You are here


23 November, 2015 - 09:52
Available under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Download for free at

If meta-cognition is thinking about thinking, then meta-representation is thinking about your representations.

Strictly speaking a meta-representation is a representation about another representation. In this article I use examples of representations and meta-representations, but that is subjective. Someone could label any detail as being a meta-representation of another detail it represents - it just depends what you think is representing what.

For instance if you say 'my dog is green' then you could say that is either a representation of your dog or a meta-representation since you are thinking about the representation of your dog being green.

Representations are basically something in the world that is represented in your mind in some way – Here Sam Scott explains Von Eckardt's definition of representations:

  • I will use the term “representation” to mean mental representation as defined in Von Eckardt's (1999) MITECS entry. Her definition of mental representation is (I hope) sufficiently broad and uncontroversial to be acceptable to most of the various competing currents in cognitive science. According to Von Eckardt, a (mental) representation has four important aspects: “(1) it is realized by a representation bearer; (2) it has content or represents one or more objects; (3) its representation relations are somehow ‘grounded’; (4) it can be interpreted by (will serve as a representation for) some interpreter.” (p. 527) Points (1) and (4) in the above establish that a (mental) representation requires a subject that both bears and can interpret the representation.

So meta-representation is actually a type of meta-cognition then (unless it is about an external representation (I explain more about this later) - it is really just a matter of defining the terms) because someone is thinking about their own thoughts. You have a representation in mind, and when you think more about this representation it becomes a meta-representation. For instance, if you think the thought 'I have a dog' then you have a representation of 'having' your dog. If you think 'I am thinking about the fact that I have a dog' then you are thinking about your representation of your dog, so it is more 'meta' then just having the simple representation of your dog.

That makes it sound confusing, however. It seems like all representations are 'meta' because a representation is a representation that a person thinks about to themself - and whenever someone has a representation they automatically think about it to themselves. Some representations are more second- hand, however, and these are more considered to be 'meta' representations.

Hybrid metarepresentations are representations of external objects, like a drawing on a piece of paper. Here Sam Scott references Dennett's theory:

  • Following Dennett (1998), it stands to reason that if a representation exists as an object in the world, then it too can be represented. Dennett's examples of metarepresentation tend to be of a hybrid nature. For instance a drawing on a piece of paper is a type of non-mental representation, which is represented in the mind of the person viewing it. The mental representation is of the drawing, but since the drawing is itself a representation, the viewer has a (mental) metarepresentation of whatever it is that the drawing represents.

When someone 'believes' something they don't necessarily have to think about it - they don't have to say to themselves 'I believe this'. When someone does say to themselves 'I believe this' then they are forming a meta-representation because they are thinking about some belief they have - they are forming a meta- representation of it. The belief is the representation, however when they think about it they become aware of it and form a higher - 'meta' representation of it.

For instance if you think 'I believe I have a dog' then you are thinking about the representation of your dog and your belief of that - so you formed a meta-representation of a representation (your dog).

That example also shows what I said previously - that metarepresentations are a type of metacognition. That is because they are thoughts about your own thinking (the thinking being representations). Unless it is a representation of an external object such as a drawing, in that case you aren't really thinking about your own thinking you are thinking about something that doesn't necessarily require that much thought or is already represented.

So it seems there could be some confusion with the terms 'metacognition' and 'metarepresentation' then. For instance, what exactly is the difference between a thought and a representation? When exactly is someone thinking about their own thoughts? When exactly is a representation a representation of another representation if they are both just individual thoughts in the mind by themselves? Could a meta- representation be a thought of another thought?

Whenever someone thinks they could be considered to be forming representations and meta- representations (or cognitions and meta-cognitions). If you think about it, as a natural part of the thought process some representations or thoughts are going to be capable of being thought about more or in another way - and those could be the 'meta' cognitions or representations about the original thoughts or representations.