Sources of Flexibility in Human Cognition: Dual-Task Studies of Space and Language
Under many circumstances, children and adult rats reorient themselves through a process which operates only on information about the shape of the environment (e.g., Cheng, 1986; Hermer & Spelke, 1996). In contrast, human adults relocate themselves more flexibly, by conjoining geometric and nongeometric information to specify their position (Hermer & Spelke, 1994). The present experiments used a dual-task method to investigate the processes that underlie the flexible conjunction of information. In Experiment 1, subjects reoriented themselves flexibly when they performed no secondary task, but they reoriented themselves like children and adult rats when they engaged in verbal shadowing of continuous speech. In Experiment 2, subjects who engaged in nonverbal shadowing of a continuous rhythm reoriented like nonshadowing subjects, suggesting that the interference effect in Experiment 1 did not stem from general limits on working memory or attention but from processes more specific to language. In further experiments, verbally shadowing subjects detected and remembered both nongeometric information (Experiment 3) and geometric information (Experiments 1, 2, and 4), but they failed to conjoin the two types of information to specify the positions of objects (Experiment 4). Together, the experiments suggest that humans' flexible spatial memory depends on the ability to combine diverse information sources rapidly into unitary representations and that this ability, in turn, depends on natural language.