Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Verbal Labeling as an Assimilation Mnemonic for Abstract Visual Stimuli: The Sample Case of Recognition Memory for Chinese Characters

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Verbal Labeling as an Assimilation Mnemonic for Abstract Visual Stimuli: The Sample Case of Recognition Memory for Chinese Characters

Article excerpt

In four experiments, we examined the effect that presenting a verbal stimulus (viz., an English noun) alongside an abstract visual stimulus (viz., a Chinese character) enhances recognition memory for the abstract visual stimulus. Experiment 1 demonstrated that the character-plus-word combination at both encoding and retrieval results in better recognition than does a character-alone presentation or presenting the combination at encoding only. Experiment 2 demonstrated that presenting the word first and then the character results in better performance than does the opposite order. Experiment 3 showed that the concreteness value of the word, not familiarity, is the critical factor. In Experiment 4, presentation time was varied. More time was needed for liftoff from chance level for the word-character combination than for the character-alone presentation. Together, the results suggest that subjects spontaneously assimilate stimulus and word into a single representation by building asymmetric effortful imagery associations, going from the English word to the Chinese character.

What makes a stimulus memorable? One of the best-established findings in the field is that access to a deep representation of a stimulus-that is, the extraction of a stimulus's meaning, as opposed to its perceptual characteristics-enhances recall and recognition considerably (see, e.g., Craik & Tulving, 1975). But what about stimuli that do not carry meaning-that is, stimuli that are all perceptual characteristics, all abstract shapes? In one earlier study (Verhaeghen et al., 2000), we investigated memory for one such type of stimulus-namely, memory for Chinese characters in non-Chinese readers-and contrasted this with memory for words denoting objects and living things. Our paradigm of choice was a time-accuracy paradigm (i.e., encoding time was varied, with a maximum of 6 sec per stimulus); we tested recognition through a two-alternative forced choice procedure. Figure 1 reproduces the results. It is clear that in this group of Englishspeaking readers, memory for Chinese characters was worse than memory for English words at all presentation times. The data also strongly suggested that a further increase in presentation time will not alleviate the difference between the two classes of stimuli. This suggests that the Chinese characters are represented much more poorly in long-term memory. In other words, there appears to be a real limit to the amount of information that can be retained from complicated, abstract stimuli.

One manipulation that has been found to enhance recognition memory for unfamiliar, meaningless, and complex stimuli is verbal labeling (e.g., Daniel & Toglia, 1976; Ellis, 1968; Ranken, 1963; Santa, 1975). In these experiments, a complex, random shape is associated with a verbal label, sometimes random as well (e.g., Daniel & Toglia's subjects associated polygons with colors), but often not (e.g., Santa used labels suggestive of the shapes in one of the conditions), and this association leads to better performance on a subsequent (mostly forced choice) recognition test.

At least two types of hypotheses have been advanced to explain why presenting a verbal label along with an abstract or meaningless shape might enhance one's recognition memory for the shape. The oldest of these originates in Gestalt psychology (e.g., Carmichael, Hogan, & Walter, 1932) and has been labeled the assimilation hypothesis (Daniel & Toglia, 1976). This hypothesis asserts that during the encoding episode, the abstract stimulus and its verbal label become assimilated into a single configuration and that this integrated configuration is what is retained in memory.

In contrast to this associative view, the hypotheses put forward in the 1960s and 1970s state that the label serves merely to enhance encoding of the stimulus. For instance, the conceptual-coding hypothesis (Ellis, 1973) maintains that labels have their effect by directing the subject's attention to particular attributes of the stimulus. …

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