Foraging in Semantic Fields: How We Search Through Memory

Topics in Cognitive Science 7 (3):513-534 (2015)
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When searching for concepts in memory—as in the verbal fluency task of naming all the animals one can think of—people appear to explore internal mental representations in much the same way that animals forage in physical space: searching locally within patches of information before transitioning globally between patches. However, the definition of the patches being searched in mental space is not well specified. Do we search by activating explicit predefined categories and recall items from within that category, or do we activate and recall a connected sequence of individual items without using categorical information, with each item recalled leading to the retrieval of an associated item in a stream, or both? Using semantic representations in a search of associative memory framework and data from the animal fluency task, we tested competing hypotheses based on associative and categorical search models. Associative, but not categorical, patch transitions took longer to make than position-matched productions, suggesting that categorical transitions were not true transitions. There was also clear evidence of associative search even within categorical patch boundaries. Furthermore, most individuals' behavior was best explained by an associative search model without the addition of categorical information. Thus, our results support a search process that does not use categorical information, but for which patch boundaries shift with each recall and local search is well described by a random walk in semantic space, with switches to new regions of the semantic space when the current region is depleted



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