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Free-association norms indicate that words are organized into semantic/associative neighborhoods within a larger network of words and links that bind the net together. We present evidence indicating that memory for a recent word event can depend on implicitly and simultaneously activating related words in its neighborhood. Processing a word during encoding primes its network representation as a function of the density of the links in its neighborhood. Such priming increases recall and recognition and can have long-lasting effects when the word is processed in working memory. Evidence for this phenomenon is reviewed in extralist-cuing, primed free-association, intralist-cuing, and single-item recognition tasks. The findings also show that when a related word is presented in order to cue the recall of a studied word, the cue activates the target in an array of related words that distract and reduce the probability of the target’s selection. The activation of the semantic network produces priming benefits during encoding, and search costs during retrieval. In extralist cuing, recall is a negative function of cue-to-distractor strength, and a positive function of neighborhood density, cue-to-target strength, and target-to-cue strength. We show how these four measures derived from the network can be combined and used to predict memory performance. These measures play different roles in different tasks, indicating that the contribution of the semantic network varies with the context provided by the task. Finally, we evaluate spreading-activation and quantum-like entanglement explanations for the priming effects produced by neighborhood density.


Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education

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Journal Article

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