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Animal "metacognitive" ability

Updated: May 29, 2022

Studying the "Study of Consciousness" (Stanislas Duanne) can further deepen your understanding of coaching theory.

I am studying to add a unique flavour to "unconscious rewriting".

This series of blog posts are my study notes. This time, the theme that follows the unconscious and conscious

I will write a "sign of consciousness".


There is no doubt that macaque monkeys have a global workspace similar to humans'.

This blog has focused on conscious access, such as selecting and noticing sensory stimuli.

This ability is so essential that it is believed to have monkeys and possibly many other animals.

But when it comes to higher levels of cognitive function, humans are different from other animals.

The point is whether the human consciousness workspace has unique qualities that dramatically separate us from other animals.

Recently, cases have been reported showing that animals have a high self-reflection ability.

Animals are not as incompetent as we think, even for tasks that require secondary judgment, such as detecting errors and considering success or failure.

This ability to think about one's thoughts is called "metacognition."

Metacognition is related to knowing the limits of one's knowledge by allocating a degree of belief and self-confidence to one's thoughts.

Experimental evidence shows that monkeys, dolphins, and even rats and pigeons are capable of this.

The photo above is not Natua

Natua, a dolphin at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Marathon, was trained to identify underwater sounds by elevation.

He does this task brilliantly by pushing the paddles on the left wall when he hears bass and on the right when he hears treble.

In the experiment, the frequency of 2000 Hz is set at the boundary between treble and bass. Natua will swiftly swim towards the correct paddle if the sound is far from this frequency.

On the contrary, his reaction slows down when the sound is close to this frequency. He eventually heads for one of the paddles, showing a hesitant gesture, and often makes mistakes.

It is, instead, natural that the closer to the boundary, the more difficult it is to identify.

This problem is because the time it takes for humans and many other animals to make decisions and the rate at which they make mistakes usually increase as the difference between the objects to be identified decreases.

But when it comes to humans, narrowing the differences between objects in perception also causes a secondary sensation of lack of self-confidence.

As the pitch approaches the boundaries, we realize that we are facing difficulties.

I feel uncertain, and I think the decision I will make may be wrong.

And if you can, you'll want to give up the task and frankly say, "I don't know."

The typical metacognition is the wisdom of "knowing what you don't know."

J. David Smith of the State University of New York devised a clever trick called "escape response."

After the first perceptual training, he prepared a third paddle for Natua.

By trial and error, Natua learned that when she pressed this third paddle, the ambiguous sound was immediately replaced by an easily identifiable bass (1200 Hz), which was slightly rewarded.

In short, given a third paddle, Natua has the option of "escaping" from the task.

However, you cannot exercise this option in any trial, and you must use your escape paddle with caution.

There is a constraint that you will have to wait until you get a reward for a long time.

From this experiment, Natua voluntarily used the escape response only under challenging trials, that is, trials with a sound frequency close to 2100 hertz, which were error-prone.

It was as if the third paddle was used as a secondary "comment" for immediate action.

By pushing it, the dolphin says, "I know it's difficult to meet the challenge," and "I want an easier trial."

Thus, the dolphin is smart enough to notice his lack of self-confidence.

Some researchers deny this interpretation.

"The dolphins have only shown athletic behaviours trained to maximize rewards, and the only difference is that three responses are taken into account, not two," they say.

As is commonly seen in reinforcement learning tasks, dolphins have only identified stimuli that favour pressing the third paddle, and their behaviour is only mechanical.

While it is inevitable that many past experiments cannot rule out this interpretation, the latest studies with monkeys, rats, and pigeons are sufficient to respond to this criticism, and the situation acknowledges the existence of pure metacognitive abilities. It tilts significantly in the direction.

Animals sometimes use escape responses in more intelligent ways than can be predicted based on reward alone.

After making a choice and being told if the choice you made is correct, giving them an escape option will closely monitor which trials they find subjectively difficult.

Even when given the same stimulus, the trials that chose the escape response performed worse than those that maintained the original response.

They are monitoring their state of mind and, for some reason, distracted, shaking off trials where the signals they processed were less clear than usual.

They evaluate their self-confidence in every trial and only respond to escape if they feel it is lacking.

Recent experiments have shown that at least monkeys are not limited to just one overtrained context.

Macaque monkeys, for example, have been found to voluntarily generalize and use escape keys beyond the context in which they were initially trained.

As soon as you discover the meaning of a particular key in a sensory task, you can use it in the new context of a memory task.

Specifically, you'll learn how to report "I couldn't perceive it well" and generalize it so you can use it to report "I can't remember well".

These animals know themselves.

Even the self-monitoring mechanism works unknowingly.

If you mistake pressing a key on your keyboard or your eyes are drawn to the wrong goal, your brain will automatically detect and correct these mistakes.

However, it is argued that the monkey's knowledge of self is not based solely on such sub-threshold automatic mechanisms.

The choice of their escape options is very flexible and applies to tasks that have not been trained.

They think about past decisions for a few seconds, which are reflections on periods beyond the reach of the unconscious process.

You must use an arbitrarily defined response method, such as pressing the escape key.

Neurophysiologically speaking, it requires a slow accumulation of evidence and higher functions of the parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex.

Further research must verify this point, but it is unlikely that slow and complex secondary decisions can be made unnoticed.

With that in mind, animal behaviour can reflect the characteristics of consciousness and the reflexive mind.

Perhaps we humans are not the only animals with known knowledge.

Other animal species also can reflect on their state of mind.

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