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Metacognition Offers Path to Understanding Consciousness

  • Published8 Mar 2022
  • Author Daphne Yao
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN
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Imagine walking on a beach and noticing some objects scattered far away. You look at them as you approach, noting some noises and smells as well. Are those sleeping beach cats or just rocks?

As you continue, your brain makes interpretations on what those objects are, based on observations collected by your senses and your memories. As you approach the objects, you may feel more confident on your judgements (those are clearly rocks), or you might start feeling unsure (they’re purring, so maybe they aren’t rocks).

What’s happening in the brain when you’re going through this internal monologue? Megan Peters, an assistant professor of cognitive sciences at University of California, Irvine, wants to answer this question. Her lab focuses on metacognition, the awareness of one’s own thought process, which includes this perceived feeling of confidence or uncertainty. Peters’ ultimate goal is to use her research to inform the greater study of consciousness. talks with Peters about her work.

What is consciousness?

State consciousness denotes the level of general awareness a person has. It’s very relevant in medical settings. For example, being in a minimally conscious state and having periods of being able to respond is different from being in a coma or in a vegetative state; furthermore, both states are distinct from experiencing a fully conscious state. The brain’s different activation patterns between these states could tell us a lot about how to make patients more responsive.

The harder part of consciousness, which I’m trying to explain, is the subjective experience. Many people consider this the “hard problem” of consciousness. For example, what is it like for you to feel pain? What is it like for you to look at a certain color? We know the physical processes leading to vision, but we want to find out the brain activity that links to your subjective perception of a certain color.

Recently, we’ve been focusing on the difference in brain activity between certainty and accuracy. Even when subjects reach the same accuracy levels in identifying stimuli, they can feel certain or unconfident in their judgements. The wide range of confidence is where subjective experience kicks in. We measure the brain activity of human subjects, analyze those patterns, and build mathematical models to theoretically explain that activity.

Why is the subjective experience “the hard problem” to study in consciousness?

It’s unlike many other fields in science, where you can see how the research landscape lies ahead of you. Here, we don’t even know what the steps look like; we don’t know how to go about finding the connection between neural activity and that subjective experience because it’s difficult to measure or to quantify that experience.

Moreover, there is a lot of terrible consciousness “science” out there. These theories, not supported by any empirical studies, can lead to the perception that consciousness is a pseudoscience, like healing crystals. As a result, there is a lot of distrust for people who are doing consciousness science research.

On a more practical end, there are a lot of challenges we face with funding policy. Because consciousness feels a bit more like philosophy than most other neuroscience topics, a lot more funding goes toward research with more immediate clinical impacts.

Why is studying metacognition a means to address this challenge?

A lot of consciousness theories grew out of philosophy and are becoming more based upon science. I’m working on how to make consciousness theories empirically precise. A theory being scientifically precise would mean us being able to come up with experiments that could falsify or support that theory.

How the brain responds to these subjective experiences informs theories like the global neuronal workspace theory, for example. According to this theory, various areas in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, anterior temporal lobe, and inferior parietal lobe, promote long-range connections that can coordinate activities in multiple brain regions. For example, say one region senses smell and another taste — the global workspace links these experiences into one. According to this theory, attention can also be involved in activating these particular spaces, thus enabling consciousness.

But there are also other theories about how consciousness arises, and this is where metacognition research could be helpful. Metacognition might help create the subjective experiences we have, and confidence itself has a subjective quality to it. When you feel uncertain, or when you think about something you saw or heard, those are subjective experiences, and part of the consciousness I want to study. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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