Skip to main content

Behavioral and neural determinants of metacognition and self-awareness in human adults and infants

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - METAWARE (Behavioral and neural determinants of metacognition and self-awareness in human adults and infants)

Reporting period: 2020-08-01 to 2021-01-31

One of the most fundamental issues in contemporary science concerns the nature of consciousness. The project METAWARE explores the neural determinants of conscious and unconscious cognitive processes, by investigating them during sleep, self-recognition and metacognition. More specifically, the objectives of the project are the following follow:

- A first objective of the project consists in providing news insights about unconscious cognitive processing in the full absence of consciousness, including self-consciousness and metacognitive abilities, by focusing on the sleeping brain and its ability to process and learn information from its surrounding environement.

- A second objective of the project is to explore the fundamental issue of whether multiple agents can share information and each other’s conscious access mechanisms, without being aware of it.

- A third objective of the project is to answer the two fundamental issues of whether infants have a capacity for metacognition (do they know they know) and whether they experience self-consciousness (do they feel themselves as a unitary entity).

This project is intrinsically interdisciplinary, addressing long-standing issues in philosophy and mind sciences (e.g. Why do we sleep? Is consciousness private to the individual? Can we share minds? Are infants aware about themselves? Should they be considered as ‘real persons’ from an ethical point of view?) by using both behavioral paradigms originated from experimental psychology and brain imaging methods from neuroscience such as fMRI and EEG. The project has also medical implications as it might help paediatricians confronting issues of infant consciousness in relation to anaesthesia, pain, and pathologies. In addition, this project relies on the most recent advances in engineering and machine learning, by using brain-computer interface methods with adults and by using augmented reality setups to explore how the self develops in infants.
Our work on the physiological markers of information processing and learning during sleep revealed that the human brain continues to respond to external stimulation and can even be induced to generate classifications of incoming sounds. We show that this is the case in particular in light sleep, but that responsiveness to the external world disappears during deep sleep stages. We also showed that, again during light but not during deep sleep, the human brain can continue responding and even adapting to (i.e. learning from) the acoustic environment. Furthermore, another study from our group reveals that sleeper can selectively attend to relevant information in the acoustic environment (when several people are talking at the same time, as in the so-called “cocktail party” situation, the sleeper’s brain selectively amplifies the speech stream which is most relevant to her/him). Congruent with our previous studies, this research shows that selective attention is possible during light but not during deep sleep.

- Andrillon, T., & Kouider S. (2020). The vigilant sleeper: neural mechanisms of sensory (de) coupling during sleep. Current Opinion in Physiology, 15, 47-59.
- Andrillon, T., Pressnitzer, D., Léger, D., & Kouider S. (2017). Formation and suppression of acoustic memories in human sleep. Nature communications, 8 (1), 179.
- Andrillon, T., Poulsen, L.K. Hansen, L.K. Léger, D., & Kouider, S., (2016). Neural Markers of Responsiveness to the Environment in Human Sleep. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36 (24), 6583-6596.
- Andrillon, T., & Kouider, S. (2016). Implicit Memory for Words Heard During Sleep. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 25, 2823-282.
- Koroma, M., Lacaux, C., Andrillon, T., Legendre, G., Leger, D., & Kouider S. (2020). Sleepers Selectively Suppress Informative Inputs during Rapid Eye Movements. Current Biology, 30, 1-7.
- Koroma, M., Elbaz, G., Leger, D., & Kouider S. (2021). Mapping new word representations during sleep via associative transfer learning. Manuscript under review (2nd round) in Psychological Science.
- Legendre, G., Andrillon, T., Koroma, M., & Kouider S. (2019). Sleepers track informative speech in a multitalker environment. Nature Human Behaviour, 2397-3374. doi:10.1038/s41562-018-0502-5.

Our work on whether and how much participants can attribute self-agency when making directly with their mind, using a brain-computer interface (BCI), showed that people are in large part unable to estimate what they are controlling without reflecting on their overt behavior. These findings reveal a nice dissociation between agency and self-consciousness, and suggest that despite the general impression of a rich internal life, people are only partially aware of their impending decisions.

- Rebouillat, B., Leonetti, J-M, & Kouider S. (2021). People confabulate with high confidence when their decisions are supported by weak internal variables. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 7(1): niab004.
- Rebouillat, B., & Kouider S. (2021). Partial awareness during voluntary endogenous decision. Manuscript submitted for publication.


Our work on the precursors of metacognition and self-consciousness in infants used measures of implicit behaviors and neural signatures to reveal that infants possess ‘core’ metacognitive abilities. Indeed, they can communicate in a non-verbal manner whether they know they don’t know. Moreover, they evaluate their decision confidence and generate electrophysiological signals (i.e. the Error-Related Negativity brain wave) reflecting the internal monitoring of their own errors after having made a simple decision. We propose a new theoretical framework for the development of metacognition and self-reflection in infants. In addition, our work provides new insights from what we know now about consciousness and metacognition in babies to the recent efforts in developing conscious artificial intelligence using machine learning.

- Goupil, L., Romand-Monnier, M., & Kouider S. (2016). Infants ask for help when they know they don’t know. PNAS, 113, 3492–3496.
- Goupil, L., & Kouider S. (2016). Behavioral and Neural Indices of Metacognitive Sensitivity in Preverbal Infants. Current biology, 26, 3038-3045.
- Goupil, L., & Kouider S. (2019). Developing a reflective mind: from core metacognition to explicit self-reflection. Current directions in Psychological Science. doi.org/10.1177/0963721419848672.
- Dehaene, S., Lau, H. & Kouider, S. (2017). What is consciousness, and could machines have it? Science, 358(6362), 486-492.
The Metaware project has been carried out without major difficulties and has been successful in leading to several high-impact publications in either cognitive psychology/neuroscience or general science. The project produced several breakthrough results leading to high-rank publications. Some of this research also received large media coverage (Time Magazine, Washington Post, Le Monde, The Scientist, and many others) for 3 papers in particular, one published in Science and one published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) for WP3, and the other one in Nature communications in 2017 for WP1. Please see previous section for the main results achieved so far.
Infant EEG experiment