Monday, January 22, 2007

Does a canary breathe?

I like to start out with questions. The question above might have taken you a second to figure out. In the 70's-mid 80's, it was very popular to study language associations. There are so many journals I cite that ended in 86-89. Most of which contain foundational articles and amazing linguistic theory. Comsky, Daneman and Carpenter, Meyer and Schanvedlt (sp?) are all buried in dusty microfilm, books on the second floor of the library where only a select few of us go, and in works-cited page after works cited page.

The 80's brought on the advent of working memory studies. most of what I read that was foundational for working memory was done then. I guess popular topics come and go.

The latest thing in cognitive neuroscience is aggression, attention, and gendered behavior (or the lack thereof). Look at the launch dates of journals, and their end dates, and you can see when society wanted to better itself and how.

70's= what we say. 80's=where those words come from. 90's=why can't our kids sit still? Are we destined to have the NAS as featured in Johnny Mnemonic?

But I digress. Does a canary breathe? A question like that is answered in longer time, usually, than "Does a canary sing?" Collins and Quillian (1969, 1972, 1975) developed a theory of what is known as "semantic memory." There are maps in your head. D. Mook (2004)describes semantic memory as "in contrast with short-term or working-memory, the amount of information that is stored in semantic memory is enormous. It includes the facts that Rome is the capital of Italy, that Madrid is the capital of Spain, that Columbus crossed the ocean in 1492, and that Zebras do not wear overcoats."

Mook describes the theory much better than Collins and Quillian ever do (brilliant researchers, crappy writers). He describes semantic memory as a massive library, with each word cross-referenced in several-to-millions of different ways. Wickens (1970) clarifies that nouns most likely to be cross referenced this well and even then, some verbs are adjectives, some verbs are nouns, some nouns are adjectives, (you can be chicken, you can eat a chicken; you go for a run, have a run in your stockings, or run from the police; you can jam your toast, your traffic, or music, or a "jam" can just be a song...etc.).

But, on the whole, it still stands true that most words exist in a phenomenal store. Back to the library motif, "In a library, entries will be classified in a hierarchical system or network, such that books about (say) animals will be in a place reserved for them. Then books about birds will likely be found within that section, and so on. There may be a number of different routes, in other words, by which we can get to the informtion that we need, but the point is that from a given starting place, we only have to search among a limited number of entries that are connecte3d to that starting pkace, rather than plodding through the entire library" (Mook, 2004, p210).

In 1969, Collins and Quillian tested the semantic hierarchy. They even included a nice little graphic which is roughly similar to this: .

Note Canary can sing and is yellw, but to find out if it breathes, your cognitive network has to go up to birds, to animals. If I asked "can a canary fly?" you would have to go up only one level.

The experiment was as follows: the researchers sat college students in front of a computer (sound familiar?) with different questions being presented. Some involving only one step in the above hierarchy (Is a canary a bird?) and more. The more steps it had to take, the longer the response took.

The results? It actually took longer to answer "does a canary breathe" than "does a canary sing?" by about half a second.

*hold onto the seat of your pants, you're about to fall over*

In my experiment, I have college students in front of a computer screen deciding if a sentence makes conceptual sense. 1/3 of these sentences are found not to make sense, 1/3 are found to make sense, and 1/3 could go either way. I'm looking at the N400, a rection to semantics and semantic memory. In theory, reaction time (RT) should be longer for type2 (could go either way) than the other two.

Each sentence leads you down a garden-path (Stanovich, 1979), or high-cloze probability. Such as, "The frog caught a fly with its ____" tongue would be one answer. But if I said "A frog caught a fly with its vacuum," the N4 would be triggered. We already discsussed this in prior entries.

Since the brain takes longer, and the brain reacts stronger, to a sentence that makes no sense, it could be because your brain is following these pathways and not getting what it expected (Stanovich, 1979, Neville, Coffey, Holcomb, 1992). Therefore, it could be argued, that there is neurological evidence for this sort of pathway to exist.

A good follow-up experiment would be to simply replicate these questions and see if the N4 is triggered. In doing this research, I've thought of a thousand more questions to be answered. But until then, I ask you, is a stagecoach a vehicle?

Mook, D (2004) Classic Experiments in Psychology. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

Collins, AM., Loftus, EF., (1975) A Spreading Activation Theory of Semantic Processing Psychological Review 82(6) 407-428.

Collins, AM., Quillian., MR., (1972) Experiments on semantic memory and language comprehension, In LW Gregg (Ed) Cognition in learning and memory New York: Wiley 1972

Collins, AM., Quillian, MR., (1969) Retrieval Time from Semantic Memory J. Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior (8) 240-247

Stanovich, KE, Nathan, RG., West, RF., Vala-Rossi, M., (1985) Children's Word Recognition in context: Spreading Activation, Expectancy, and Modularity. Child Development (56) 1418-1428

Meyer, DE., Schvanveldt., (1971) Facillitation in recognizing pairs of words: evidence of a dependence between retrieval operations. Journal of Experimental Psychology (90) 227-234


Shauna said...

It's interesting, because I might've expected a non-hierarchical model... more like working association. You don't really associate canaries with breathing the way you do, say, lungs, so it would take you longer to reply. In which case I guess you'd predict the same amount of time to answer both the ambiguous one and the clearly-makes-no-sense one, so long as they require you to access words you don't associate with the subject.

I thought you were working with working memory, though! *confused*

Nemo85 said...

oh, it all starts to wrap itself around itself. So far, this is all in the preamble to my Div3!