An Activation-Based Model of Sentence Processing as Skilled Memory Retrieval

Richard Lewis, Shravan Vasishth

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We present a detailed process theory of the moment-by-moment working-memory retrievals and as- sociated control structure that subserve sentence comprehension. The theory is derived from the applica- tion of independently motivated principles of memory and cognitive skill to the specialized task of sen- tence parsing. The resulting theory construes sentence processing as a series of skilled associative memory retrievals modulated by similarity-based interference and fluctuating activation. The cognitive principles are formalized in computational form in the Adaptive Control of Thought–Rational (ACT–R) architecture, and our process model is realized in ACT–R. We present the results of 6 sets of simulations: 5 simulation sets provide quantitative accounts of the effects of length and structural interference on both unambiguous and garden-path structures. A final simulation set provides a graded taxonomy of double center embeddings ranging from relatively easy to extremely difficult. The explanation of cen- ter-embedding difficulty is a novel one that derives from the model’s complete reliance on discriminat- ing retrieval cues in the absence of an explicit representation of serial order information. All fits were ob- tained with only 1 free scaling parameter fixed across the simulations; all other parameters were ACT–R defaults. The modeling results support the hypothesis that fluctuating activation and similarity-based in- terference are the key factors shaping working memory in sentence processing. We contrast the theory and empirical predictions with several related accounts of sentence-processing complexity.

Cognitive Science