Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Cognitive Processes in Story Understanding

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Cognitive Processes in Story Understanding

Article excerpt

Over the last half dozen years I have been engaged in a program of research designed to understand how the meaning of a story is represented in a reader's long-term memory and how that representation is created. This research has its origins in two widely held generalizations about story comprehension. The first holds that causal connections play a major role in the mental representation of a story. The second holds that readers are able to perceive a relationship between two story events only if they are simultaneously available in working memory. The major goal of my research has been to discover how readers overcome the limited capacity of working memory to discover the rich pattern of causal relationships found in even the simplest stories.

Attention plays a central role in the solution to this problem. Prior to reading any sentence, a reader's attention is focussed on a small subset of the material from the preceding text. If this material is semantically related to the following sentence, comprehension proceeds more smoothly than if it is not. A series of experiments carried out in my laboratory suggest that readers always focus their attention on the last event in a story that has causal antecedents, but no consequences, in the preceding text. If, for example, a target event ("Kate's sister came in and told her that the oven was broken.") is followed by a causal antecedent ("She had tried to use it earlier and discovered that it would not heat up.") rather than a causal consequence ("Since she had the cake batter ready, Kate decided to use the neighbours' oven."), we find that: (a) probe words from the target event ("told") are recognized more quickly and more accurately, (b) continuation sentences related to the target event ("From the parlor, Kate's mother heard voices in the kitchen.") are read more quickly, and (c) subject-generated continuations are more likely to be causally related to the target event. Compared to other potential attention-allocation strategies, this strategy maximizes the likelihood that a reader's working memory will contain a causal antecedent to the next sentence that he or she reads. …

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