Thursday, October 15, 2009


Unusually high temperatures in the Arctic and heavy rains in the tropics likely drove a global increase in atmospheric methane in 2007 and 2008 after a decade of near-zero growth, according to a new study. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, albeit a distant second.

There is growing evidence that animals may share humans’ ability to reflect upon, monitor and regulate their states of mind, according to a study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences this month. Dr David Smith, comparative psychologist at the University of Buffalo, makes this conclusion in a review of the new and rapidly developing area of studying animal metacognition. He was supported by the European Science Foundation EUROCORES programme ‘Consciousness in a natural and cultural context’ (CNCC).

Humans can feel uncertainty. You know if you do not know or remember – a perfect example of this is the feeling of something being on the tip of your tongue. This capacity to be aware of our own thinking is known as metacognition. Establishing whether non-human animals also share this sophisticated human capacity is important for understanding their consciousness and self-awareness. The study of metacognition is based on the idea that human minds in particular have a function that monitors or controls perception and memory.

“It is a crucial goal of comparative psychology to establish firmly whether animals share humans’ capacity to think about thinking,” says Dr David Smith. “Metacognition rivals language and tool use in its potential to establish important similarities or differences between human and animal minds.”

To find out whether non-human animals do have knowledge of their own cognitive states researchers have studied a dolphin, pigeons, rats, monkeys and apes using tests involving perception, memory and food-concealment. The results offer growing evidence that some animals do indeed have functional equivalents to humans’ consciousness and to humans’ cognitive self-awareness.

Among these species are dolphins and macaque monkeys (an Old World monkey species). Smith recounts the original animal-metacognition experiment with Natua the dolphin: “When uncertain, the dolphin clearly hesitated and wavered between his two possible responses. But when certain, he swam toward his chosen response so fast that his bow wave would soak the researchers’ electronic switches. Practicing safe science, the researchers were reduced to buying condoms to protect the apparatus from the exuberantly confident dolphin.”

In sharp contrast, other animals do not have the same capacity. Pigeons in several studies have so far not expressed any capacity for metacognition and several converging studies now show that capuchin monkeys (a New World monkey species) only express a limited capacity for metacognition. This raises important questions about the evolution of the reflective mind in primates and opens a new window on reflective mind in animals overall, illuminating its evolutionary emergence and allowing researchers to trace the precursors to human consciousness.

Comparative psychologists are cautious about labeling animals’ functional parallels with humans as a definite indicator of consciousness. Yet the fact that some animals’ flexibly use metacognition without training means it is likely to reflect their conscious awareness.

Smith is recognized for his research in the field of animal cognition. He and his colleagues pioneered the study of metacognition in nonhuman animals, and they have contributed some of the principal results in this area, including many results that involve the participation of Old World and New World monkeys who have been trained to use joysticks to participate in computer tasks. Smith is one of a growing number of American participants in EUROCORES, through support from the USA’s National Science Foundation. The metacognition project is led by professor Joëlle Proust from the Institut Jean-Nicod in Paris, France. Dr Smith collaborates with partners from Austria, France, Germany and the UK to develop comparative knowledge of metacognitive processes, by exploring how similar these capacities are in non-human animals, human children and human adults.

Dr Eva Hoogland, EUROCORES coordinator for the cognitive sciences at the European Science Foundation, comments: “The metacognition project is an exciting example of an international, interdisciplinary environment that is carefully prepared and managed, where partners from disciplines as diverse as developmental psychology, comparative biology and philosophy respect each other’s work. This study shows how this has resulted in opening up promising research avenues to answer some of the most important research questions that currently face us.”

(Photo: ESF)

European Science Foundation

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