Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Psychological Sciences

First Advisor

James S. Nairne

Committee Chair

James S. Nairne

Committee Member 1

William G. Graziano

Committee Member 2

Jeffrey D. Karpicke

Committee Member 3

David Kemmerer


There is a great deal of evidence across cognitive science that animacy, or more generally, the features that make up what it means to be a living thing, is a foundational dimension of human cognition. In perception, animates both capture attention (Pratt, Radulescu, Guo, & Abrams, 2010) and are relatively immune to change blindness (New, Cosmides, & Tooby, 2007). Developmental work places the animate-inanimate distinction as one of the first categories children learn (Opfer & Gelman, 2011). Work in neuroscience points toward a fundamental role for animacy in semantic memory (Caramazza & Mahon, 2003), and linguists have identified animacy as a “linguistic universal” (Comrie, 1989). Despite seemingly overwhelming evidence for the fundamental role animacy plays in human cognition, little effort has been made to understand the role of animacy in episodic memory.

In three studies, the role of animacy as a dimension of word meaning was investigated. The collection of normative data for 1200 words on six scales believed to relate to the animacy construct in Study 1 set the stage for Studies 2 and 3, which explored the makeup of the animacy dimension and how it relates to other word dimensions (Study 2), and then how both animacy and other word dimensions predict free recall (Study 3). Results from Study 2 indicated that animacy is relatively independent of other word dimensions, and made up of two primary components, a mental component and a physical component. Study 3 collected recall norms from 800 participants, and regression and relative-weight analyses indicated that word animacy was consistently one of the primary predictors of free recall, with the physical component of animacy a larger predictor than the mental component. In addition to these primary results, the animacy advantage in free recall was independent of list composition (casting doubt on a distinctiveness explanation for the effect), age, and two potentially-relevant personality measures, Person and Thing Orientation (Graziano, Habashi, & Woodcock, 2011).