by Janet Kwasniak
Metacognition, thinking about thinking, is sometimes said to distinguish humans from other animals. It seems that dolphins and some primates, at least, are capable of metacognition. This is reported in a press release from the University of Buffalo, carried by ScienceDaily (here).
Smith and his colleagues provide a comprehensive review of the current state of the animal-metacognition literature. They describe how Smith inaugurated animal metacognition as a new field of study in 1995 with research on a bottlenosed dolphin. The dolphin assessed correctly when the experimenter’s trials were too difficult for him, and adaptively declined to complete those trials. The dolphin also showed his own distinctive set of hesitation, wavering and worrying behaviors when the trials were too difficult. In sharp contrast, when the trials were easy, he swam to the responses so fast that he would make a bow-wave around himself that would swamp Smith’s delicate electronics.
Subsequently, Smith and many collaborators also explored the metacognitive capacities of joystick-trained macaques. These Old-World monkeys, native to Africa and Asia, can make specific responses to declare uncertainty about their memory. They can respond, “Uncertain,” to gain hints from the experimenters of what to do on the first trial of new tasks. They can even respond, “Uncertain,” when their memory has been erased by trans-cranial magnetic stimulation… supports the consensus that animals share with humans a form of the self-reflective, metacognitive capacity. “In all respects,” says Smith, “their capacity for uncertainty monitoring, and for responding to uncertainty adaptively, show close correspondence to the same processes in humans.