Brain Health,

#197: Metacognition with Dr. Stephen Fleming

September 08, 2017

Are you crazy?

I’ll assume you’re not, but if you took the question as a question (as opposed to an insult) then you just engaged in metacognition.  And it’s certainly not the first time.

Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is something you do lots of every single day.  Some of us are more deliberate (and deliberative) about it than others.  But when we introspect, when we answer questions for a personality test or choose a birthday present for a friend — all of this requires that we think not just about nuts-and-bolts physical objects, but minds.  Our minds, and those of others.  Metacognition is a type of thought at which humans excel — and may be the key to consciousness.*

Cogito Ergo Sum.

René Descartes’ famous maxim — “I think, therefore I am” — uses metacognition as the logical foundation for reality itself.  And that’s really not overstating things.  Metacognition separates the haves from the have-nots when it comes to awareness.  Monitoring the outside environment is impressive, sure…  But almost every denizen of the animal kingdom has nerve cells for external monitoring and command-and-control for its body — heck, even venus fly-traps have reflexive motor control — but behavior without monitoring is what makes for boring automatons, not winning personalities.

Metacognition is a broad umbrella.

It includes everything from…

  • Awareness that other entities have internal thought processes (“Theory of Mind”), to
  • “Memory Indexes” that let you know what you know (that “it’s on the tip of my tongue” feeling would not be possible without metacognition), to
  • Rational planning for altered states of consciousness (“I know that when she brings up last year’s party, it’s going to make me angry – so I need to remember to stay calm and take a deep breath…”), to
  • Higher-order behavioral regulation – or what we typically call conscience.  (“I shouldn’t take the last piece of chocolate.  No one would know it was me, but I’ll torture myself with guilt.”)

*  I’d love to direct your attention back to Episode #123: Has Dr. Michael Graziano “Solved” Consciousness?  This earlier episode explained Dr. Graziano’s Attention-Schema Theory – which dovetails nicely with the discussion with Dr. Fleming in Episode #197.

“You’re going to love this…”

Dr. Stephen Fleming runs the Metacognition Group within the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at the University College London.  There he studies metacognition in its many varieties.  How do people differ in their metacognitive abilities?  Which areas of the brain become active when we turn our thoughts “inward”? To what extent do our brains re-use metacognitive strategies when thinking about our own thinking versus the thoughts of others?

(I find this latter question extremely thought-provoking, because it implies that cognitive double-standards between self and other might not just be hypocrisy but could be “cooked in” to the way our brains operate.  But there I go, metacognating again…)

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Metacognition, as an ability, seems to be well-preserved as the brain ages.  When you think about the logic behind this, it makes sense.  If life is a series of decisions, then being able to monitor the outcomes of your decision-making is crucial.  You can’t correct a “blind spot” in decision making without the ability to recognize it.  (“Every time she flashes those big, brown eyes at me, I lose my resolve!”)

This self-recognition of how we habitually think, and how others tend to, becomes the root of our sense of identity.  Think about friends and family that you’ve known for years… You’ve seen them change in physical shape and appearance, their short-term goals and maybe their long-term interests.  But it’s how they think (or rather, how you think they think) that determines how you assess them “as a person.”

Metacognition is what makes us a society, and not a primate ant farm.

And we’re not the only primates to have some metacognitive chops, apparently.  Stay tuned after Episode #197’s main interview for the Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick, and hear what bonobos, orangutans and chimps share with us.  (And what rhesus macaques apparently don’t.)  😉

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:23

    Episode introduction: Metacognition with Dr. Stephen Fleming.

  • 00:01:22

    This Week in Neuroscience: Thinking about what other people are thinking about.

  • 00:04:48

    5-Star Review shout-outs.

  • 00:05:58

    Smart Drug Smarts news and updates

  • 00:06:49

    Guest introduction: Dr. Stephen Fleming.

  • 00:08:49

    Interview begins: Defining metacognition.

  • 00:10:52

    Individual differences in metacognition.

  • 00:13:30

    Confidence and self-monitoring.

  • 00:15:16

    Brain structures that might play a role in metacognition.

  • 00:16:45

    Metacognition and development.

  • 00:19:30

    Mediation and metacognition.

  • 00:21:15

    Skill transfer across domains.

  • 00:23:20

    Social cognition.

  • 00:27:00

    Implicit and explicit metacognition and language.

  • 00:30:20

    Metacognition and proprioception.

  • 00:31:20

    Age and changes in metacognitive aptitude.

  • 00:35:50

    Current studies and take-away findings.

  • 00:36:30

    Transactive memories.

  • 00:39:00

    Interview ends; Jesse thanks Dr. Fleming for being on the show.

  • 00:39:40

    Shout-out to Episode #123.

  • 00:40:09

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Theory of Mind in Apes?

  • 00:42:30

    Closing remarks.

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