I, meta cognition researcher?

One session in to the British Science Festival 2012 and I’ve already got a list of questions as long as my arm about amazing new research (yes, one Metric DavidArm, or MDA) (also, apologies for the cringe-worthy title).

I don’t really know where to begin, so I’ll just jump in with a couple of the things that have blown my mind in the past three hours.

One: people’s metacognition – their ability to understand and judge how well their cognition is working – varies dramatically. The example, given by Dr Daniel Bor, was of subjects shown stimuli that were just barely at the level of perceptibility, such as a dot flashing on a screen for milliseconds. The people were asked if they had, or had not, seen a dot. They were also asked if they were confident of their response.

Metacognition relates to whether the answer to the second question is accurate. And here’s the cool bit: while the actual ability of people to complete the task is pretty much the same (our perception works fairly equally well), their ability to know if their perception is working well differs hugely. That’s fascinating.

At the simplest level, in this experiment, it showed that even though people were about the same at answering whether a dot flashed up, their ability to judge if they had given the right answer was different. What if this extends out to much more complex and relevant situations in life? What if metacognition affects our ability to judge how drunk we are, and whether driving home is actually going to be safe? Or whether we think a person is trying to lie or deceive us? Same perceptual stimulus, majorly different decision-making potential. Then, the Dunning-Krueger question – does our metacognitive ability affect our ability to judge our metacognitive ability? Meta meta. Argh. Moving on…

Another super-cool idea, among many, was from Dr Tom Manly, who took us on an adventure through spatial neglect, a phenomenon in which a person struggles, or fails, to consciously process information relating to an area (for example, the left side of things).

It’s a wonderfully complex area. For example, one stroke sufferer could remember in detail the right hand side of his house, as viewed from standing on the street, but nothing of the left side. The researchers then asked a simple question: describe it from the back. Suddenly, the ‘invisible’ areas became visible, and the rest of the house could be described – but the patient could never describe the house in its entirety. The information is there, but the conscious brain can’t access it.

And then, the mandatory mind-blowing bit: it happens to all of us. There’s good evidence, apparently (which I have noted the peer reviewed studies of, but don’t have time to fact check at this point!) that factors like tiredness, time limitation and drifting off to sleep induce similar biases in perception for ‘normal’ people. My immediate lesson: go to sleep with one’s right side facing the door. That way, if zombies attack, you’re more likely to notice…

Aberdeen's New Library facade

Beaming sunshine outside Aberdeen University’s New Library. A crazy facade and a wonderful place for some cheeky blogging…

I’ve knocked this out in 20 minutes and the other speakers, Prof Christian Schwarzbauer and Dr Martin Farrell, also highlighted some excellent current thinking in front of a packed house – I hope to write a follow up post when I’ve had a chance to digest! The bar for the BSF has been set high…

Categories: communication, Science | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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