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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Inaugurating the Study of Animal Metacognition

  • Author(s): Smith, J. David
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

Metacognition—the ability to monitor and control one’s own cognition—is a sophisticated ability that reveals humans’ reflective mind and consciousness. Researchers have begun to explore whether animals share humans’ metacognitive capacity. This article reprises the original study that explored metacognition across species. A captive dolphin performed an auditory pitch-discrimination task using High/Low discrimination responses and an Uncertainty response with which he could declineto complete any trials he chose. He selectively declined the difficult trials near his discriminative threshold—just as humans do. This comparative exploration of metacognition required a trial intensive titration of perceptual threshold and the training of a distinctive behavioral response. It could not have been conducted in the wild, though the naturalistic observation of dolphin uncertainty behaviors and risk-management strategies would no doubt yield complementary insights. The dolphin study inaugurated a new area of cross-species research. This research area opens a new window on reflective mind in animals, illuminates the phylogenetic emergence of metacognition, and may reveal the antecedents of human consciousness.

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