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Thinking About Thinking

By Russell Tenofsky

Photo of a chimpanzee demonstrating metacognition or "thinking about thinking."Think about it, because apparently, these chimpanzees can. Chimpanzees at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center have displayed metacognition – the ability to “think about thinking.”

This is the first time a nonhuman species has displayed metacognition, a trait that scientists, philosophers, and religions have argued for generations to be one of the characteristics that make humans human.

“There has been an intense debate in the scientific literature in recent years over whether metacognition is unique to humans,” said Dr. Michael Beran of GSU, one of the scientists who conducted the research. And, as the team noted in their research, “The demonstration of metacognition in nonhuman primates has important implications regarding the emergence of self-reflective mind during humans’ cognitive evolution.”

“Our closest living relative has metacognitive abilities closely related to those of humans.”

As published in the journal Psychological Science, Michael J. Beran and Bonnie M. Perdue of the Georgia State Language Research Center (LRC) and J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo created experiments where they communicated with the chimpanzees using an already learned system of symbols.

The chimpanzees used the symbols to name food hidden by the scientists and received the food reward by correctly touching its corresponding symbol.

The researchers varied the experiment by alternating between hiding food the chimpanzees already knew the symbols for and ones they hadn’t learned yet. Researchers also varied how and where they hid the food. If the chimpanzees received incomplete or partial information about the food or where researchers hid the food, the intention was for them to seek out more information before they could find the food and receive the reward.

The research showed that the chimpanzees could immediately and correctly name items that they already knew were hidden and did indeed seek out additional information when they did not know enough about the food or its location.

“This pattern of behavior reflects a controlled information-seeking capacity that serves to support intelligent responding, and it strongly suggests that our closest living relative has metacognitive abilities closely related to those of humans,” the researchers reported.

Note: The Nonhuman Rights Project does not endorse experimentation on captive animals. However, we do quote the results of these experiments when they help make the case that the animals have a level of sentience, self-awareness, and, in some cases, a theory of mind that demonstrates that we should not keep them in captivity in the first place.

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