Abstract: Surface information loss in comprehension

GERNSBACHER, M. A. (1985). Surface information loss in comprehension. Cognitive Psychology, 17, 324-363.

Shortly after a sentence has been comprehended, information about its exact surface form (e.g., its word order) becomes less available. The present research demonstrated this phenomenon during the comprehension of nonverbal stimuli (picture stories). In Experiment 1, significantly more surface (left/right orientation) information was lost after comprehending several picture stories than just one; in Experiment 2, more was lost after comprehending an entire picture story than half of one. In Experiment 3, subjects segmented the picture stories into their constituents; in Experiment 4, significantly more surface information was lost after crossing these constituents’ boundaries than before. The present research also investigated why surface information is lost. Four explanations were considered: Surface information loss is the result of performing grammatical transformations (the Linguistic Hypothesis), exceeding short term memory limitations (the Memory Limitations Hypothesis), recoding information into gist (the Recoding Hypothesis), shifting from building one substructure to initiating another (the Processing Shift Hypothesis). The Linguistic and Memory Limitations Hypotheses were considered inadequate; the Recoding and the Processing Shift Hypotheses were tested in the last set of experiments. In Experiment 5 (using nonverbal stimuli), the predictions made by the Processing Shift Hypothesis were confirmed; in Experiment 6 (using verbal stimuli), these results were replicated. In the last section, other implications of the Processing Shift Hypothesis concerning surface information loss are discussed.