Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Interfacing Relational Frame Theory with Cognitive Neuroscience: Semantic Priming, the Implicit Association Test, and Event Related Potentials

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Interfacing Relational Frame Theory with Cognitive Neuroscience: Semantic Priming, the Implicit Association Test, and Event Related Potentials

Article excerpt

Behavioral psychologists, it has been argued, seek to develop a science of behavior that is independent, yet complementary to, the neurosciences (e.g., Barnes & Hampson, 1997; DiFore, Dube, Oross, Wilkinson, Deutsch, & Mcllvane, 2001). As a behavioral account of human language and cognition, Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is part of this tradition (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001). It follows, therefore, that a critical component of the RFT research agenda should involve studying the functional relations that obtain between environmental events and the physiological activity that takes place inside the brain and central nervous system, with a particular focus on human verbal behavior. Admittedly, this type of research is only in its infancy. Indeed, the first author is one of the few behavioral psychologists to have published research that has attempted to integrate the study of neural-network models with a behavioral theory of human language and cognition (e.g., Barnes & Hampson, 1997).

A logical and indeed vital extension of this earlier work would involve studying neural activity as it occurs during the performance of specific verbal or cognitive tasks. One ideal methodology for research in this area involves measuring what have been called event-related potentials (ERPs). These measures are averaged segments of electroencephalograms (EEGs) that are time-locked to a specific type of stimulus. The waveforms, or components, that emerge following the averaging procedure provide a measure of the brain activity that is functionally related to the time-locked stimulus. Event related potentials therefore allow the researcher to examine neural events that occur between the onset of a stimulus (e.g., a word on a computer screen) and an overt response (e.g., a key press). Although it is difficult to identify the specific location of the neural activity that produces these waveforms, ERPs can provide a measure of the summed activity of the brain with timing in the order of milliseconds. As argued by Barnes and Hampson (1997), measuring neural events that occur in this short temporal gap will be absolutely critical in developing a more complete understanding of language and cognition from a behavioral perspective.

Of course, calling for the study of such neural events is relatively straightforward. It is quite another matter to undertake the painstaking and difficult work involved in developing and refining the necessary experimental procedures, and gathering the relevant data sets, that are necessary to uncover the nature of the neural activity that is functionally related to human verbal behavior. In the current article, we will outline a recent program of RFT research that is aiming to address this issue.

In particular, our research program constitutes one of the first steps toward interfacing the behavioral and cognitive neuroscience approaches to semantic processing in natural language.

RELATIONAL FRAME THEORY AND THE BEHAVIORAL ANALYSIS OF HUMAN LANGUAGE AND COGNITION

One of the core assumptions of RFT is that the behavioral units of human language and thought may be defined in terms of derived stimulus relations and relational networks (Barnes & Holmes, 1991; Hayes, et al., 2001). Perhaps the simplest example of a derived stimulus relation is the equivalence relation, which some have argued provides the basis for semantic or symbolic meaning in natural language (e.g., Sidman, 1986, 1994). Equivalence relations are often examined in the behavioral laboratory through the use of a matching-to-sample (MTS) procedure. This procedure involves training participants to match abstract stimuli to each other and then presenting a series of test or probe trials to determine if predictable, but untrained, matching performances emerge.

In a typical computerized MTS trial, a participant might be presented with the nonsense word CUG as a sample stimulus and ZID as one of two comparison stimuli. …

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