Inhibitory Semantic Priming and the Center Surround Theory of Retrieval Operations

Neely's evidence for inhibition of related words in his switch condition is one of the few instances in the literature in which semantic relatedness between successive stimuli harms performance in speeded tasks, such as naming or lexical decision. Another instance was reported by Dale Dagenbach and colleagues. They found that in certain circumstances lexical decisions following semantically related primes are slower than lexical decisions following unrelated primes—an absolute inhibition effect associated with semantic relat-edness. This inhibitory priming occurs as a consequence of attempting to retrieve the meaning of a perceptually presented word when the meaning is weakly activated—either because the word is masked and hence perceptual input is easily confused with other input or because the word is newly learned and hence its representation in semantic memory is weak and easily confused with or overwhelmed by other representations. In either case, the weakly activated meaning is likely to suffer interference because other representations are activated that are similar but incorrect. Dagenbach and colleagues proposed that in such circumstances, the attempt to retrieve the weakly activated semantic code is accompanied by active inhibition of the related information that is producing the interference. This inhibition reflects the operation of a center-surround attentional mechanism, which works to facilitate a semantic code on which it is focused or "centered" while inhibiting "surrounding'' codes. These are codes that are similar or related to but different from the desired code and are competing with it for retrieval. The center-surround hypothesis predicts that repetition priming should be facilitatory at the same time that semantic priming is inhibitory—a prediction that has been confirmed. Analogous findings have been reported by Steven Lehmkuhle and colleagues in the domain of spatial rather than semantic processing, suggesting that inhibition of similar or closely related representations may be a generalizable strategy for conflict resolution in the central nervous system.

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