Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Causal Coherence and the Availability of Locations and Objects during Narrative Comprehension

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Causal Coherence and the Availability of Locations and Objects during Narrative Comprehension

Article excerpt

The aim of this study was to examine whether locations of objects are encoded and available to the reader at different points in a narrative, depending on their causal relevance. Participants in five experiments read narratives in which the spatial relation between an object and its location either did or did not provide a causal explanation for a later critical event. Object and location target words were presented to the participants immediately before or after the critical event. Speeded recognition response times to target words demonstrated that both locations and objects were reactivated, but only after they became causally relevant. The results suggest that the causal structure of a text can influence the availability of spatial information and that at least some spatial relations are encoded during reading and are available to the reader when they are needed to build coherence.

Comprehenders of a narrative can mentally represent many dimensions of the world described by a text, including spatial relations, temporal information, goals, and causal structure. With regard to the dynamics of the availability of spatial information during reading, especially concerning the locations of protagonists, the research findings have been inconsistent. Whereas some results suggest that readers do not keep track of detailed spatial information without special instructions to do so (Albrecht & O'Brien, 1995; Hakala, 1999; Zwaan & van Oostendorp, 1993, 1994), other results suggest that readers do keep track of spatial information even when not explicitly instructed to do so (Bower, Black, & Turner, 1979; de Vega, 1995; Glenberg, Meyer, & Lindem, 1987; Levine & Klin, 2001; O'Brien & Albrecht, 1992). To clarify these seemingly inconsistent results, it would be useful to discover the factors that contribute to the availability and maintenance of spatial information during regular reading (see Levine & Klin, 2001 ; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998). In the experiments that follow, we tested whether the causal relevance of spatial information affects the availability of previously mentioned locations and objects in a text.

Researchers generally agree that successful comprehension of a narrative entails representing a model of the situation described by the text (Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994; Johnson-Laird, 1983, 1989; Perfetti, 1989; Radvansky & Copeland, 2000; Radvansky, Zwaan, Curiel, & Copeland, 2001; Zwaan, Langston, & Graesser, 1995; Zwaan, Magliano, & Graesser, 1995; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998). These situational representations are described as mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1983) or situation models (van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). The process of creating a situation model allows readers to understand things that are not explicitly stated in the text. In some instances, readers will draw inferences about the spatial relations between objects or the causal relation between events. For example, in comprehending the sentence "Three turtles were sitting on a log and a fish swam beneath them," readers routinely infer that the fish swam beneath the log (Bransford, Barclay, & Franks, 1972). Similarly, during the construction of a situation model, readers may attempt to explain the causes of events as they proceed through a text (Fletcher, Hummel, & Marsolek, 1990; van den Broek, 1990). For example, imagine a narrative in which the protagonist goes to the dentist one morning to get his wisdom teeth pulled. Later that night, his cheek is swollen. Drawing from a rich set of life experiences, a reader can easily infer that the character's visit to the dentist caused his cheek to be swollen. Comprehension of a passage therefore involves much more than the processing of individual sentences; it also involves the construction of a rich representation of the situation to which the text refers (Hess, Foss, & Carroll, 1995).

Another important aspect of the construction of situation models is its dynamic nature. …

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