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wednesday :: december 10, 2003
metacognition: some animals know their cognitive limits

Humans are able to feel uncertainty. They know when they know something and when they don't. This capacity for 'metacognition' (thinking about thinking), or cognitive self-awareness, is thought to be one of humans' most sophisticated cognitive capacities and to be linked to our reflective consciousness. One of the important questions in the field of animal and human psychology is whether this metacognitive capacity is uniquely human, or whether nonverbal, nonhuman animal species have a level of metacognition that approaches that of humans.

The research, "The Comparative Psychology of Uncertainty Monitoring and Metacognition," made by a team led by John David Smith, have shown that the monkeys and the dolphin used the 'uncertain' response in a pattern that is essentially identical to the pattern with which uncertain humans use it. Indeed, Smith says, "the patterns of results produced by humans and animals provide some of the closest human-animal similarities in performance ever reported in the comparative literature."

Moreover, it is clear that a higher-level cognitive interpretation of the results is warranted -- low-level behavioral explanations cannot explain the phenomena. In short, Smith says, "the results suggest that some animals have functional features of, or parallels to, human conscious metacognition." They apparently know when they know and when they don't know, he adds.

Smith and his co-researchers (Wendy E. Shields and David A. Washburn) point out that by using the same metacognitive paradigms broadly across species, scientists may be able to draw the map showing which species have evolved cognitive self-awareness. This could reveal when in evolution reflective cognition emerged and how widespread this capacity is among animals. >from *New Research Finds Some Animals Know Their Cognitive Limits. Studies of animals' confidence and uncertainty inaugurate a new research area*. December 1, 2003

related context
orangutan culture, push back the origins of culture. january 21, 2003
> first chimpanzee archaeological dig: reinterpreting early human sites. may 28, 2002
> abstract thought on non-human animals: scientific and ethical implications. october 16, 2001

the un-certain promise

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