A brain-system that builds confidence in what we see, hear and touch

September 25, 2017

Behavioral scientists and psychologists use the term "metacognition" to describe our ability to access, report and regulate our own mental states: "thinking about thinking", "knowing about knowing" "being aware about being aware", are all higher-order cognitive skills that fit this category.

Specifically, metacognition enables the brain to compute a degree of confidence when we perceive events from the external world, such as a sound, light, or touch. The accuracy of confidence estimates is crucial in daily life, for instance when hearing a baby crying, or smelling a gas leak. Confidence estimates also need to combine input from multiple senses simultaneously, for instance when buying a violin based on how it sounds, feels, and looks.

From a neuroscience point of view, the way metacognition operates in different senses, and for combination of senses is still a mystery: Does metacognition use the same rules for visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli, or does it use different components of each of sensory domains? The first of these two ideas - i.e. the "common rules" - is known as "supramodality" and it has proven controversial among neuroscientists.

Settling the matter

A series of experiments by Olaf Blanke's lab at EPFL now provide evidence in favor of supramodality. The study, led by researcher Nathan Faivre, tested human volunteers using three different types of experimental techniques: behavioral psychophysics, computational modeling, and electrophysiological recordings.

The behavioral part of the study found that participants with high metacognitive performance for one sense (e.g. vision) were likely to perform well in other senses (e.g. audition or touch). "In other words," explains Faivre, "those of us who are good at knowing what they see are also good at knowing what they hear and what they touch."

The computational modeling indicated that the confidence estimates we build when seeing an image or hearing a sound can be efficiently compared to one another. This implies that they share the same format.

Finally, the electrophysiological recordings revealed similar characteristics when the volunteers reported confidence in their responses to audio or audiovisual stimuli. This suggests that visual and audiovisual metacognition is based on similar neural mechanisms.

"These results make a strong case in favor of the supramodality hypothesis," says Faivre. "They show that there is a common currency for confidence in different sensory domains - in other words, that confidence in a signal is encoded with the same format in the brain no matter where the signal comes from. This gives metacognition a central status, whereby the monitoring of perceptual processes occurs through a common neural mechanism."

The study is an important step towards a mechanistic understanding of human metacognition. It tells us something about how we perceive the world and become aware of our surroundings, and can potentially lead to ways of treating several neurological and psychiatric disorders where metacognition is impaired.
Contributing institutions

Max Plank Institute for Human development
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin
Universidad de Buenos Aires
University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf
University Hospital Geneva


Bertarelli Foundation,
Swiss National Science Foundation
European Science Foundation


Nathan Faivre, Elisa Filevich, Guillermo Solovey, Simone Kuhn, Olaf Blanke. Behavioural, modeling, and electrophysiological evidence for domain-generality in human metacognition. Journal of Neuroscience 15 September 2017, 0322-17. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0322-17.2017

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.