Designing the cognitive future, part VII: Metacognition

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Fri, March 06, 2015 - 11:49:00

In this post, I discuss my views on designing the future of metacognition. The definition of metacognition I use in the post refers to the monitoring and control of other cognitive processes. Monitoring helps us reflect on what is happening and what happened, while control enables us to regulate cognitive processes. While monitoring and control can happen automatically, here I focus on explicit metacognition: our ability to reflect on and justify our behavior based on the processes underlying it. 

It turns out that it is very difficult to report on cognitive processes because we have little direct conscious access to them. However, we do have access to their outcomes. In fact, we experience actions and their consequences closer in subjective than objective time (this phenomenon is called intentional binding). But, this only happens when our actions are voluntary. This phenomenon helps us experience agency and feel responsibility for our actions.

Psychologists are increasingly arguing that metacognition is most useful to help us better collaborate. One of the hints that this may be the case comes from studies suggesting that we tend to be better at recognizing the causes of behavior in others than in ourselves. In addition, there is evidence that our metacognitive abilities can improve by working with others, and that collaborative decisions (at least among people with similar abilities) tend to be superior to individual decisions, given shared goals.

Think of how reflecting with someone else about our behavior, decisions, and perceptions of the world can help us make better decisions in the future. For example, a friend can help us reflect about the possible outcomes of our decisions and provide different points of view. It is through contact with others that we can learn, for example, about cultural norms for decision-making. 

These discussions can also be useful for collaborative decision-making. Being able to communicate about our goals, abilities, shortcomings, knowledge, and values can help us better work together with others. Understanding the same things about others (a.k.a. theory of mind) can take us one step further. It can get us to understand collective versions of goals, abilities, shortcomings, knowledge, and values.

Metacognitive processes can help us make joint decisions that are better than individual ones, develop more accurate models of the world, and improve our decision-making processes. Through these, we can get better at resolving conflict with others, correcting our mistakes, and regulating our emotions.

So what are some roles that technologies are playing and could play with respect to metacognition? 

One obvious way technology is helping and can continue to help is in enabling us to record our decisions and our rationale for these. Rather than having to recall these, we can review them, analyze them, perhaps even chart them to better understand the areas in which we are doing well and the ones where we could be making better decisions. 

Technologies can also be useful in helping us gain a third-person view of our own behavior. Video modeling, for example, is widely used with special needs populations, such as children diagnosed with autism, to help them better reflect on behavior. Similar tools could be used to reflect on group processes.

Communication technologies can also be helpful. They could help us have richer face-to-face discussions, as well as have quicker access to more people with whom to talk about our behavior and decision-making. Expanding the richness of these communications and the number and diversity of people we are likely to reach could help us improve our metacognitive abilities. 

The most exciting and controversial developments are likely to come from technologies that help us better understand and control our cognitive processes. One approach that is already being used in the human-computer interaction community is neurofeedback. Current solutions use electroencephalogram technology to obtain information on brain activity. Researchers have used these, for example, to help people relax by making them aware of the level of activity in their brains. 

An up-and-coming alternative is near-infrared spectroscopy, which can be used to scan activity in the brain’s cortex. If there are cognitive processes that occur in the cortex, they could be monitored. These monitoring technologies could also be used to share this information with others. They may be useful, for example, in working with a therapist. At the same time there could be serious privacy issues. Could your employer require you to wear a device to know when you are not paying attention?

To assess control over cognitive processes, one option that is currently being explored is transcranial ultrasonic technology, which some researchers think could eventually be used to activate specific regions of the human brain (e.g., see William Tyler’s work at Arizona State). This again poses significant ethical challenges. Would you allow someone else to make decisions on stimulating your brain?

I would largely prefer expanding on what already works (e.g., better communication with others), although I find advanced monitoring and control technologies intriguing, especially if I could keep information private and be in full control of any brain stimulation.

How would you design the future of metacognition? Would you want to have more information about and control over your cognitive processes? Or you would you prefer technologies that help you do more of what already works (i.e., communicating with others)? Would you want to do both? 

This post was inspired in part by this article: Frith, C.D. The role of metacognition in human social interactions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367,1599 (2012), 2213–2223.

Posted in: on Fri, March 06, 2015 - 11:49:00

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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