New research on metacognition sheds light on how the brain perceives itself. Charles Pierce and Joseph Jastrow discovered something else in 1884 while attempting to describe the limitations of human perception: the limits of our knowledge into ourselves.
Participants in Pierce and Jastrow’s research consistently underestimated their capacity to accurately appraise their own sensations, which Pierce and Jastrow attributed to “female discernment as well as certain ‘telepathic’ phenomena.” Thankfully, these precise ramifications have been avoided (along with the conceptual relationship between telepathy and female insight). However, by the late 1970s, this method of asking participants to judge their own performance had established itself as a separate field of study.
In general, our ability to self-reflect and think about our own thoughts allows us to feel more or less confident in our decisions: we can move decisively when we’re sure we’re right, or we may be more cautious when we think we’ve made a mistake.
This has an impact on every part of our behaviour, from long-term abstract effects like determining our life objectives to simple impacts like judging our own feelings (what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch).
Metacognition isn’t always easy for us. Some people are overconfident in general, while others are underconfident, and most people will occasionally feel quite confident in a poor decision.
Poor metacognition has been linked to a number of psychiatric diseases, and it is known to develop during childhood and adolescence.
To promote metacognition, we clearly need to design instructional tools and therapies. However, we are still a long way from fully comprehending how it works.
How should the brain look at itself?
Your brain has to gaze at itself in order to think about your own thoughts.
In theory, any time a group of hundreds of billions of brain cells collaborate to produce a thought, feeling, or action, they report on how well they did it. Metacognition arises from the monitoring and evaluation of all brain processes. One of the most important queries is, “How?”
We examine metacognition in its most basic form in our lab: our ability to appraise our own feelings.
Pierce and Jastrow’s methods are still used by us. In a typical experiment, participants are shown an image and asked to make a basic decision about what they see, after which they are asked to rate their confidence in making the correct choice. We may show them a virtually vertical line and ask them to determine whether it is tilted to the left or right, as an example. When the participant doesn’t have to peek back at the line to make sure they’ve made the right decision, they should feel more assured.
This is referred to as “decision evidence.” The brain assesses if there is enough evidence to be confident in a choice, much as a jury in a court decides if there is enough evidence to condemn a criminal.
This is a major difficulty for researchers trying to figure out what occurs in the brain when people feel more confident vs less confident, because a change in confidence equals a difference in decision evidence. If we detect a difference in brain activity between those who have high confidence and people who have low confidence, it might be due to more or less evidence (the line is perceived more vs less tilted).
We must distinguish between brain activity related to assessing the line’s tilt and brain activity connected to feeling confident in judging that tilt.
Separating confidence from decision evidence
By splitting these processes in time, we recently discovered a mechanism to discern between them. We examined participants’ brain activity while they made judgements regarding a series of pictures that were displayed one after the other in the experiment.
As participants examined the photos and made their decisions, we were able to observe what was going on in their heads. Participants have been seen to make decisions before seeing all of the photographs. The activities associated to making the decision came to a halt in this situation. However, some activity persisted.
Even though the participants had already made their decision, they nevertheless looked at the extra photographs and rated their confidence based on them. In these circumstances, the decision-making activity in the brain is complete, thus it cannot be confused with confidence-related activity.
Our initial discovery corroborated a lot of prior research: we discovered activity related to confidence in brain regions linked to goal-directed behaviour.
But when we looked more deeply at this brain activity, attempting to figure out how the brain sees itself, we came into a new question: when?
The traditional idea of metacognition is that you make a choice first, then evaluate how much evidence you need to feel confident — you think first, then think about thinking. However, we discovered that the pattern of brain activity associated with confidence formed even before the subjects made their decision.
It’s the equivalent of counting your chickens before they’ve even hatched. It’s strange to imagine that the brain, which is the most efficient machine we know, would perform something so pointless.
The default perspective indicates that metacognition plays a significant role in influencing future behaviour: how confident we are in our judgments, ideas, and feelings influences our subsequent behaviours, and we utilise low confidence to learn and better in the future.
But there’s another option: we may utilise confidence while deliberating to determine if we need more evidence or whether we have enough to make a conclusion.
People who are stronger at metacognition are also better at understanding when to stop pondering and commit to a choice, according to a separate experiment. This suggests that the brain is always observing, analysing, and assessing its own operations in order to maintain efficiency; a system of severe micro-management.
More than 130 years after Pierce and Jastrow questioned the relevance of metacognition, we are continually learning new ways to value this type of self-reflection. As a result, we’re learning more about the brain and its incredible capacity to look at itself. The Discussion