Representations of spatial location in language processing
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The production or comprehension of linguistic information is often not an isolated task decoupled from the visual environment. Rather, people refer to objects or listen to other people describing objects around them. Previous studies have shown that in such situations people either fixate these objects, often multiple times (Cooper, 1974), or they attend to the objects much longer than is required for mere identification (Meyer, Sleiderink, & Levelt, 1998). Most interestingly, during comprehension people also attend to the location of objects even when those objects were removed (Altmann, 2004). The main focus of this thesis was to investigate the role of the spatial location of objects during language processing. The first part of the thesis tested whether attention to objects’ former locations facilitates language production and comprehension processes (Experiments 1-‐5). In two initial eye-‐tracking experiments, participants were instructed to name objects that either changed their positions (Experiment 1) or were withdrawn from the computer screen (Experiment 2) during language production. Production was impaired when speakers did not attend to the original position of the objects. Most interestingly, fixating an empty region in which an object was located resulted in faster articulation and initiation times. During the language comprehension tasks, participants were instructed to evaluate facts presented by talking heads appearing in different positions on the computer screen. During evaluation, the talking heads changed position (Experiment 3) or were withdrawn from the screen (Experiments 4-‐5). People showed a strong tendency to gaze at the centre of the screen and only moved towards the head’s former locations if the screen was empty and if evaluation was not preceded by an intervening task as tested in Experiment 5. Fixating the former location resulted in faster response time but not in better accuracy of evaluation. The second part of this thesis investigated the role of spatial location representations in reading (Experiments 6-‐7). Specifically, I examined to what extent people reading garden-‐path sentences regress to specific target words in order to reanalyse the sentences. The results of two eye-‐tracking experiments showed that readers do not target very precisely. A spatial representation is used, but it appears to be fairly coarse (i.e., only represents whether information is to the left or to the right of fixation). The findings from this thesis give us a clearer understanding of the influence of spatial location information on language processing. In language production particularly, it appears that spatial location is an integral part of the cognitive model and strongly connected with linguistic and visual representations.