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The effect of context on the role of imagery in language processing Sutherland, Brian Ross


The role of imagery in language processing has received much recent attention. Paivio's two-process theory implies that concrete and abstract material are represented differently in memory. Specifically, concrete language is assumed to be retained in terms of an image which summarizes the meaning of the material in an integrated form. Abstract language, on the other hand, is assumed to be represented in a verbal-sequential form, with little integration of meaning. A review of the evidence on the effects of concreteness on memory for meaning indicates that Paivio's theory does not provide a completely adequate account of the results. In many of the studies which have produced findings consistent with the theory, an explanation in terms of differences in comprehensibility seems as appropriate as one based on different modes of storage. In addition, some studies have shown a substantial degree of semantic integration in abstract language. In an attempt to provide some clarification of this issue, a Levels of Processing model was proposed as an alternative to Paivio's theory. The model is based on the assumption that while abstract and concrete language typically differ in access to semantic processing, memory for meaning may be independent of concreteness under certain conditions. In particular, context may increase semantic processing in abstract language and thereby reduce the superiority of concrete language in memory for meaning which would otherwise be predicted. Two experiments were carried out to evaluate the model. In the first, the effect of concreteness, context, and presentation time on recognition of meaning and wording changes in sentences was investigated. The results supported the model in that memory for meaning relative to wording increased as a function of concreteness only when the sentences were presented in isolation from context. When the sentences were presented in the context of meaningful paragraphs, relative memory for meaning was equal in concrete and abstract material. The second experiment assessed the image-evoking capacity, comprehensibility, and degree of meaning change in test items, for the materials used in the first experiment. The results allowed several alternative interpretations of Experiment I to be discounted. In particular, Paivio's two-process theory was shown to be incapable of accounting for the elimination of the concreteness effect on memory for meaning as a function of context. It was concluded that the Levels of Processing model provides a more viable account of the role of imagery in language processing than Paivio's two-process theory.

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