Last year in a post on panpsychism, I introduced a hierarchy I use to conceptualize the capabilities of systems that we intuitively see as conscious. This isn’t a new theory of consciousness or anything, just my own way of making sense of what is an enormously complicated subject.
That hierarchy of consciousness was as follows:
- Reflexive survival circuits, programmatic reactions to stimuli adaptive toward an organism’s survival.
- Perception, mental imagery, image maps, predictive models of the environment which expand the scope of what the reflexes are reacting to.
- Attention, prioritization of what the reflexes are reacting to. Attention can be both bottom up, driven reflexively, or top down, driven by the following layers.
- Imagination, brokering of contradictory reactions from 1-3, running action-sensory simulations of possible courses of action, each of which is in turn reacted to by 1. It is here where the reflexes in 1 become decoupled, changing an automatic reaction to a propensity for action, changing (some) reflexes into affects, emotional feelings.
- Metacognition, introspective self awareness, in essence the ability to assess the performance of the system in the above layers and adjust accordingly. It is this layer, if sophisticated enough, that enables symbolic thought: language, mathematics, art, etc.
In that post, I pointed out how crucial metacognition (layer 5) is for human level consciousness and that, despite my own intuition that it was more widespread (in varying degrees of sophistication), the evidence only showed that humans, and to a lesser extent other primates, had it. Well, it looks like there may be evidence of metacognition in dogs.
Dogs know when they don’t know
When they don’t have enough information to make an accurate decision, dogs will search for more – similarly to chimpanzees and humans.
Researchers at the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have shown that dogs possess some “metacognitive” abilities – specifically, they are aware of when they do not have enough information to solve a problem and will actively seek more information, similarly to primates. To investigate this, the researchers created a test in which dogs had to find a reward – a toy or food – behind one of two fences. They found that the dogs looked for additional information significantly more often when they had not seen where the reward was hidden.
I was initially skeptical when I read the press release, but after going through the actual paper, I’m more convinced.
The dogs were faced with a choice that, if they chose wrong, meant they didn’t get to have a reward. A treat or a toy was hidden behind one of two V-shaped fences. The dogs made their choice by going around the fence to reach the desired item, if it was there. Each fence had a slit that the dogs could approach prior to their choice to see or smell if the item was present. Sometimes they were able to watch while the treat or toy was placed, and other times they were prevented from watching the placement.
When they couldn’t see where it was placed, they were much more likely to approach the slit and gather more information. In other words, they knew when they didn’t know where the treat or toy was and adjusted their actions accordingly. In addition, they adjusted their strategy based on the desirability of the treat or whether the item was their favorite toy, indicating that they weren’t just reflexively following an instinctive sequence.
My initial skepticism was whether this amounted to actual evidence for metacognition. Couldn’t the dogs have simply been acting on whatever knowledge they had or didn’t have without accessing that knowledge introspectively? Honestly, I’m still a little unsure on this, but I can see the argument that the actual act of stopping to gather more information is significant. An animal without metacognition might just guess more accurately when the have the information than when they don’t.
This gets into why metacognition is adaptive. It allows an animal to deal with uncertainty in a more effective manner, to know when they themselves are uncertain about something and decide whether they should act or first try to gather additional information. It’s a more obvious benefit for a primate that needs to decide whether they can successfully leap to the next tree, but it can be a benefit for just about any species.
That said, the paper does acknowledge that this evidence isn’t completely unequivocal and that more research is required. It’s possible to conceive of non-metacognitive explanations for the observed behavior. And it’s worth noting that the metacognitive ability of the dogs, if it is in fact metacognition, is more limited than what is observed in primates. If they do introspect, it’s in a more limited fashion than non-human primates, which in turn appears to be far more limited than what happens in humans.
It seems to me that whether dogs have metacognition has broader implications than what’s going on with our pets. If it is there, then it means that metacognition, albeit in a limited fashion, exists in most mammals. That gives them a “higher order” version of consciousness than the primary or sensory version (layers 1-4 above), and I see that as a very significant thing.
Unless of course I’m missing something?