The other day I received the Februrary 2009 issue of Seed magazine which features a piece by Jonah Lehrer on the concept of “metacognition.” This, it turns out, is the technical term for thinking about how something is thinking. As Lehrer puts it, “When a mind thinks about metacognition, it’s thinking about how it thinks about how it thinks.”

Gamers, in particular, are aware of this concept and I was instantly reminded of in-game D&D discussions where we would argue whether we were “meta-playing” our characters (often to the extreme annoyance of others in the group, but I digress…).

As amusing as these ideas were to ponder at work, reading the article became all too serendipitous later that evening when I sat down to watch episodes of Freaky Robots.

Here we have an animated series about robots who act like mundane humans. It’s a simple premise that’s hysterical when I think about it, yet I could barely summon a chuckle when I focused on the screen.

The central figure, Craig, is a frightened, neurotic robot whose best friend, Jeremy, is an aloof, poorly-disguised human. Craig’s main motivations are his pursuit of his robot bartender, Moss, after a drunken hook-up and avoiding the evil, robotic trilobyte Cosmo Kramer who lives across the hall.

I watched them sober and sat there stumped. The folks behind this project (including Christopher Hamilton of OddBot) have a lot on their side; the premise was smart and ironic, the art concept fantastically executed and the story lines provided plenty of opportunity for laughs. And then Lehrer’s article shot through my brain.

Maybe this was “meta comedy.” There was another joke here flying over my head and I was just missing it. So I ran through all five episodes again and came up with nothing. Hamilton and company make the robots so human-like (and lacking the kinds of clever idiosyncrasies you’d find in say Wall-E) that they lose their comedic appeal.

Lehrer states that metacognition is a useful tool because it allows humans to judge the efficacy of their decision-making. Some circumstances call for rational thought while other scenarios benefit from instinctual or emotional response. After all we’re not robots (yet).

Of course, Lehrer also notes that the brain processes responsible for this ability to think about how one thinks are also the probable cause of certain anxiety disorders and some forms of insomnia. After spending a night watching Freaky Robots and other robot-related entertianment, I possess solid, unscientific, anecdotal evidence of this fact.

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