the threshold of an automobile’s door.
I’ve written before of my abhorrent behavior when I am behind the wheel of a car. I am the king, and the peons are poor drivers. No one drives as well as I, and the highways should be cleared of riffraff before I enter them. I swear — great gobbling spittle-laced multisyllabic epithets, tossed against the windshield — at everyone. But I, as Jules from “Pulp Fiction” said, am “in a transitional period.” I no longer want to be that person, but I recently spent some time with that person, and he was not me.
I helped a man I know with some tasks, and we spent a lot of time in his car, traveling to various locations throughout the city. I am not close to the the man — I know him from the bars and pool tables of my travels — but he has been helpful to me in the past, and demonstrated caring and decency. But his driving habits are those of Attila The Hun (if Attila had driven cars). He swore at everyone and everything rolling, he yielded no quarter and took no prisoners. He screamed at the light runners and ran red lights at will. If you were in the “merge left” lane, he crushed you into the wall. “A turn signal does not mean you can come in here,” he bawled at everyone. It made me sad to think that I have displayed that behavior, been that person I do not like, doing and saying things that disgust me in the recounting. Perhaps, once I closed the car door, my brain was purging the “be kind” information, thinking it had reached the end of its shelf life.
When my two young children in the rear seats of my car, I wanted to model civilized behavior for them and they were a check on my language. I need to make their presence my “event model,” to remember “peace, be still,” and the events that give me cause to celebrate the presence of others, and to make the closing of my car door an anticipation of the exercise of patience and generosity.