Thinking about thinking, an interview with Dr Stephen Fleming


Deputy-Science Editor Oliver Cohen interviews the award-winning Neuroscientist about his work, the state of the field and science in general.

How did you get into the field?

I studied psychology as an undergraduate, and throughout that degree I was always interested in doing experiments, and that’s really what prompted me to go on to do a PhD, but I realised that to really understand the mind you also need to study the brain. I feel like they go hand in hand, so that’s why I went on to do my PhD in brain imaging. In terms of getting into metacognition actually that was quite late in my PhD, so I went to do my PhD in brain imaging of basic cognition, and then towards the end of my PhD I have always been interested in consciousness, so how does the brain create our conscious experience, why are there certain things that remain unconscious, and that really led me into the idea of maybe we can study these things by investigating the brain processes that are involved in metacognition.

Photo by jesse orrico / Unsplash

You’ve done a lot of work in computational neuroscience, do you see this as being where the future of research lies?

Absolutely. So often we now see coming into the neuroscience PhD programme more and more people have a computational background, maybe they have a background in Physics or Maths, and that is absolutely critical to modern neuroscience, because a lot of what we do now is rather than testing qualitative theories, we’re testing quantitative theories, so creating predictions from computational models. A lot of what we do in my lab is creating models in simulation in the computer which will predict different aspects of behaviour and brain function, so you really need to have good programming skills, to have some quantitative background. If you have that then you’re going to be doing really well in those kind of PhD programs.

What would you say the most important issue in your field at the moment is?

One thing we’re really interested in research on metacognition is whether metacognition is what we call domain general, meaning does it rely on a single system or do you have different metacognitive systems for different processes. Do you have one metacognitive system for reflecting on your memories, another one for your perceptions, and another one for your decisions etc. or is there some kind of unitary system that is involved, and the jury’s still out on that. So that’s an exciting area of research.

And for neuroscience in general?

I think broadly, more broadly for neuroscience as a whole, one area that we’re really interested now, that I think is really important, is trying to come up with more quantitative ways for understanding why psychiatric conditions arise. At the moment we have a very symptom based approach to this, so a bit like when you go into the doctor they measure your blood pressure, but they then don’t just treat that as a symptom, they will try to treat the underlying cause of the blood pressure. At the moment in psychiatry we’re trying to treat symptoms, trying to treat depression, but that is a symptom cluster, and instead we need to get at the underlying mechanisms, and I think that’s a really exciting project for neuroscience, because if we can do that then we can really help psychiatric disorders.

We need to get at the underlying mechanisms, and I think that’s a really exciting project for neuroscience, because if we can do that then we can really help psychiatric disorders.

You talked about how metacognition is different across the board of people, so do you think that this is linked to intelligence?

The research that we’ve done shows that metacognition is likely to be distinct from intelligence. It’s not just the same as being clever, and in fact what’s interesting is that there is recognition that you need both metacognition and intelligence for success. But like intelligence in that we know that one of the best ways of boosting your IQ is going to school, and going to university, you know, there’s ways of improving your intelligence, and it’s just the same for metacognition, but the research on how to boost metacognition is only just getting going, so we’re trying to explore that at the moment.

Featured image: Epigram/ Oliver Cohen

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