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Analogy as relational priming: A developmental and computational perspective on the origins of a complex cognitive skill

Robert Leecha1, Denis Mareschala2 and Richard P. Coopera3

a1 School of Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London, London, WC1E 7HX, United Kingdom

a2 School of Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London, London, WC1E 7HX, United Kingdom

a3 School of Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London, London, WC1E 7HX, United Kingdom


The development of analogical reasoning has traditionally been understood in terms of theories of adult competence. This approach emphasizes structured representations and structure mapping. In contrast, we argue that by taking a developmental perspective, analogical reasoning can be viewed as the product of a substantially different cognitive ability – relational priming. To illustrate this, we present a computational (here connectionist) account where analogy arises gradually as a by-product of pattern completion in a recurrent network. Initial exposure to a situation primes a relation that can then be applied to a novel situation to make an analogy. Relations are represented as transformations between states. The network exhibits behaviors consistent with a broad range of key phenomena from the developmental literature, lending support to the appropriateness of this approach (using low-level cognitive mechanisms) for investigating a domain that has normally been the preserve of high-level models. Furthermore, we present an additional simulation that integrates the relational priming mechanism with deliberative controlled use of inhibition to demonstrate how the framework can be extended to complex analogical reasoning, such as the data from explicit mapping studies in the literature on adults. This account highlights how taking a developmental perspective constrains the theory construction and cognitive modeling processes in a way that differs substantially from that based purely on adult studies, and illustrates how a putative complex cognitive skill can emerge out of a simple mechanism.

Robert Leech is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. He studied at Cambridge and Birmingham Universities before receiving his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at Birkbeck in 2004. His Ph.D. research focused on the development of analogical reasoning, primarily using computational models. In addition, his current research also concerns the development of linguistic and auditory processing using behavioral, neuro-imaging and computational methodologies.

Denis Mareschal obtained his first degree in Physics and Theoretical Physics from Cambridge University, UK. He then completed a Masters in Psychology from McGill University, Canada, before moving on to complete a Ph.D. at Oxford University, UK. He has received the Marr prize from the Cognitive Science Society (USA), the Young Investigator Award from the International Society on Infant Studies (USA), and the Margaret Donaldson Prize from the British Psychological Society. His research centers on developing mechanistic models of perceptual and cognitive development in infancy and childhood. He is currently Professor at Birkbeck, University of London.

Richard P. Cooper obtained his first degree in Mathematics with Computer Science from the University of Newcastle, Australia. He then completed a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science, focusing on computational linguistics, at the Centre for Cognitive Science, University of Edinburgh, UK, before effectively retraining in cognitive psychology at the Department of Psychology, University College London. His research is primarily concerned with computational modelling of neurological disorders, though he has also published extensively on the methodology of cognitive modelling. He is currently Reader in Cognitive Science at Birkbeck, University of London.