Explicit Cognitive Control in Soliloquies

Nicholas Shea, Annika Boldt, Dan Bang, Nick Yeung, Cecilia Heyes, and Chris D. Frith, ‘Supra-Personal Cognitive Control and Metacognition’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18 (2014), 189-96.

By ‘cognitive control’, the authors mean the mind’s capacity to ‘adapt its own operation in pursuit of its agenda’. This can entail simple, unconscious, ‘implicit’ interactions and prioritisations among sensory and motor processes – run, don’t think! It can also entail the way we represent our cognition explicitly, when we think, or say, ‘I’m sure’ or ‘I’m doubtful’. Related to this is ‘metacognition’, cognition about cognition, something that may be unique to humans.
      Shea et al. consider this uniqueness, but devote most of the paper to the reasons why explicit cognitive control might have evolved, and what special things it might do for us. Their suggestion is that it has developed in order to enable ‘supra-personal’, social decision-making. The capacity to consider one’s own certainty, as well as the capacity to articulate the outcome, help us achieve better things together. They propose further experiments, on humans and indeed on other species, ants and bees for example, to test the idea.


This poses, I think, an interesting question for literature. There are many forms of introspection in fiction, and these could be prized as an attempt to understand the individual, to explore each person’s island. However, if this paper is right, and its argument is quite compelling, then many forms of ‘inwardness’ are inextricable from our social existences. Take the case of a Shakespearean soliloquy. I have already posted about Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ speech here, but again it’s a perfect example. It seems quite apt to think of a soliloquy as a form in which the combination of introspection and interaction is natural, not artificial, a materialisation of what was true about this kind of metacognition all along.
      Of course, Shakespeare doesn’t make it easy. Hamlet may be being overheard during the speech, and he may – this seems unlikely to me, but not impossible – be speaking in full awareness of this, with an intention to deceive. The listeners do not know what he is being metacognitive about, though they have their theories. The audience is also listening, but it cannot quite feel that it is being spoken to, or asked to participate in the exploration of doubt. But even if this is not a simple case of explicit cognitive control being used to facilitate group decision-making (it could hardly be further from that) something of the quality of a soliloquy like this may be revealed by this paper’s social theory of introspective thinking.
      Not for the first time in this blog, the theatre proves a productive place to think about cognition. I think an audience must be a web of metacognition, with unconscious and conscious processes constantly managing our reactions to a play in relation to others. When a joke is made it is sometimes, I think, palpable that the audience is unsure how funny it is. The uncertainty communicates itself through shifts of body and breath, and it can go either way – towards a collective silence, a cascade of laughter, or somewhere in between. It seems very likely that the inward question ‘do I find this funny?’ is really looking for an answer from the group.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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