Monday, March 26, 2007

Rats have metacognition

Fascinating article can be found here: Metacognition in the Rat
The nuts and bolts of it, are that research has shown that Rats have metacognition - the ability to think about their own thinking. The researchers are primarily excited about the types of research might open up, but as Joel Marks at the Bioethics Forum argues this might well mean that research involving rats needs to be closed off, not expanded.

The abstract from the paper is below:

The ability to reflect on one's own mental processes, termed metacognition, is a defining feature of human existence. Consequently, a fundamental question in comparative cognition is whether nonhuman animals have knowledge of their own cognitive states. Recent evidence suggests that people and nonhuman primates but not less “cognitively sophisticated” species are capable of metacognition. Here, we demonstrate for the first time that rats are capable of metacognition—i.e., they know when they do not know the answer in a duration-discrimination test. Before taking the duration test, rats were given the opportunity to decline the test. On other trials, they were not given the option to decline the test. Accurate performance on the duration test yielded a large reward, whereas inaccurate performance resulted in no reward. Declining a test yielded a small but guaranteed reward. If rats possess knowledge regarding whether they know the answer to the test, they would be expected to decline most frequently on difficult tests and show lowest accuracy on difficult tests that cannot be declined. Our data provide evidence for both predictions and suggest that a nonprimate has knowledge of its own cognitive state.

Joel's primary argument is that metacognition is a higher level thinking ability, which perhaps ought to be taken to be a sign of a higher moral status than we typically ascribe to rats, which either should mean we decrease or cease research involving rats.

What do you think? Should we change what we typically consider rats moral status to be, in the light of this research?

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