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The Mortar of Cognition

Context: Talk presented as part of the Perception, Action and Learning (PAL) series, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, Feb, 2017

Title: The Mortar of Cognition: Semantic relations play a crucial role in memory, language comprehension and analogical reasoning

Abstract: If entity concepts are the building blocks of cognition, then semantic relations are the mortar that holds them together. Relations provide an organizational structure for semantic knowledge and they grant us the ability to abstract information beyond a single learning episode. Relations are thus the very “fuel and fire of thinking” and are arguably what makes human cognition so special. In this talk I will discuss my recent efforts to understand (a) how semantic relations are represented in long-term memory, (b) how they are retrieved by different instances and exemplars, (c) how they influence associative recognition memory, language comprehension and analogical reasoning. Specifically, I will present findings from a series of experiments on relational and structural priming, as well as experiments that uncovered a novel relational luring effect (RLE) in associative recognition memory. The RLE shows that people are more likely to falsely believe that a novel word pair such as AIRPLANE PILOT has been previously seen, because they have studied a relationally similar pair such as SHIP CAPTAIN. The RLE presents fundamental challenges for models of semantic and episodic memory, and it has important implications for unitization in associative recognition, analogical reasoning and retrieval, as well as constructive memory research.

Presentation slides: PDF

Take-home message:

  • Semantic relations are represented abstractly in LTM
  • The same representation can be retrieved unintentionally by different exemplars
  • This affects associative recognition, lexical processing, language comprehension, etc
  • These abstract representations give rise to relational priming, structural priming and relational luring effects
  • Sometimes this happens unintentionally, without awareness and without involving executive wokring memory resources
  • We can gain a better understanding of memory by studying how its properties relate to its purpose in cognition and behavior

Relevant publications:

  • Popov, V., Hristova, P., & Anders, R. (2017). The Relational Luring Effect: Retrieval of relational information during associative recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication PDF
  • Popov, V. & Hristova, P. (2015). Unintentional and efficient relational priming. Memory & Cognition, 46(6), 866-878. PDF
  • Popov, V. & Hristova, P. (2014). Automatic analogical reasoning underlies structural priming in comprehension of ambiguous sentences. In P. Bello, M. Guarini, M. McShane, & B. Scassellati (Eds.), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1192-1197). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society. PDF
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