Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Event Boundaries

Sharon Wildwind

How are you doing on the healthy big five?

Exercising every day? Eating reasonable-sized portions of healthy foods? Keeping those blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels in good ranges? Sleeping enough? Brushing and flossing every day?

Ready for a new health hazard?


I swear I’m not making this up. Late last year researchers from the University of Notre Dame released results that showed walking through a door contributes to memory loss.

People who were asked to remove objects from a table, and then walk through a door, had difficulty remembering what objects they had removed. People who walked the same distance, but didn’t go through a door remembered more objects.

What’s more, the door didn't have to be real. The researchers found the same results whether test subjects walked through a real objects and a real door or a virtual-reality universe.

A door is an event boundary, a marker that separates activities and marks a change from that happened there; this happens here. That separation is handy for things like keeping the list of chemicals used in chemistry class separate from the list of ingredients for Aunt Matilda’s ginger chews. Chemistry happens in the lab; cooking happens in the kitchen.

Great for safety in the kitchen, but not so great when we can’t remember why we went to the kitchen in the first place.

This door thing started me thinking about event boundaries we build into our lives.

Breakfast at our house ends twice each day. For my husband, breakfast is over when he stands up from the table. For me, it not over until several hours later when I empty and rinse the breakfast tea pot. This probably accounts for the discrepancy when, sometime between noon and one PM, he asks, “What’s for lunch?” and I respond, “Lunch? I just finished breakfast a few minutes ago.”

It’s time to stop Christmas shopping when I hear Little Drummer Boy for the first time in a mall. I can take that song only so many times. Like once. Then it’s game over and time to either make gifts or segue into on-line shopping.

Dare we discuss Daylight Savings Time? Whatever Sunday springing forward or falling back is moved to, the real change for me happens at least two weeks later when my body grudgingly admits that the change isn’t going away and I’d darn well better get with the program.

Event boundaries are one of the things that initially made genre fiction, genre. They were the classic turning points—usually three—where the situation changed , making it impossible for the protagonist to return to a previous behavior pattern. Romance event boundaries were easy to spot: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. Any idea what these boundaries were for science fiction, westerns, and mysteries?

Here’s some door art for you to look at while you think of the answers. No peeking now.

Science Fiction

1. The sentinel awakens. That lowly engineering tech working the night shift knows the ship doesn’t sound right, but no one believes him.

2. The failure of conventional science. Nothing can stop the menace.

3. An unconventional idea saves the day.


1. An outside force threatens the community.

2. The community loses either courage (the sodbuster sells his farm) or reason (the lynch mob outside the jail).

3. The hero restores the community to safety.


1. The body is discovered.

2. The detective takes on the case out of a sense of duty.

3. The search for the killer becomes personal and the detective knows she has or will have to pay a price to see justice done.

If by any chance you want to remember those lists, maybe you should write them down before you leave the room.

And by the way, happy spring. Another boundary we're passing through today.


Quote for the week

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art.

~ Charlie Parker (1920 to 1955), bandleader, bebop saxophonist and composer


Kathy Emerson said...

I've always said that going through the door at a conference hotel cost me brain cells. Now I undrstand why!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Love the post, Sharon. LOL when I read it aloud to my hubby. And Kathy, you don't need to remember what you learn at a conference. Feminist psychology says women are relational--I go for the schmoozing, not the content. ;)

Sheila Connolly said...

That makes intuitive sense (another Aha! moment), although this is the first time I've seen it put into words. Each room has its own identity and its own function, so as we move from one space to another, so does our brain.

My kitchen has five doors, four of which lead to other spaces. So my kitchen either has multiple identies or is confused! Maybe there's a good analogy for writing in there: too many options leads to a muddled story?

Julia Buckley said...

That door thing is fascinating!! I have to mull over it for a while . . .

Thanks for sharing!

Susan Oleksiw said...

What does this mean for people who live in modern houses with space flowing between spaces but no walls between living room, dining area, and kitchen? Do they have better memories? I'm tearing down the walls in my house if they do.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sharon, I hooted when I saw you credit the study on doors to a researcher at Notre Dame. I'm a ND Law grad, and the school publishes posters of campus images. The most popular? The doors of Notre Dame! http://magazine.nd.edu/assets/8997/doorslg.jpg (If the link doesn't get you the image, Google Notre Dame door poster.)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Susan, that is a possibility. Just don't tear down any load-bearing walls. :-)

Leslie, rolling on the floor laughing. I'm going to download a ND door photo to use as a reminder.