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Shira Baror, Moshe Bar; Associative activation and its relation to mental exploration. Journal of Vision 2016;16(12):1027. doi: 10.1167/16.12.1027.
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The tension between exploration and exploitation affects behavior as well as how we attend and perceive the world around us. The goal of the current research was to examine whether this tension also influences internal mental operations such as basic associative activation. We hypothesized that associative activation is not only determined by associative strength, as suggested by the traditional account of spreading activation, but also by the proclivity to cognitively explore or to exploit. In a series of studies, we manipulated participants' predisposition with respect to the exploration-exploitation continuum by controlling the availability of resources, while asking them to respond to free association tasks. The likelihood to provide consensual (strong) or unique (remote) associations was measured, as well as their reaction times. According to our hypothesis, if internal associative processes are determined by exploration vs. exploitation bias, which is dictated by the availability of resources, high load will result in a more automatic activation of immediate associations, whereas low load will be more conducive of an exploratory state manifested by more original free associations. In agreement with this hypothesis, we found that for both cognitive and perceptual load manipulations, higher load levels consistently led to a narrower scope in associative responses and to lower variability across subjects. A comparison between the effect of load on associative activation with words and with visual objects will be made in this context. These findings demonstrate that while in conditions akin to exploitation (high load) associative processes rely more heavily on strong and consensual associations, in conditions analogous to exploration (low load), distinct associations are significantly favored. It is implied that the access to associations is state-dependent. These findings also have potentially important implications to understanding pathologies in associative processes, such as mood disorders, on the one hand, and creativity on the other.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2016
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