Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Why did we evolve the ability to think about our own thoughts?

Thinking about "the stuff of thought" sounds self-absorbed and irrelevant for our survival, but an opinion piece in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science says otherwise. Far from navel-gazing, this kind of thinking is what helps groups of people coordinate actions and pull off feats that would be impossible alone.

The article points out that the sharing of information between cognitive processes is not uniquely human. Consider the way information is drawn from a field of visual neurons and calculations are performed on this data to determine whether a spotted object is clearly identifiable or still ambiguous. This form of mental data reuse is possible without conscious awareness and is performed routinely by many animals. But humans go further. Perhaps uniquely, we are capable of self-aware metacognition – that is, we can consciously reflect on the content of our own thoughts.

Nicholas Shea and his co-authors label this latter ability "System 2 metacognition" (following the Dual Systems distinction between automatic (1) and effortful (2) thinking proposed by Daniel Kahneman and others). The information drawn on may originate in unconscious processes, but System 2 brings it into the open - and that creates new possibilities.

Firstly, it generates outputs that you can verbalise. This is enormously valuable in coordinating actions between multiple actors. Imagine two members of a hunting group each witnessed the prey scampering in opposite directions, but only one feels sure about it. Or three members of a jury reveal that the information from the first witness felt untrustworthy to them.

Secondly, information held in awareness can be fed into a range of cognitive systems - auditory clues can help me determine my confidence in a visual decision, or a social one. We adjust our gambling strategy, widen or narrow the search area, discount one from several data sources. Even when we are poor at verbalising real-world information, such as when trying to explain exactly how we go about catching a ball, we can still improve joint performance by sharing our own metacognitions (e.g. "keep throwing in that way"; "think I’m getting into the groove").

To understand more about this aspect of our behaviour, the authors suggest investigating the blocking of communication of metacognitive information in joint tasks, to determine the contexts where this information is critical, and to find out how people differ in their use of such communication. They conclude by speculating that System 2 metacognition may have driven the existence of (Kahneman’s) System 2 itself: we think consciously and effortfully because it’s useful to share our insights about this thinking with our social group, to coordinate better. Only later do we find less functional consequences of this self-aware nature: poetry, talking about our feelings, and pondering the big questions of life, such as this one!


Nicholas Shea, Annika Boldt, Dan Bang, Nick Yeung, Cecilia Heyes, & Chris D. Frith (2014). Supra-personal cognitive control and metacognition Trends in Cognitive Science DOI: Supra-personal cognitive control and metacognition

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.


Sergio Graziosi said...

Peer editing alert: ;-)
The DOI link at the bottom doesn't work for me, this one does:
(FT also on PMC:

Christian Jarrett said...

thanks Sergio, link fixed now.

Gre Moros said...

Actually, this is very new to me, I have read the names of the psychologists for the first time. Thanks a lot for sharing.

James said...

Our brain can give us thoughts and our brain can give us the ability to think about our thoughts. I think this is right where free will is born. We are as free as our brain lets us be. Although we can't always control what our brain think about we can for sure control how we react to our thoughts. As we age and develop through Piaget's Stages we learn how to control our reactions to our thoughts. This is extremely important and must be a main reason we have evolved to have some control (free will) over what we think about.

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Research Digest said...

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