, Volume 191, Issue 2, pp 263–285 | Cite as

Dreams: an empirical way to settle the discussion between cognitive and non-cognitive theories of consciousness

  • Miguel Ángel Sebastián


Cognitive theories claim, whereas non-cognitive theories deny, that cognitive access is constitutive of phenomenology. Evidence in favor of non-cognitive theories has recently been collected by Block and is based on the high capacity of participants in partial-report experiments compared to the capacity of the working memory. In reply, defenders of cognitive theories have searched for alternative interpretations of such results that make visual awareness compatible with the capacity of the working memory; and so the conclusions of such experiments remain controversial. Instead of entering the debate between alternative interpretations of partial-report experiments, this paper offers an alternative line of research that could settle the discussion between cognitive and non-cognitive theories of consciousness. Here I relate the neural correlates of cognitive access to empirical research into the neurophysiology of dreams; cognitive access seems to depend on the activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. However, that area is strongly deactivated during sleep; a period when we entertain conscious experiences: dreams. This approach also avoids the classic objection that consciousness should be inextricably tied to reportability or it would fall outside the realm of science.


Consciousness Cognitive access Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex Dreams Phenomenology Working memory 



I am very grateful to Ned Block, Axel Barceló, Richard Brown, Matthew Ivanowich, Pete Mandik, Manolo Martínez, David Pineda, Jesse Prinz, David Rosenthal, Pepa Toribio, Josh Weisberg and Ken Williford for useful discussion on the topics presented in this paper. Some of the ideas of this paper were presented in the III Workshop on Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences, the 105th Annual Meeting of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, the 2013 European Society for Philosophy and Psychology Meeting, the Second International Workshop on Cognitive Sciences at the UAEM and a lecture within the Perceptual Experience Research Project at the UAM-Cuajimalpa. I am am very grateful to the audience for their helpful contribution and feedback. I would also like to express my deep gratitude to those that provide thoughtful and really helpful comments on previous drafts: Trey Boone, Eduardo García Ramírez, Mathieu Le Corre, Rubèn Sebastián and very especially to Steven Todd and three anonymous referees. Financial support for this work was provided by the DGI, Spanish Government, research project FFI2009-11347, the Consolider-Ingenio project CSD2009-00056, the AGAUR of the Generalitat de Catalunya (2009SGR-1077), the Representation and Cognition PAPIIT IN401611 project and the postdoctoral fellowship program in the UNAM.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Programa de Maestría y Doctorado en FilosofíaUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)Mexico CityMexico
  2. 2.Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, UNAMMexico CityMexico

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