Limited Cognitive Resources Explain a Trade-Off between Perceptual and Metacognitive Vigilance.J Neurosci. 2017 02 01; 37(5):1213-1224.JN
Why do experimenters give subjects short breaks in long behavioral experiments? Whereas previous studies suggest it is difficult to maintain attention and vigilance over long periods of time, it is unclear precisely what mechanisms benefit from rest after short experimental blocks. Here, we evaluate decline in both perceptual performance and metacognitive sensitivity (i.e., how well confidence ratings track perceptual decision accuracy) over time and investigate whether characteristics of prefrontal cortical areas correlate with these measures. Whereas a single-process signal detection model predicts that these two forms of fatigue should be strongly positively correlated, a dual-process model predicts that rates of decline may dissociate. Here, we show that these measures consistently exhibited negative or near-zero correlations, as if engaged in a trade-off relationship, suggesting that different mechanisms contribute to perceptual and metacognitive decisions. Despite this dissociation, the two mechanisms likely depend on common resources, which could explain their trade-off relationship. Based on structural MRI brain images of individual human subjects, we assessed gray matter volume in the frontal polar area, a region that has been linked to visual metacognition. Variability of frontal polar volume correlated with individual differences in behavior, indicating the region may play a role in supplying common resources for both perceptual and metacognitive vigilance. Additional experiments revealed that reduced metacognitive demand led to superior perceptual vigilance, providing further support for this hypothesis. Overall, results indicate that during breaks between short blocks, it is the higher-level perceptual decision mechanisms, rather than lower-level sensory machinery, that benefit most from rest.
Perceptual task performance declines over time (the so-called vigilance decrement), but the relationship between vigilance in perception and metacognition has not yet been explored in depth. Here, we show that patterns in perceptual and metacognitive vigilance do not follow the pattern predicted by a previously suggested single-process model of perceptual and metacognitive decision making. We account for these findings by showing that regions of anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC) previously associated with visual metacognition are also associated with perceptual vigilance. We also show that relieving metacognitive task demand improves perceptual vigilance, suggesting that aPFC may house a limited cognitive resource that contributes to both metacognition and perceptual vigilance. These findings advance our understanding of the mechanisms and dynamics of perceptual metacognition.