Higher-order thoughts in action: Consciousness as an unconscious re-description process

Bert Timmermans, Leonhard Schilbach, Antoine Pasquali, Axel Cleeremans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Citations (Scopus)
33 Downloads (Pure)


Metacognition is usually construed as a conscious, intentional process whereby people reflect upon their own mental activity. Here, we instead suggest that metacognition is but an instance of a larger class of representational re-description processes that we assume occur unconsciously and automatically. From this perspective, the brain continuously and unconsciously learns to anticipate the consequences of action or activity on itself, on the world and on other people through three predictive loops: An inner loop, a perception-action loop and a self-other (social cognition) loop, which together form a tangled hierarchy. We ask what kinds of mechanisms may subtend this form of enactive metacognition. We extend previous neural network simulations and compare the model with signal detection theory, highlighting that while the latter approach assumes that both type I (objective) and type II (subjective, metacognition-based) decisions tap into the same signal at different hierarchical levels, our approach is closer to dual-route models in which it assumes that the re-descriptions made possible by the emergence of meta-representations occur independently and outside of the first-order causal chain. We close by reviewing relevant neurological evidence for the idea that awareness, self-awareness and social cognition involve the same mechanisms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1412-1423
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological sciences
Issue number1594
Early online date9 Apr 2012
Publication statusPublished - 19 May 2012


  • consciousness
  • metacognition
  • blindsight
  • artificial grammar learning
  • neural networks
  • social cognition


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