Dr. Katherine White: Cognition and Aging Lab

The Cognition and Aging Lab aims to better understand how humans produce language, with specific emphasis on factors that influence spoken and written word retrieval in younger and older adults. Producing language is deceivingly complex, relying not only on linguistic processes such as access to a word’s meaning and sounds, but also on cognitive resources such as attention. We therefore also investigate how language production is supported by other cognitive processes such as memory and attention, and how engagement with emotion influences word retrieval and language fluency.

We employ diverse research methods to study language production, including experiments where participants produce language under certain constraints (e.g., when distractors are present) and studies where speech is measured in more naturalistic communicative settings (e.g., where participants share narratives about events in their lives). Below are descriptions of specific research topics, with links to associated articles.

A major goal of the lab is to train the next generation of scientists, and therefore undergraduate researchers are involved in all of the projects described below. Lab alumni use their research training in a variety of ways when they leave Rhodes: Many recent alumni have pursued PhDs in psychology (including clinical psych, neuropsych, geropsych, I/O psych, social psych) or entered professional programs in various health professions (MD, PharmD, Speech Pathology, PT, PA, NP).

When the hands communicate:

In collaboration with colleagues in the Cognitive Science program at Pomona College, our newest project aims to explore multimodal communication, specifically the role of gesture during speech production. We intend to answer questions about how and when younger and older adults use gesture to facilitate communication, as well as how factors such as emotional content influence gestures and affect speech fluency.

When emotion impedes speaking:

This research examines the importance of attention to fluent speech production: When emotional stimuli (e.g., taboo words) draw attention away from word retrieval, speech is slower and more prone to errors (e.g., White et al., 2016, 2017). However, attention can be controlled: When speakers anticipate distractions in the environment, they prepare for such distractions by focusing attention on word retrieval, thus reducing the impact of distractions on speech (White et al., 2018). Example publications from this research include:

White, K. K., & Abrams, L. (2021). What makes a tumor worse: Taboo context affects how emotional distractors influence picture naming. Language, Cognition, & Neuroscience, 36, 1123-1134. doi.org/10.1080/23273798.2021.1909741

White, K. K., Abrams, L., *Hsi, L. R., & *Watkins, E. C. (2018). Are precues effective in proactively controlling taboo interference during speech production? Cognition and Emotion, 32, 1625-1636. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2018.1433637

White, K. K., Abrams, L., *Koehler, S. M., & *Collins, R. J. (2017). Lions, tigers, and bears, Oh Sh!t: Semantics versus tabooness in speech production. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24, 489-495. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1084-8

White, K. K., Abrams, L., *LaBat, L. R., & *Rhynes, A. M. (2016). Competing influences of emotion and phonology during picture-word interference. Language, Cognition, & Neuroscience, 31, 265-283. https://doi.org/10.1080/23273798.2015.1101144

When word retrieval stops: Tip-of-the-Tongue States

Although language production often appears to occur without much effort (e.g., words seem to “roll off our tongues” in everyday conversation), the process becomes particularly frustrating when we find ourselves at a loss for words, especially when we want to produce a specific word that just won’t come to mind when we want to use it. This experience is known as a tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) state, which occurs when we cannot recall a known word. With TOT states, the meaning of the word is known, but the word’s sounds are temporarily inaccessible, often as a result of non-recent or infrequent use of the word. Furthermore, access to speech sounds decreases with age, resulting in an increase in TOT states in older adults. Examples of publications from this research include:

Abrams, L., & White, K. K. (under review). First-syllable neighbors produce grammatical class constraints on TOT resolution. Manuscript submitted for publication.

White, K. K., Abrams, L, & *Frame, E. A. (2013). Semantic category moderates phonological priming of proper name retrieval during tip-of-the-tongue statesLanguage and Cognitive Processes, 28, 561-576. https://doi.org/10.1080/01690965.2012.658408

Abrams, L., White, K. K., & *Eitel, S. L. (2003). Isolating phonological components that increase tip-of-the-tongue resolutionMemory and Cognition, 31, 1153-1162.  doi: 10.3758/bf03195798

White, K. K., & Abrams, L. (2002). Does priming specific syllables during tip-of-the-tongue states facilitate word retrieval in older adults? Psychology and Aging, 17, 226-235.  doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.17.2.226

When the pen slips: Written spelling errors

Although considerable research has been conducted on speech errors, or “slips of the tongue," little research has investigated comparable errors in written language production, or “slips of the pen.” Speech errors are widely used as tools to understand the processes underlying spoken language production and to investigate the roles of phonology, morphology, semantics, and syntax in production. We designed a new methodology to study slips of the pen where we experimentally induce written errors. Using this methodology, we have investigated how phonology, semantics, and syntax influence written errors, showing that orthographic errors can parallel phonological errors in many respects. Example publications from this research include:

White, K. K., Abrams, L., & *Zoller, S. M. (2013). Perception-production asymmetries in homophone spelling: The unique influence of agingJournal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences, 68, 681-690. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbs099

White, K. K., Abrams, L, *Palm, G. M., & *Protasi, M. A. (2012). Age-related influences on lexical selection and orthographic encoding during homophone spellingPsychology and Aging, 27, 67- 79. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024422

White, K. K., Abrams, L., *McWhite, C. B., & *Hagler, H. L. (2010). Syntactic constraints in the retrieval of homophone orthography. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory, & Cognition, 36, 160-169. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017676

White, K. K., Abrams, L., *Zoller, S. M., & *Gibson, S. M. (2008). Why did I right that? Factors that influence the production of homophone substitution errorsQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61, 977-985. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470210801943978

Learn more about Dr. White

two female students stand next to a female professor with short hair
Hannah Emery ’12 and Rachel Stowe ’12 and Dr. White present their research at the 2012 Cognitive Aging Conference in Atlanta.
two female students with long dark hair and name tags
Lauren LaBat ’13 and Anne Rhynes ’13 present their research at the 2012 Meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Minneapolis.
a male student stands in front of a poster board
Jason Crutcher ’15 presents his research at the 2014 Meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Long Beach, CA.
a female student with long dark hair stands in front of a poster board
Mary Godfrey ’13 presents her honor’s research at the 2012 Meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Minneapolis.