Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness - Stephen M Fleming 2021


One of the wonderful things about doing science is that it involves a constant exchange of ideas with friends and colleagues. This means it’s also a nearly impossible task to properly acknowledge everyone who has contributed to the ideas in this book and the many colleagues who have created the field of metacognitive neuroscience. I am especially indebted to Paul Azzopardi, who, during an exhilarating eight-week undergraduate course, first showed me that a science of subjective experience was not only possible but well underway in the form of research on blindsight. I’ve been lucky to have superb PhD mentorship from Chris Frith and Ray Dolan, who provided both the freedom to explore and gentle but important words of advice that nudged our work on metacognition toward the most interesting questions. The vibrant international community of metacognition and consciousness researchers has become like a second family, with the meetings of the Association of the Scientific Study of Consciousness as our annual gatherings.

The Wellcome Trust, Royal Society, and Leverhulme Trust have not only provided generous support for much of the research I discuss in the book, but also fostered a culture in the UK in which public engagement and science communication are championed and considered integral to the enterprise of science. It’s been a privilege to be surrounded by kind yet incisive colleagues at University College London, and to be part of a dynamic network of cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, the Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, and the Department of Experimental Psychology. Likewise, members of my lab, both past and present, have been a wellspring of ideas and enthusiasm. My thanks go to PhD students Max Rollwage, Matan Mazor, Elisa van der Plas, Xiao Hu, and Andrew McWilliams; postdoctoral colleagues Marion Rouault, Dan Bang, Jon Huntley, Nadim Atiya, and Nadine Dijkstra; and research assistants or affiliate students Jason Carpenter, Oliver Warrington, Jihye Ryu, Sara Ershadmanesh, Audrey Mazancieux, Anthony Vaccaro, and Tricia Seow. Outside of the lab, Hakwan Lau and Benedetto De Martino have patiently listened to my many half-baked ideas and worries, and they have been both sounding boards and true friends in science. I have also been lucky to build a partnership with Dan Schaffer, whose stimulating discussion evenings with his legal trainees at Slaughter and May have sharpened my thoughts on the real-world relevance of metacognition.

The writing took place over three consecutive summers, and different chapters are indelibly linked to specific places. Thibault Gajdos kindly hosted me as a visiting researcher at Aix-Marseille Université during the summer of 2018, where I gave a series of lectures that formed the basis of Part I. Much of the remainder was completed in the Scottish village of Crail while on paternity leave the following year, and I’m grateful to my parents-in-law for use of their wonderful flat above the harbor there. The final chapters have been written in Zagreb, Croatia, at the start of my wife’s diplomatic posting. Throughout these moves, the ever-present support of our parents and friends has been central to keeping us emotionally, if not always physically, tied to home.

Writing this book has been an acutely metacognitive experience—accompanied by self-doubt, self-questioning, and second-guessing of whether things are on the right or wrong track. The onset of a global pandemic in the closing stages only heightened this introspective anxiety, and I am very grateful to those at the other end of an email for prompt advice and words of encouragement. I am particularly indebted to Chris Frith and Nicholas Shea, who read the final draft and provided incisive and timely comments that helped minimize some of my more egregious errors and omissions. My editors at Scientific American and Aeon magazines, Sandra Upson and Brigid Hains, were instrumental in shaping my initial ideas on metacognition into a coherent narrative. My agent, Nathaniel Jacks, has been incredibly patient and helpful, particularly during those New York days during which the ideas for this book developed in fits and starts. My editors at Basic Books and John Murray, TJ Kelleher and Georgina Laycock, have combined timely nudges on structure and content with calming cups of tea during our London get-togethers. The sharp eye and error awareness of Liz Dana proved invaluable in the latter stages. For reading and commenting on early drafts and individual chapters, I’m grateful to Oliver Hulme, Nicholas Wright, Benedetto De Martino, Cecilia Heyes, Dan Bang, Katerina Fotopoulou, Robert Rothkopf, Will Robinson, Alex Fleming, and Helen Walker-Fleming.

My wife, Helen, has provided unstinting love, support, and patience, and my gratitude knows no bounds. Finn, watching you grow up and acquire the very thing I was trying to research and write about has been awe-inspiring and humbling in equal measure. This book is for both of you.

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STEPHEN M. FLEMING is a Wellcome Trust/Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology and Principal Investigator at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, University College London, where he leads the Metacognition Group. He lives in London.