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Psychol Sci. 2008 Sep;19(9):940-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02180.x.

Memory for syntax despite amnesia.

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Department of Psychology 0109, University of California at San Diego, 9500 GilmanDr., La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA.


Syntactic persistence is a tendency for speakers to reproduce sentence structures independently of accompanying meanings, words, or sounds. The memory mechanisms behind syntactic persistence are not fully understood. Although some properties of syntactic persistence suggest a role for procedural memory, current evidence suggests that procedural memory (unlike declarative memory) does not maintain the abstract, relational features that are inherent to syntactic structures. In a study evaluating the contribution of procedural memory to syntactic persistence, patients with anterograde amnesia and matched control speakers reproduced prime sentences with different syntactic structures; reproduced 0, 1, 6, or 10 neutral sentences; then spontaneously described pictures that elicited the primed structures; and finally made recognition judgments for the prime sentences. Amnesic and control speakers showed significant and equivalent syntactic persistence, despite the amnesic speakers' profoundly impaired recognition memory for the primes. Thus, syntax is maintained by procedural-memory mechanisms. This result reveals that procedural memory is capable of supporting abstract, relational knowledge.

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