Metacognition in Comparative Perspective
Smith, John David Principal Investigator
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Humans feel doubt and uncertainty. We know when we don't know or don't remember. A good example of this is the feeling that someone's name is on the tip of your tongue. This sophisticated cognitive capacity to be aware of our own thinking is called metacognition. It is closely allied to our consciousness and self-awareness and represents a fundamental dimension of our mental experience and intellectual functioning. The goal of the proposed research is to discover the origins of the metacognitive capacity by tracing the evolutionary roots of metacognition, self-awareness, and consciousness in nonhuman animals. Accordingly, this project explores metacognition in humans and rhesus macaques. The research design includes tasks that assess whether humans and nonhuman primates monitor and control their thinking in similar ways. The animals are tested via computer tasks in which they respond by touching icons on their computer screen using a joystick-controlled cursor. In previous work, animals performed these tasks eagerly. Metacognition is crucial to every aspect of learning and comprehension, and in every educational setting. Understanding the cognitive organization of this capacity in adult humans and tracing its evolutionary emergence will support the development of animal models for metacognition. These models will ground the study of neurological substrates and neurochemical blocks and enhancements to metacognition. The simple, nonverbal tasks developed to suit animals are also ideal for testing very young humans. These paradigms should extend the range of techniques available to child development researchers. These paradigms may also support the study of metacognition in language-delayed or autistic children and promote efforts to train metacognition in educationally challenged populations. The research may open a new window on reflective mind in animals and on human origins, perhaps explaining how or why conscious cognitive regulation came to be such a crucial aspect of human intelligence. Finally, the demonstrations of animal awareness emerging from the research will have important implications regarding respectful, compassionate husbandry in all areas of animal research.