The Frontal Cortex

Metacognitive Apes

I’ve always been fascinated by tip-of-the-tongue moments. It’s estimated that, on average, people have a tip-of-the-tongue moment at least once a week. Perhaps it occurs when you run into an old acquaintance whose name you can’t remember, although you know that it begins with the letter “J.” Or perhaps you struggle to recall the title of a recent movie, even though you can describe the plot in perfect detail.

What’s interesting about this mental hiccup is that, even though the mind can’t remember the information, it’s convinced that it knows it, which is why we devote so many mental resources to trying to recover the missing word. (This is a universal experience: The vast majority of languages, from Afrikaans to Hindi to Arabic, even rely on tongue metaphors to describe the tip-of-the-tongue moment.) But here’s the mystery: If we’ve forgotten a person’s name, then why are we so convinced that we remember it? What does it mean to know something without being able to access it?

The larger question is how the mind decides what to think about. After all, if we really don’t know the name – it’s nowhere inside our head – then it’s a waste of time trying to find it. This is where metacognition, or thinking about thinking, comes in handy. At any given moment, we automatically monitor the flux of thoughts, emotions and errata flowing in the stream of consciousness. As a result, when a name goes missing we immediately analyze the likelihood of being able to remember it. Do we know the first letter of the name? Can we remember other facts about the person? Are we able to remember the first names of other acquaintances from high school? Based on the answer to these questions, we can then make an informed guess about whether or not it’s worth trying to retrieve the misplaced memory.

Interestingly, a new experiment with a variety of primates (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans) demonstrated that great apes also demonstrate some rudimentary metacognitive skills. The study, conducted by Josep Call at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, involved presenting the primates with two hollow tubes. One of the tubes came with a food reward, while the other was empty. The apes were then observed as they searched for the reward.

In the first condition, the apes were given no visual information but were allowed to listen as the tubes were shaken. In the second condition, the apes were shown the location of the food – they watched the tube get baited – but were then kept away from the tubes for different lengths of time. Call wanted to see if forgetting the location of the food would lead to a lengthier search, just like people persisting when trying to remember a name on the tip-of-the-tongue. In the final condition, Call varied the quality of the food reward, as he wanted to see if the apes would search harder for a more valuable treat.

Sure enough, the apes demonstrated an impressive amount of mental flexibility when searching for the food. For instance, they were much more likely to check inside the tubes after a long period of time had elapsed since they’d been shown the location of the treat. Because they were convinced that they knew where the food was even though they couldn’t remember its exact location – it was like a name on the tip-of-their-tongue – they were more likely to search for the reward. The looking didn’t seem futile. (The apes were also much more likely to search for more valuable treats.)

As Call concludes: “The current results indicate that the looking response appears to be a function of at least three factors: the cost of looking inside the tube, the value of the reward and the state of the information. The combination of these three factors creates an information processing system that possesses complexity, flexibility and control, three of the features of metacognition.”

I wonder how far this experimental paradigm can be taken. Does a dog search longer in the backyard for a bigger bone? If so, is Fido practicing metacognition? My childhood cat was the laziest creature in the world. But she was willing to rummage around the recycling bin for hours searching for the empty tuna can. Did she posses the same metacognitive qualities as those chimps spending more time looking for the tastier treat?

The moral, though, is that even the loftiest of human talents, such as the ability to reflect on our own thoughts, have plenty of animal precursors. We’re so much less special than we like to imagine.

Comments

  1. #1 Gnomon
    March 29, 2010

    When I start seeing blogs posted by non-humans, then I might entertain the notion of our “not so special” status.

  2. #2 Cristin
    March 29, 2010

    “We’re so much less special than we like to imagine.”

    – It’s about time someone finally said it!

    Very interesting article, though.

  3. #3 royniles
    March 29, 2010

    We’re still special as a matter of degree.

  4. #4 LucasLikesParsnips
    March 29, 2010

    Every organism is facinating (and special) in both physical and cognitive dimensions. Look at ants, or even bacteria – so much capacity for complex behaviour. How special we decide things are depends heavily on our method of interpreting their behavior. Anyway,

    I was wondering if/how this would fit in with a Baysian brain interpretation. Is making inferences about inferences, implicit in just making inferences?

