Statistically Induced Chunking Recall: A Memory‐Based Approach to Statistical Learning

Cognitive Science 44 (7):e12848 (2020)
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Abstract

The computations involved in statistical learning have long been debated. Here, we build on work suggesting that a basic memory process, chunking, may account for the processing of statistical regularities into larger units. Drawing on methods from the memory literature, we developed a novel paradigm to test statistical learning by leveraging a robust phenomenon observed in serial recall tasks: that short‐term memory is fundamentally shaped by long‐term distributional learning. In the statistically induced chunking recall (SICR) task, participants are exposed to an artificial language, using a standard statistical learning exposure phase. Afterward, they recall strings of syllables that either follow the statistics of the artificial language or comprise the same syllables presented in a random order. We hypothesized that if individuals had chunked the artificial language into word‐like units, then the statistically structured items would be more accurately recalled relative to the random controls. Our results demonstrate that SICR effectively captures learning in both the auditory and visual modalities, with participants displaying significantly improved recall of the statistically structured items, and even recall specific trigram chunks from the input. SICR also exhibits greater test–retest reliability in the auditory modality and sensitivity to individual differences in both modalities than the standard two‐alternative forced‐choice task. These results thereby provide key empirical support to the chunking account of statistical learning and contribute a valuable new tool to the literature.

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