Metacognition


Stephen Fleming is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, where he leads the Metacognition Group. Metacognition is apparently too fancy a word for the general public, so Fleming’s new book bears a simpler title. You can gain a taste for Fleming’s subject through a recent article he wrote for IAI News, or more extensively through this Brain Science interview, but there’s a particular element of the book which I’d like to focus on. The first part of the book is titled “Building Minds That Know Themselves”, and brings to mind the writings of Al Sutton who addressed the importance of building a visual space world before Fleming was born (see Sutton’s OEP monograph Volume 1 and Volume 2). Subsequently, Hal Sedgwick wrote a book review for OVS on the topic of visual metacognition that is worth glancing at.

In Weekend 5 of the Sanet Seminar Series ePub, Bob and I address the subject of metacognition with regard to building (or in the case of ABI, re-building) a visual space world. In a nutshell, this approach requires the patient to self-critique performance. By that we mean it is important to engage in Socratic thinking, in which the patient is asked to reflect and comment not only on what they perceived, but how they went about achieving it. And equally if not more important, what they might try to do differently to achieve a different percept or outcome. The question remains at what age, or at what stage of development or rehabilitation, metacognition is best engaged – and how best to go about this.

Professor Fleming addresses components of this throughout his book, and brings it full circle in Chapter 11 titled Emulating Socrates: “We track uncertainty, monitor our actions, and continually update a model of our minds at work – allowing us to know when our memory or vision might be failing or to encode knowledge about our skills, abilities, and personalities … My lab has been working on developing training protocols that provide feedback not only on people’s performance, but also on their metacognition … However, we should be mindful that more substantial boosts in self-awareness may not be an unalloyed good.”

Professor Fleming continues: “Even in the otherwise healthy brain, we have seen that creating more realistic self-appraisals may have emotional downsides, and small doses of overconfidence may be useful for cultivating self-efficacy.” So the message here is that there is a delicate balance as to how and when the patient is positioned to benefit from metacognitive feedback or training. For example, pushing a child to reflect on his strategy at the wrong time, or too forcefully, may create unwanted anxiety. A child whose self-esteem is shot, and has an expectation of failure, may not be well-served for self-critique about the arrangement of attribute blocks. Another example is the patient with brain injury, whose private inner world is may not be best served by accessing and describing it. In Fleming’s terms, it overflows the capacity for report, resulting in what we might call sensory or emotional overload.

Metacognition therefore loops back to the delicate balance required in fixed vs. growth mindset that we covered a couple of years ago regarding rendering compassionate care.

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