Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Interpreting Spatial Terms Involves Simulating Interactions

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Interpreting Spatial Terms Involves Simulating Interactions

Article excerpt

Recent research in spatial language has demonstrated that the interpretation of a spatial term depends not only on the geometry of the configuration of the objects being spatially related, but also on extrageometric information, including information about the objects and their interaction. Such effects could emerge from activation of general knowledge of the association between the objects; thus, they should be widely observed. In contrast, they could be more restricted, emerging only in situations in which the spatial language task positions objects in a manner that is consistent with a simulation of their interaction. In two experiments, we test each of these ideas and demonstrate that extrageometric information augments geometric information in the interpretation of spatial terms only when the situation enables the interaction.

Spatial descriptions indicate the location of one object (a located object) by spatially relating it to another object (a reference object) whose location is presumed to be known or easily found (Beun & Cremers, 1998; Levelt, 1996; Talmy, 1983). A traditional view is that the interpretation of such descriptions is based on the geometry of the objects and their configuration (Herskovits, 1986; Landau & Jackendoff, 1993; Talmy, 1983). For example, in a geometric account, the command Put the mug below the teapot should result in placement of the cup under the center of the teapot. However, research across a variety of spatial terms has demonstrated that extrageometric information, such as knowledge about the objects and their interaction, also has an impact on how spatial terms are interpreted. For example, extrageometric knowledge might cause the listener to place the mug under the spout of the teapot rather than under its center. This has led to the suggestion of a weighted combination of geometric and extrageometric sources (see, e.g., Carlson-Radvansky, Covey, & Lattanzi, 1999; Coventry & Garrod, 2004). In the present study, we examine more closely the processes that give rise to extrageometric influence.

Functional Influence: General Knowledge or Simulated Interaction?

Our test case of an extrageometric influence is the bias to interpret a spatial term relative to a part of a reference object that is functionally important. Carlson-Radvansky et al. (1999) gave participants pictures of reference objects (e.g., a teapot) and pictures of located objects (e.g., a mug) and asked them to place the located objects above or below the reference objects. The reference objects had functional parts that were offset from the center (e.g., the spout of the teapot), enabling an assessment of whether placements were based on geometric features (e.g., the visual center of mass) or on function. For all objects, placements were biased toward the functional part. In the present experiments, we test between two possible accounts of this functional bias: one based on the activation of general knowledge of the objects, and one based on simulation of an interaction between the objects.

General knowledge effect. General knowledge about the objects could result in the functional bias in one of two ways. First, the bias could be due to the functional prominence associated with a particular part of the reference object (e.g., the spout's being critical to the function of the teapot). This account would predict that placements of a located object (regardless of identity) would always be biased toward a particular functional part. Second, the bias could be due to general knowledge of the association between the located object and a functional part, which is consistent with Langacker's (1993) idea of an "active zone" in which certain parts of an object are profiled. This account would predict that placements of located objects would be biased toward different functional parts, with the identity of the located object defining which parts were functionally prominent on the basis of their association (e. …

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