Language-Mediated Event Representations

  • Glenn P. Williams

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


When understanding narrative events we must keep track of a number of (often) changing dimensions, such as who is the focus of the narrative, what they are doing, and where they are doing it; amongst which, this ‘where’ dimension is thought to be crucial in forming even the simplest representation of events. Thus, in order to understand how we represent events, research has often focused upon how we represent space. While research from the spatial cognition and language comprehension literature has shown that we can form a mental representation of space that is rich in detail, maintaining categorical (i.e. room-by-room) as well as Euclidean distance (i.e. absolute distance), this research has primarily used tasks which may bias towards one representation over another. Thus, the research presented in this thesis set out to explore which representation of space is maintained in the absence of an overt task, and the implications that this representation has for the organisation and accessibility for information maintained in a mental representation of events (or, an ‘event model’).

Using eye-tracking methods and ‘look-and-listen’ tasks in the visual world paradigm throughout to explore how manipulations of space influence accessibility for objects – in terms of fixations on objects depicted in a visual display during language comprehension – the experiments laid out in the present thesis found that comprehenders spontaneously form a categorical (but not Euclidean) representation of space, constructing and maintaining separate ‘event models’ based around spatial units (e.g. rooms) in which information (e.g. objects) is maintained.

While Experiment 1 found no influence of space on accessibility for the target on mention using a concurrent viewing and listening paradigm, by replacing the visual scene with a blank-screen prior to the onset of the narrative, Experiment 2 established that, during narrative comprehension, following the movement of a protagonist from one location to another, potential targets located in the initial location were less accessible prior to mention for the target. Experiment 3 explored the locus of this effect and found that, on mention, targets were less accessible following a spatial shift, regardless of whether the objects were in the same or a separate location to the protagonist. Experiments 4-6 built upon Experiments 1-3 to further explore how a spatial shift made by an object (carried by a protagonist) can modulate the structure of events, asking how access for a target is resolved when associated with two event models (vs. one event model). Here, visual scenes depicted two rooms, containing several objects, separated by a boundary. Narratives described an object moving from one location to another with a protagonist, necessitating movement across the boundary (or not). The most reliable finding was that both representations of the moved object were less accessible on mention when associated with two event models (vs. one event model), suggesting that competition occurs between event models prior to access for a target if the target is represented across more than one event model. Experiment 7 aimed to address how event structure can increase, rather than reduce accessibility for a target. Here, discourses separating a target into a different event model (vs. the same event model) to that of a semantically-related competitor increased accessibility for the target on mention and reduced accessibility for the competitor, suggesting that information in an accessed (foregrounded) event model is more accessible than information in other (backgrounded) event models.

Together, the findings of the conducted experiments support the notion that comprehenders form and use event models in discourse comprehension when necessary during passive listening tasks, and that the form and structure of these event models modulates accessibility for information when doing so. The experiments established here have further supported and built upon general models of event cognition, establishing how and when event models, and the information maintained within them, are accessed.

Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorYuki Kamide (Supervisor) & Benjamin Tatler (Supervisor)

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