As humans, we're nearly always thinking. In fact, there's even a term called metacognition that describes when we're thinking about thinking. And when thoughts are flitting about inside our heads, we know when we don't know something. Although many animals have been shown to monitor this kind of uncertainty, only humans are able to communicate it.
But when does that ability to communicate uncertainty start?
If you've ever been around a baby, you know they point at things a lot. However, early studies found little metacognitive abilities in young children. Does it mean it doesn't exist or, as Ars Technica points out, maybe researchers weren't testing it the right way.
After all, other species have metacognition, and experimenters have found ways to test that even though the animals can’t talk about what they know. What if children under four-years-old experience and use metacognition but are just bad at realizing it and letting anyone know?
Researchers at Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University set up an experiment using 80 infants, all about 20 months old. The experiment has previously been used with rhesus monkeys so obviously, it didn't involve having to talk. Their research was published in the journal PNAS.
The babies were shown a toy, and then the toy was hidden. The babies then had to wait somewhere between 3 and 12 seconds (giving them time for their minds to wander and forget the toy). They were then asked where the toy was so they could get it back.
Half the times the babies knew where the toy was hidden. The other half they had no idea where the toy had gone because the researchers had hidden it behind a curtain.
The babies always had a parent or other caregiver with them, but for half of the trials, the adults were told not to respond if the babies looked to them for help. In the other group, the adults were able to help the babies find the toy, but only if the babies looked to them for assistance.
The researchers found that the babies who could ask for help performed better, finding the toy 66 percent of the time versus the control group, who only found the toy 56 percent of the time.
They also looked at how many wrong guesses the babies made. The thought was that if the babies were thinking about what they did and didn't know, they would know when to ask for help. And that's what the researchers found. The babies in the experimental group, those who could ask for help, made fewer wrong guesses than those in the control group. The researchers said, "These results confirm that infants used the [ask for help] option strategically to avoid making errors even in possible trials."
The results of this experiment offer some evidence that the babies are communicating their uncertainty, conclude the researchers. In laymen's terms, they're basically saying, "Hey, I don't know this, so help me out!"
They caution however, that there may be other factors coming into play. For example, the babies were taught before the trial started that they could ask the adults for help finding the hidden toy. So in this scenario, we don't know whether the babies would have tried to ask for help without knowing the assistance was available.
In any case, the study's authors say their findings are solid.
"Our study reveals that infants have the capacity to monitor their own uncertainty and share it with their caregiver. The fact that infants can communicate metacognitive information to others suggests that they consciously experience their own uncertainty."