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Metacognitive Feelings

I propose that answering both questions requires us to consider metacognitive feelings ...

metacognitive feelings ... allow a transition from the implicit-automatic mode to the explicit-controlled mode of operation.’

(Koriat, 2000, p. 150)

Koriat, 2000 p. 150

According to Koriat,
Koriat’s focus is adults, but his claim hints that metacognitive feelings might be relevant to understand why the early-developing, automatic belief-tracking process shapes looking duration.
But what are metacognitive feelings?
Here is a face that I hope will seems familiar to most people. When you see this face, you have a feeling of familiarity. This feeling of familiarity is not just a matter of belief: even if you know for sure that you have never encountered the person depicted here (and trust me, you haven’t), the feeling of familiarity will persist. Nor is the feeling a matter of perceptual experience: you can’t perceptually experience familiarity any more than you can perceptually experience electricity.

feeling of familiarity

<- fluency of processing

<- expectation of fluency

The face is a composite of Raimo, Frauke and Kiera Knightly. It is chosen to illustrate that the feeling of familiarity is not a consequence of how familiar things actually are. Instead it may be a consequence of (a) how fluently a perceived item can be processed; and (b) how expected the fluency of processing is (Whittlesea, 1993; Whittlesea & Williams, 1998). (Faces you can’t place can generate stronger feelings of fluency than faces which are actually familiar to you.)
Learning a grammar can also generate feelings of familiarity. Subjects who have implicitly learned an artificial grammar report feelings of familiarity when they encounter novel stimuli that are part of the learnt grammar (Scott & Dienes, 2008).

can learn new interpretations

Importantly, you are not doomed to treat feelings of familiarity as being about actual familiarity. It is possible to learn to use the feeling of familiarity in deciding whether a stimulus is from that grammar, for example (Wan, Dienes, & Fu, 2008).
The face is a composite of Obama and Clinton.

metacognitive feelings of


- familiarity (Whittlesea & Williams, 1998; Scott & Dienes, 2008)

- knowing (Koriat, 2000)

- that a name is on the tip of your tongue (Brown, 1991)

- someone’s eyes are boring into your back

- déjà vu (Brown & Marsh, 2010)

- ? surprise (Reisenzein, 2000)

- being the agent of an event (‘sense of agency’) (Haggard & Chambon, 2012)

There are other metacognitive feelings, including the feeling you have when someone’s eyes are boring into your back, the feeling of déjà vu, and the feeling that a name is on the tip of your tongue.

‘Jake said, I wasn’t twenty feet back and you never looked around once, never even scratched the back of your neck to show you felt me following back there.’

‘I had felt him following. All day, maybe. I just hadn’t known what I was feeling.’

Frazier, The Trackers (chapter IV)

intentional isolator

Metacognitive feelings are intentional isolators. They serve to link processes involved in preparing actions or recognising faces to thought. But although triggered by these processes, they represent nothing that bears on how these processes unfold. We would have no idea that the processes cause the feelings but for scientific discoveries. So metacognitive feelings are intentional isolators in this sense: They serve to link largely unconscious to conscious processes without breaking information encapsulation or limited accessibility.

fact of familiarity

-> fluent processing

-> metacognitive feeling

-> interpretation

I think we can usefully compare metacognitive feelings with the sensation of electricity.
Contrast two sensory encounters with this wire. In the first you visually experience the wire as having a certain shape. In the second you receive an electric shock from the wire without seeing or touching it.% \footnote{This illustration is borrowed from Campbell (2002: 133–4); I use it to support a claim weaker than his.} The first sensory encounter involves perceptual experience as of a property of the wire whereas, intuitively, the second does not. I take this intuition to be correct.% \footnote{ Notice that the intuition is not that the shock involves no perceptual experience at all, only that the shock does not involve perceptual experience as of any property of the wire. Notice also that the intuition concerns what a perceptual experience is as of, and not directly what is represented in perception. The relation between these two is arguably not straightforward (compare, e.g., Shoemaker (1994, p. 28) or Chalmers (2006, pp. 50--2) on distinguishing representational from phenomenal content). }
The intuition is potentially revealing because the electric shock involves rich phenomenology, and its particular phenomenal character depends in part on properties of its cause (changes in the strength of the electric current would have resulted in an encounter with different phenomenal character). Yet the link between the feeling of electricity and electricity is not immediate. You might mistakenly think that the feeling of electricity is caused by some property of the surface of the wire, or by magic. It takes time to learn to link the feeling to electricity.


electricity -> shock sensation -> interpretation


shape -> visual perception -> verbal judgement