GTA cognition group goes meta

8 10 2014

Walter and I went to the GTA Animal Cognition journal club yesterday, and although this meant four hours in the car to discuss three papers not really in our field, it was utterly worth it: so much fun.

Inspired by Rob Hampton‘s visit to Toronto and lecture on Friday (which I couldn’t make but Walter and Jamie said was excellent), the topic was metacognition (can animals monitor their own states of knowledge or comprehension, and then act accordingly?).

The best paper we read was Hampton’s “Multiple demonstrations of metacognition in nonhumans: Converging evidence or multiple mechanisms?” (Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 4, 17-28). A similar critique, but one treating ambiguous evidence for ‘true’ introspective metacognition in animals far more harshly and sceptically, was authored by Celia Heyes and colleagues in TICS (Shea et al. 2014). I didn’t like this as unless alternative explanations are really obvious, I tend to want to give animals the benefit of the doubt (I admit it), and was relieved to find that no-one else loved it either (mainly because of its grand claims that only humans have conscious, slow, ‘Type 2’ cognitive processes; this seemed to be wishful thinking). The third paper was by David Smith and co-workers, using some venerable language-trained chimps (e.g. Lana, 41), first trained to communicate with symbols in the 70s. An actual experiment, this gave us the chance to analyze it for some of the ‘non-introspective’ processes suggested by Hampton. Although I’d thought I’d understood his review, when I tried to apply its reasoning I realized I actually hadn’t, and so had to shuttle between the two to work it out (helped by Walter paraphrasing key passages as we drove down the 401): an ironic case of not knowing what I didn’t understand.

MasseyCollegeThe discussion was lively and veered about all over the place, regularly brought back on track by the leadership of Kristin Andrews, sharp erudition of Sarah Shettleworth, and enthusiasm and broad knowledge of Noam Miller. It was so enjoyable, and Massey College so much like a modern Oxbridge one, that I periodically found myself confused (in a good, dream-like way) as to where we were and what year it was. Can’t wait for the next one.