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Behav Processes. 2008 Jan;77(1):43-54. Epub 2007 Jun 24.

The role of awareness and working memory in human transitive inference.

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Department of Psychology, McGill University, Stewart Biological Sciences Building, 1205 Dr Penfield Avenue, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


The human ability to perform transitive inference (TI) is an area of debate from a neurocognitive standpoint. Some studies emphasize a stimulus driven medial-temporal lobe process [Preston, A.R., Shrager, Y., Dudukovic, N.M., Gabrieli, J.D., 2004. Hippocampal contribution to the novel use of relational information in declarative memory. Hippocampus 14, 148-152; Titone, D., Ditman, T., Holzman, P., Eichenbaum, H., Levy, D., 2004. A transitive inference test of relational memory in schizophrenia. Schizophr. Res. 68, 235-247; Van Elzakker, M., O'Reilley, R., Rudy, J., 2003. Transivity, flexibility, conjenctive representation and the hippocampus: an empirical analysis. Hippocampus 13, 334-340] while others emphasize a higher-level frontal lobe strategy that requires the flexible maintenance of information in working memory [Waltz, J., Knowlton, B., Holyoak, K., Boone, K., Mishkin, F., de Menedezes Santos, M., Thomas, C., Miller, B., 1999. A system for relational reasoning in human prefrontal cortex. Psychol. Sci. 10, 119-125]. In two experiments we investigated when and how adults employ different cognitive strategies during TI by evaluating the interaction between task instructions and individual differences in working memory capacity. Participants engaged in a paired discrimination task involving a 6-unit TI hierarchy and were either prior aware, prior unaware or serendipitously aware of the hierarchical relationship among stimulus items. Both prior aware participants and serendipitously aware participants were more likely to engage in a logic-based strategy compared to unaware participants who relied upon stimulus-driven strategies. Individual differences in working memory were associated with the acquisition of awareness in the serendipitously aware group and with the maintenance of awareness in the prior aware group. These findings suggest that the capacity for TI may be supported by multiple neurocognitive strategies, and that the specific strategy employed is dependent upon both task- and participant-related factors.

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