Introspection — the ability to examine your own thoughts and feelings — is seen by most as a single process. Critically analyzing your feelings and thoughts lets you to understand yourself and your surroundings better, hopefully allowing for better decision making. But it turns out that two brain processes — perception and memory — work in tandem to make introspection possible, and the brain’s ability to carry out these processes varies from person to person, a new study finds.
Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and a series of exercises to locate areas of participants’ brains responsible for introspection. They found that a person’s perception was determined by connectivity strength between the lateral region of the anterior prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate. These areas analyzed uncertainty and errors in performance. Meanwhile, a person’s ability to analyze memories was determined by the connectivity strength between the medial anterior prefrontal cortex, the precuneus, and the lateral parietal cortex.
“Our results suggest that metacognitive or introspective ability may not be a single thing,” Benjamin Baird, a graduate student at the university, said in a statement. “We actually find a behavioral disassociation between the two metacognitive abilities across people, which suggests that you can be good at reflecting on your memory but poor at reflecting on your perception, or vice versa.”
A group of 60 participants completed exercises that tested perception-based decision making and memory retrieval. To test their perception, the researchers arranged a group of six circles around one focal point. Each circle contained vague, alternating white and black vertical bars, called Gabor gratings. Participants were shown the groups of circles twice and asked to decide which group had a circle with slightly tilted bars. (You can see how this might be difficult here.)
The memory test was next. They looked at a list of 145 words, and were then given a second list of words and asked to check off whichever words they had already seen from the first list. At the end of both tests, the participants were asked to rate their confidence levels on a scale of one to six, with six being the highest level of confidence (how good they felt about their response accuracy). The researchers found that their accuracy was correlated with how well those specific parts of the brain communicated with each other.
“Part of the novelty of this study is that it is the first to examine how connections between different regions of the brain support metacognitive processes,” Baird said in the release.
If you want to improve connectivity in these areas of the brain, and therefore introspective accuracy, meditation may help. A 2012 study found that expert meditators showed “significantly better introspective accuracy than novices,” suggesting that “long-term meditators provide more accurate introspective reports than novices.”
Source: Baird B, Smallwood J, Gorgolewski K, et al. Medial and Lateral Networks in Anterior Prefrontal Cortex Support Metacognitive Ability for Memory and Perception. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2013.