Thinking about thinking: A coordinate-based meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies of metacognitive judgements

Brain Neurosci Adv. 2018 Nov 13:2:2398212818810591. doi: 10.1177/2398212818810591. eCollection 2018.


Metacognition supports reflection upon and control of other cognitive processes. Despite metacognition occupying a central role in human psychology, its neural substrates remain underdetermined, partly due to study-specific differences in task domain and type of metacognitive judgement under study. It is also unclear how metacognition relates to other apparently similar abilities that depend on recursive thought such as theory of mind or mentalising. Now that neuroimaging studies of metacognition are more prevalent, we have an opportunity to characterise consistencies in neural substrates identified across different analysis types and domains. Here we used quantitative activation likelihood estimation methods to synthesise findings from 47 neuroimaging studies on metacognition, divided into categories based on the target of metacognitive evaluation (memory and decision-making), analysis type (judgement-related activation, confidence-related activation, and predictors of metacognitive sensitivity), and, for metamemory judgements, temporal focus (prospective and retrospective). A domain-general network, including medial and lateral prefrontal cortex, precuneus, and insula was associated with the level of confidence in self-performance in both decision-making and memory tasks. We found preferential engagement of right anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in metadecision experiments and bilateral parahippocampal cortex in metamemory experiments. Results on metacognitive sensitivity were inconclusive, likely due to fewer studies reporting this contrast. Finally, by comparing our results to meta-analyses of mentalising, we obtain evidence for common engagement of the ventromedial and anterior dorsomedial prefrontal cortex in both metacognition and mentalising, suggesting that these regions may support second-order representations for thinking about the thoughts of oneself and others.

Keywords: Confidence; decision-making; mentalising; meta-analysis; metacognition; metamemory; prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Review