Psychologists are making great strides forward in uncovering the mechanisms that support human metacognition. Especially when we also find out how those mechanisms work in the brain, we tend to assume that they are hard wired, a fixed part of our distinctively human endowment. However, capacities that we learn from experience – reading, for example – also have their mechanisms in the brain. Could some of the mechanisms of metacognition be like that too?
I was privileged to be part of a team led by Cecilia Heyes looking into this question. There turns out to be considerable evidence that various aspects of the metacognition toolbox are learnt from others. This makes it likely that, like reading, some of our metacognitive tools have been passed down to us through culture. They may even have been adaptively shaped by cultural evolution, rather than biological evolution.
In a recent paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences we review the current state of the evidence for and against this provocative hypothesis. We go on to suggest further ways that it can be tested empirically. It seems to me that this could prove to be a very fruitful research programme.
Heyes, C., Bang, D., Shea, N., Frith, C.D. and Fleming, S.M. (2020) ‘Knowing Ourselves Together: The Cultural Origins of Metacognition’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(5), pp. 349-362 [open access pdf][link]