Recalling whether or not you can recall

Can our brain sense that it is going to be able to recall something before it actually does?

Ken Jennings’ brain can. Jennings (picture) won more than $2,000,000 in 72 straight appearances on the US game show Jeopardy. In this game players “ring in” if they think they know the answer, then have five seconds to give that answer. Jennings, in many cases, is clearly ringing in before he knows the answer, then often takes nearly the entire five seconds to come up with the inevitably correct answer.

It thus appears that Jennings has the metacognitive ability to sense whether or not he knows the answer before that answer has actually been retrieved from the recesses of his brain. The explanation that he simply rings in on topics which he knows well (movies in his case) is too simple. It seems that something more sophisticated is at work—he appears to actually know whether or not he knows something before he has fully retrieved that knowledge.

In computer science terms, perhaps Ken’s strategy could be compared to “precompiling” a database query, or calculating retrieval cost in advance.

What is the model for human memory that could explain this? Is the “do-I-know-it” recall act a rougher, abbreviated, accelerated version of full retrieval, or is it a different process altogether, possibly accessing an alternative, compact, pre-indexed “high-speed” version of the knowledge?

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