Is there a domain-general cognitive structuring system? Evidence from structural priming across music, math, action descriptions, and language

Cognition. 2016 Jan:146:172-84. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.09.013. Epub 2015 Sep 30.


Cognitive processing in many domains (e.g., sentence comprehension, music listening, and math solving) requires sequential information to be organized into an integrational structure. There appears to be some overlap in integrational processing across domains, as shown by cross-domain interference effects when for example linguistic and musical stimuli are jointly presented (Koelsch, Gunter, Wittfoth, & Sammler, 2005; Slevc, Rosenberg, & Patel, 2009). These findings support theories of overlapping resources for integrational processing across domains (cfr. SSIRH Patel, 2003; SWM, Kljajevic, 2010). However, there are some limitations to the studies mentioned above, such as the frequent use of unnaturalistic integrational difficulties. In recent years, the idea has risen that evidence for domain-generality in structural processing might also be yielded though priming paradigms (cfr. Scheepers, 2003). The rationale behind this is that integrational processing across domains regularly requires the processing of dependencies across short or long distances in the sequence, involving respectively less or more syntactic working memory resources (cfr. SWM, Kljajevic, 2010), and such processing decisions might persist over time. However, whereas recent studies have shown suggestive priming of integrational structure between language and arithmetics (though often dependent on arithmetic performance, cfr. Scheepers et al., 2011; Scheepers & Sturt, 2014), it remains to be investigated to what extent we can also find evidence for priming in other domains, such as music and action (cfr. SWM, Kljajevic, 2010). Experiment 1a showed structural priming from the processing of musical sequences onto the position in the sentence structure (early or late) to which a relative clause was attached in subsequent sentence completion. Importantly, Experiment 1b showed that a similar structural manipulation based on non-hierarchically ordered color sequences did not yield any priming effect, suggesting that the priming effect is not based on linear order, but integrational dependency. Finally, Experiment 2 presented primes in four domains (relative clause sentences, music, mathematics, and structured descriptions of actions), and consistently showed priming within and across domains. These findings provide clear evidence for domain-general structural processing mechanisms.

Keywords: Language; Music; SSIRH; SWM; Structural priming.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts*
  • Music*
  • Repetition Priming / physiology*
  • Young Adult