  5. #5 Robin
    March 29, 2010

    I’ve never read anything about this before, but it’s one topic that has always fascinated me. I’m convinced we can learn much more about cognition and memory by studying this phenomenon first hand. Perhaps there’s a large amount of scientific literature on the subject but I’m not a scientist so I wouldn’t know. I’d be interested to read more.

    I have a tip-of-the-tongue technique in which I go through the letters of the alphabet in order to see which letter resonates most strongly with the missing name. Quite often works, but not always. I’m sure others must do this.

    How is it we KNOW we know something, but we can’t access it? Interestingly when we know we DON’T know, it’s instant knowledge that we don’t know. (At least until we’re helped to access it: “The blonde who tripped over the table at the Christmas party?” “Aaah yes!”)

    (Can we devise an experiment to test this in primates? Perhaps involving a Christmas party.)

    A note on the experiment – small weakness – is it possible the apes were looking in the tube they “knew” to be empty because they figured it may have been filled in the interim? We none of us have perfect attention. Consider a film where you miss an important portion of the plot because you went to the bathroom – on your return you allow for having missed certain details. Even big plot holes are OK because we figure it may have been explained. Might the experiment merely be measuring this effect?

  6. #6 Robin
    March 29, 2010

    Just read your other, linked article. Two things stood out: yes I relate to the “contraband” example of CAUSING the forgetting by dint of the angle of the question. Things I could recall with great clarity mere days ago, or that are subjects I’m very familiar with, can disappear in an instant if someone phrases the question in a certain way. Alternately things I wouldn’t have thought I’d remember will pop in as clear as day if someone says “you remember….”

    The second thing which resonated strongly was the quote “When we remember something, that memory feels unified”. This is the opposite/flip-side of the tip-of-the-tongue moment, and is just as important to study. Why do we think we’ve recalled ALL the salient details? What causes that sense of comfort / satisfaction that the search is done?

  7. #7 Neuro-conservative
    March 29, 2010

    This interpretation of the data suffers from the classic anthopomorphic fallacy.

    Because they were convinced that they knew where the food was even though they couldn’t remember its exact location – it was like a name on the tip-of-their-tongue – they were more likely to search for the reward.

    This fanciful interpretation of motivation would never be accepted at face value in a study of humans. It is ironic that a human cognitive neuroscientist would be much more circumspect in reporting a similar study.

  8. #8 Zoasterboy
    March 30, 2010

    Don’t now about this one, metacognition is thinking about thinking. Perhaps a better potential reward simply activated more dopamine release, making the urge to search for it at a later date more likely. The apes are not thinking about the cost of their thinking, it’s unconscious urges.

    The dopamine release was related to the tubes and that area where the tubes are located. They just didn’t remember the exact tube and thus searched. A less rewarding reward, less dopamine, no urge to search.

    A gambler does not go back to the machine after deliberating the success to cost ratio of getting a reward, the gambler goes back because dopamine says to.

    In the least I think metacognition is the wrong word for this.

  9. #9 Richard Wells
    March 30, 2010

    I’m not convinced other animals think about thinking, but the more science reveals about the abilities of other species the less willing I am to to accept a “dumb animal” category. Ok, ok, as far as I can tell humans are special, but there was a time not too long ago when some humans thought other humans were dumb animals based on skin color or geography. I’m pretty sure we still don’t know what’s going on in the head of a hump-backed whale – and maybe they are thinking about thinking.

  10. #10 psycho
    March 30, 2010

    Thanks for the article. You put everyday stuff on light to show it’s not that simple to explain.

    Anyway, my explanation of tip-of-the-tongue is that thinking about something means that all related neurons are firing. And sometimes, we just cant fire that one neuron (or group of them), but we are sure that something is there. So we try, because there is strong 50%-chance motivation (as Goleman says http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hoo_dIOP8k ). But (and this is just a guess) the structure of neurons firing is not the right one, there is some module missing, some group of neurons that manifests another point of view. That’s why, sometimes, it only takes one little idea, that stimulates another brain area, the one that is connected to our tip-of-the-neuron, which now reaches threshold and fires.

