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Metacognition refers to a knowledge of one’s own cognitive abilities and …

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- Prospective and Retrospective Metacognitive Abilities in Rhesus Monkeys

Metacognition refers to a knowledge of one’s own cognitive abilities and one’s aptitude to alter these abilities if necessary. Metacognition is organized into two levels: the meta-level and an object-level (Nelson and Narens, 1990). The object-level,which is primarilyin control of information retrieval and recognition processes, exists as the basic level of cognition. The meta-level moderates the activity level of all cognitive processes that occur at the object-level. The flow of information from the object-level to the meta-level allows for the existence of two functions, monitoring and control (Nelson, 1996). Monitoring, which serves as the main source for conscious metacognitive judgments (Reder and Schunn, 1996), is a person’s ability to measure how well his own cognitive processes, such as memory and perception, are working. Control refers to people’s capacity to make decisions based on feedback they receive from the monitoring. For example, people exhibit monitoring when they reflect on how much information they have absorbed while studying for a test. If they come to the conclusion that they do not know enough information, they will display control by continuing to study.

Metacognition is a natural ability possessed by humans, exemplified through people’s quickness when they state that they do not know something (Klin et al., 1997; Kolers and Palef, 1976; Glucksberg and McCloskey, 1981). People also use this judgment system for everyday problem solving, where metacognitive abilities are essential in recognizing that there is a problem, understanding what the problem is, brainstorming a solution and reflecting on the outcome (Davidsonetal., 1994). Children above a certain age also demonstrate these metacognitive monitoring skills. For example, like human adults, children understand when they do or do not know the answer to a question (Markman, 1977) and when they are dreaming or using their imagination (Johnson and Raye, 1981). Although there is a considerable amount of research regarding the cognitive processes of nonhuman primates, it is necessary for this emerging field of research to address the debatable nature of the metacognitive abilities of monkeys (Smith et al., 2003; Hampton, 2001; Inman and Shettleworth, 1999). A continued focus in this particular field will help to elucidate the extent of metacognitive abilities in animals and help to further tease apart the complexities of human metacognition.

In 2007, Kornell, Son and Terrace published a set of experiments evaluating metacognitive monitoring in rhesus macaques. The first two experiments were psychophysical tasks in which the monkey was required to identify either the longest line in an array or the stimulus with the greatest number of dots in an array of stimuli. After each trial, the metacognition paradigm was introduced, where a high confidence icon and low confidence icon appeared on the screen.The subjects were required to select one of these icons, depending on how well they thought they had performed the task. Feedback was given using a token economy, in which the monkeys could earn or lose tokens from a hopper on the screen. These results displayed the monkeys’ ability to make appropriate retrospective confidence judgments on their performance on perceptual tasks.

The third experiment was a serial working memory task, in which the monkeys were first presented with six sequential sample pictures and then a test in which they had to identify the one they had just seen among a pool of distractors. Then, they made a confidence judgment on the test they had just performed, using the same metacognitive paradigm as in the first experiments. The positive results from this study confirm that the monkeys were able to transfer the ability to make metacognitive judgments from perceptual tasks to serial working memory tasks, and thus make confidence judgments about their own memories, not just psychophysical discriminations.

In the current study, the rhesus monkey was required to complete a recall memory task and make confidence judgments on his task abilities. The recall task is a more cognitively challenging task than a recognition task because the amount of information needed for a correct response is typically higher in a recall test than a recognition test (Davis et al., 1961). While recall involves a two-stage process, retrieval and decision, recognition only involves the decision making portion (Kintsch, 1970). In recall, the monkey must retrieve a stored representation of the flashing sample item among the other items of equal familiarity from their memory before they can make a decision about the items presented before them (Anderson and Bower, 1972). Recall is also more cognitively demanding because the monkey must remember not only the familiar items but also the one that was previously highlighted. An example of the difference between recall and recognition tasks in human experiments can be explained as the following. In a recognition task, the human subject reads a list of words from a set and is then presented with a probe list of words from the previous set and additional ones. The subject must circle all words that were from the set list. In a recall task, the subject listens to a list of words and then has a limited amount of time to recall as many words as possible from the previous list. Past experiments have confirmed that the accuracy retrieval rate is higher for a recognition task than a recall task (Bjork, 1989). Unlike the recognition task, where the samples are shown one after another, the samples in this experiment’s task were shown at the same time. In this case, the monkey had equal familiarity with all the samples, but one was highlighted with a flashing border indicating this was the one to be recalled later.

In addition, in this experiment the monkey was required to exercise prospective monitoring, where he needed to assess how well he would be able to remember studied information on an upcoming test (Nelson and Narens, 1994).

This prospective monitoring then allowed the subject to use the monitoring information to control how much the upcoming task was worth  to him The objective of this experiment is to show that a monkey can successfully make both retrospective and prospective judgments on recall memory tasks. This will demonstrate the monkey’s ability to transfer metacognitive judgments from serial working memory tasks to recall tasks. It will also test the monkey’s ability to monitor his understanding in the past and future.

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