Birth of an Abstraction: A Dynamical Systems Account of the Discovery of an Elsewhere Principle in a Category Learning Task


Correspondence should be sent to Whitney Tabor, Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, 406 Babbidge Road U-1020, Storrs, CT 06269. E-mail:


Human participants and recurrent (“connectionist”) neural networks were both trained on a categorization system abstractly similar to natural language systems involving irregular (“strong”) classes and a default class. Both the humans and the networks exhibited staged learning and a generalization pattern reminiscent of the Elsewhere Condition (Kiparsky, 1973). Previous connectionist accounts of related phenomena have often been vague about the nature of the networks’ encoding systems. We analyzed our network using dynamical systems theory, revealing topological and geometric properties that can be directly compared with the mechanisms of non-connectionist, rule-based accounts. The results reveal that the networks “contain” structures related to mechanisms posited by rule-based models, partly vindicating the insights of these models. On the other hand, they support the one mechanism (OM), as opposed to the more than one mechanism (MOM), view of symbolic abstraction by showing how the appearance of MOM behavior can arise emergently from one underlying set of principles. The key new contribution of this study is to show that dynamical systems theory can allow us to explicitly characterize the relationship between the two perspectives in implemented models.