    I think even more interesting case is in creativity. You know from analogies, that there must be something, but cant imagine what. Sometimes you try for a long time. Sometimes it takes background-processing to make the idea “connect”, Aha!

  11. #11 dmf
    March 30, 2010

    the phenomenologist eugene gendlin has formulated a whole philosophy of the “implicit” along these lines of feeling in the gaps:
    http://www.focusing.org/

  12. #12 Kevin Vogelsang
    March 30, 2010

    I wonder how metacognition relates to confidence.

  13. #13 NDP
    March 30, 2010

    @Kevin: Interesting. . .

    @Gnomon: http://www.jabberwacky.com/j2conversations

    @*: there’s a medication called topiramate, prescribed mainly as an anti-convulsant, but there are some off-label uses too. One of the side-effects is “difficulty finding words” (or names). And it’s a marked effect, though it takes a week or so to set-in. You take it, and you know for a fact that, last week, you weren’t having this much trouble.
    When you stop taking it, and the next day, maybe two days later, and the side-effect is gone. I can’t empirically say, it’s the same exact words that were no longer accessible, are suddenly *there* – but when you’re looking for that word, and can’t find it, you just KNOW it. And when the side-effect is gone, it’s like magic – you’re articulate again! (and the effect only seems to apply to speaking, where you’re on-the-spot, not writing/typing, where you have time to sit and think).

    From a computer-science perspective, it’s very much “like” (feels-like) the problem of keeping a table synchronized with an index (or a cache). You get a hit on the index, but the record is missing.

  14. #14 Mclean Edwards
    March 30, 2010

    Gnomon: “When I start seeing blogs posted by non-humans, then I might entertain the notion of our “not so special” status.”

    Meanwhile, in a lofty Termite throne room deep within the kingdom of Th’rapteria, the prince consort, when presented with evidence of ape-constructed towers similar to their own, had this to say to the argument of attempting communication with the larger ape-beings:

    “It may very well be that their sloppy, too-smooth constructions in some way resemble our own, but until I start seeing the evidence of at least a single rational argument well laid out in communal chem-scent from these illiterate creatures, any such attempt would only be a waste of time and effort against these brutal and barbaric beasts. Besides, it is a well known fact that we are the only intelligent species in this Earth.”

  15. #15 MDsquared
    March 30, 2010

    “We’re so much less special than we like to imagine.” THANK YOU! The world would be such a better place if there were more blogs like this one. So thought provoking.

  16. #16 caribou
    March 31, 2010

    What Richard Wells said. I totally agree.

  17. #17 OnlyWhenILArf
    April 1, 2010

    I agree that this seems very similar to indexing a database. Some indexes are simply a list of identifiers – like using a SSN to look-up someone’s name and address. Some indexes are “clustered” – grouping values into ranges, then sub-ranges, making it easy to find data quickly (We’re looking for 30321 so we know it’s more than 30000 and less than 30500, it’s more than 30250 and less than 30500, it’s more than 30250 and less than 30325, so now we only need to look in a list of 125 items to find it).

    I’m wondering if the brain works in a similar way for some memory tasks: It’s in the bathroom, it’s in the cabinet, it’s on the top shelf, so now I only need to check each bottle.

    So, maybe, if something is going on – we’re tired, sick, distracted – the connections from one of these organizational levels to the next is “offline” and so we know we know, but we’re damned if we can remember what it is that we know!

  18. #18 Jim Kornell
    April 1, 2010

    About 6 years ago my son Nate finished his dissertation on metacognition in Rhesus monkeys, giving them choices where their decision task required assessing their confidence in their own memories. Knowing whether and to what extent you know something seems like it would fit most people’s idea of metacognition.

  19. #19 Vore Zocno
    April 6, 2010

    I found this to be very interesting…

    “This is a universal experience: The vast majority of languages, from Afrikaans to Hindi to Arabic, even rely on tongue metaphors to describe the tip-of-the-tongue moment.”

    …so I was wandering if you have a source that treats this topic particulary or if you did your own research, in the later case perhaps you would be as kind as to detail the list of languages that you found share this peculiarity.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!