Perhaps one of the most significant human capabilities is the tendency to metarepresent. This cognitive ability, so natural and immensely engaged in almost every moment of human life, is likely the most important evolutionary development that ensures human survival and prosperity. Yet, despite man’s mastery over this ability, much remains unquestioned about it: What is metarepresentation?


Dan Sperber describes metarepresentation as the capacity to represent representations.[1] It is an ability highly developed in humans such that they have little or no difficulty understanding a statement, already in itself a representation through text, such as the one that follows:


“James said that the news reported the general elections.”


Apart from the statement itself as a representational text, there are at least three levels of representation already operating within the content of the statement. The first is ‘general elections’, which represents the event of the proceedings of politics. The second is the news reportage of the general elections, and the third is James’ utterance of the news report.


However, Sperber argues that not all representations of representations are metarepresentations. A machine can well detect the mental representations through the brain activity of a person, but it fails to represent the content of that mental representation. In this sense, metarepresentation has to exhibit the capacity to represent the content of representations to count as metarepresentation in the relevant sense. It is particularly in the decipherment of the represented content that the human race has exceeded in the development and evolution of metarepresentation. It begins with a rudimentary metarepresentational capacity shared with many animals. An example is:


“He wants to mate.”


Here, the representation of mating is metarepresented in knowing he wants to mate. Courtship, however, extends beyond the simplicity and limitation of such rudimentary metarepresentation. This demand calls for a competitive improvement and, hence, evolution in the exercise of the ability to metarepresent. Take for example:


“He intends for her to know that he wants to mate.”


Such an improvement also increases the chances whereby a male with more advanced abilities at metarepresentation becomes selected to spread not only his genes but also his skills at metarepresentation. Similarly, females who wish to safeguard themselves in the activity of procreation or relationship, for example, would fare more successfully when they develop a more advanced capacity to metarepresent the intentions of their counterpart and devise receptive or deceptive metarepresentations for their own advantage.


“She knows that he intends for her to know that he wants to mate.”


“He knows that she knows (…) and intends to deceive her by not showing his attraction towards her.”


“She knows that he is intentionally deceiving her and she intends to manipulate his intentions by ignoring his pretences.”


The rather primeval example of procreation serves to show how metarepresentation evolves through the process of selection. As it is already apparent at this point, metarepresentation goes a long way and is applied to almost everything in human activities and thought to such a degree that man can contemplate the meaning of his actions, his existence, abstract concepts and the laws of nature, the world, the universe and even God.







Sperber, Dan. (ed). Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. New York. Oxford University Press, 2000.



Raphael Ng

[1] Dan Sperber (ed.) “Metarepresentations in an evolutionary perspective” in Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp 117.