Metacognition across sensory modalities: Vision, warmth, and nociceptive pain.

Research paper by Brianna B Beck, Valentina V Peña-Vivas, Stephen S Fleming, Patrick P Haggard

Indexed on: 11 Feb '19Published on: 11 Feb '19Published in: Cognition


The distinctive experience of pain, beyond mere processing of nociceptive inputs, is much debated in psychology and neuroscience. One aspect of perceptual experience is captured by metacognition-the ability to monitor and evaluate one's own mental processes. We investigated confidence in judgements about nociceptive pain (i.e. pain that arises from the activation of nociceptors by a noxious stimulus) to determine whether metacognitive processes contribute to the distinctiveness of the pain experience. Our participants made intensity judgements about noxious heat, innocuous warmth, and visual contrast (first-order, perceptual decisions) and rated their confidence in those judgements (second-order, metacognitive decisions). First-order task performance between modalities was balanced using adaptive staircase procedures. For each modality, we quantified metacognitive efficiency (meta-d'/d')-the degree to which participants' confidence reports were informed by the same evidence that contributed to their perceptual judgements-and metacognitive bias (mean confidence)-the participant's tendency to report higher or lower confidence overall. We found no overall differences in metacognitive efficiency or mean confidence between modalities. Mean confidence ratings were highly correlated between all three tasks, reflecting stable inter-individual variability in metacognitive bias. However, metacognitive efficiency for pain varied independently of metacognitive efficiency for warmth and visual perception. That is, those participants who had higher metacognitive efficiency in the visual task also tended to have higher metacognitive efficiency in the warmth task, but not necessarily in the pain task. We thus suggest that some distinctive and idiosyncratic aspects of the pain experience may stem from additional variability at a metacognitive level. We further speculate that this additional variability may arise from the affective or arousal aspects of pain. Copyright © 2019 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.