Dear GH and All,
I have a question on nomenclature. When I use the word metacognition I simply mean the activity of reflecting on my own thought, perhaps questioning some of my own thought processes. When you guys use that term is there more to it than that? Does it imply the use of some learned introspective technique, for example?
Just thinking out loud here… The thing is that most “metacognition” is nonconscious. (??) Various schemes or action plans to solve a given reproductive problem compete in the CNS and, in the end, the one with the highest expected fitness payoff wins. (Do you think that such cost – benefit analyses qualify as metacognition?) The animal, human or not, then waits for the most opportune time (already specified in the action plan itself) and executes the requisite behaviors. Of course, if there is much lag time while waiting for that opportune moment, the plan may always be revised if new pertinent data arrive. Moreover, tons of data may stream in during execution. The plan may then be revised on the fly, and when we do that well we may experience “flow.”
An aside: one of the most satisfying things about watching an animal operate in nature is that after a while you begin to notice the behavioral correlates of their own struggles. The moments of indecision when, unconsciously, they are comparing action plans, usually ones entailing very high stakes. It is one of the observations that is most powerful in evoking empathy and even compassion for creatures like spiders. They struggle, pretty much as I do, but they can never ask why… They are always so determined to do well, to get it right, but they cannot even begin to conceive of the ultimate goal they are pursuing. Never can they have an inkling of how they they are being mastered, moment to moment. It is beautiful (a finely tuned, exquisite CAS in action) and heartbreaking at the same time.
Back to the main theme: Humans seem to have some conscious metacognition going on. Why do certain patterns of thought become the subject of conscious review? Who or what is in control of that?
In my view, this conscious metacognition is one more part of our “adaptively subjective dreamworld.” Like any other content of consciousness, it becomes conscious through the action of nonconscious mental mechanisms. Even metacognition that feels quite effortful may just be the individual (i.e., the whole embodied mind) weaving socially efficacious, fitness-enhancing stories about how we think to tell our social partners. Real intrapsychic vigilance, which given our situation would have to include a discipline of “remaining in question,” even while acting, would take this into account.
To get out of our prison cell we probably have to develop skills for digging down into the vast seas of unconscious metacognition, which is another way of referring to the process of hacking into our personal Matrix. This requires somehow stepping on through the streams of uploaded metacognition fed to us by the regulatory mechanisms I was going on about yesterday.
One more comment about my writing process yesterday. GW, when I read what you wrote it evoked thoughts about the human condition and how to approach our situation. This is something I am frequently called upon to do with people who are very naive about evolutionary hypotheses concerning the most basic workings of mind. What I wrote was to them, not you. I don’t think I was thinking about YOU much at all once I got into the writing. But I can see how it would seem that my writings were some kind of reflection of my model of how you see things. I don’t think they really were, and I apologize for the impression that was created that I was addressing some cheaply dreamt up caricature of your own views. — PJW