Incremental Sequence Learning

Abstract

As linguistic competence so clearly illustrates, processing sequences of events is a fundamental aspect of human cognition. For this reason perhaps, sequence learning behavior currently attracts considerable attention in both cognitive psychology and computational theory. In typical sequence learning situations, participants are asked to react to each element of sequentially structured visual sequences of events. An important issue in this context is to determine whether essentially associative processes are sufficient to understand human performance, or whether more powerful learning mechanisms are necessary. To address this issue, we explore how well human participants and connectionist models are capable of learning sequential material that involves complex, disjoint, longdistance contingencies. We show that the popular Simple Recurrent Network model (Elman, 1990), which has otherwise been shown to account for a variety of empirical findings (Cleeremans, 1993), fails to account for human performance in several experimental situations meant to test the model’s specific predictions. In previous research (Cleeremans, 1993) briefly described in this paper, the structure of center-embedded sequential structures was manipulated to be strictly identical or probabilistically different as a function of the elements surrounding the embedding. While the SRN could only learn in the second case, human subjects were found to be insensitive to the manipulation. In the new experiment described in this paper, we tested the idea that performance benefits from “starting small effects” (Elman, 1993) by contrasting two conditions in which the training regimen was either incremental or not. Again, while the SRN is only capable of learning in the first case, human subjects were able to learn in both. We suggest an alternative model based on Maskara & Noetzel’s (1991) Auto-Associative Recurrent Network as a way to overcome the SRN model’s failure to account for the empirical findings..

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