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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
This terminology is borrowed from Overgaard and Gruennbaum (2012).
The dlPFC is an area in the primate brain roughly equivalent to Brodmann’s areas 9 and 46. As it will be clear, the relevant part for the discussion to follow is Brodmann’s area 46.
A more fine-grained categorization of sleep can be established by attending to EEG, EOG, and EMG patterns and dividing NREM into four different stages. See Tononi (2009) for details.
Baars, B. J. (1988). A cognitive theory of consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bauer, R. H., & Fuster, J. M. (1976). Delayed-matching and delayed-response deficit from cooling dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in monkeys. Journal of Comparative Physiology Pschology, 90(3), 293–302.
Block, N. (1995–2002). On a confusion about the function of consciousness. In N. Block (Ed.), Consciousness, function, and representation: Collected papers (Vol. 1). Chester: Bradford Books.
Block, N. (2007a). Consciousness, accessibility, and the mesh between psychology and neuroscience. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 481–548.
Block, N. (2007b). Overflow, access, and attention. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 530–542.
Block, N. (2011). Perceptual consciousness overflows cognitive access. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 567–575.
Block, N. (2012). Response to Kouider et al.: Which view is better supported by the evidence? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(3), 141–142.
Braun, A., Balkin, T. J., Wesenten, N. J., Carson, R., Varga, M., Baldwin, P., et al. (1997). Regional cerebral blood flow throughout the sleep wake cycle. An H2(15)O pet study. Brain, 120, 1173–1197.
Brown, R. (2012). The myth of phenomenological overflow. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), 599–604.
Brown, R., & Lau, H. (forthcoming). The emperor’s new phenomenology? The empirical case for conscious experience without first-order representations. In: A. Pautz, D. Stoljar (Eds.) Themes from block. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cohen, M., & Dennett, D. (2011). Consciousness cannot be separated from function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 358–364.
Courtney, S. M., Ungerleider, L. G., Keil, K., & Haxby, J. V. (1997). Transient and sustained activity in a distributed neural system for human working memory. Nature, 386(6625), 608–611.
Cowan, N. (2005). Working-memory capacity limits in a theoretical context. In: C. Izawa, N. Ohta (Eds.) Human learning and memory: Advances in theory and applications. The 4th Tsukuba international conference on memory. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Curtis, C., & D’Esposito, M. (2003). Persistent activity in the prefrontal cortex during working memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 415–423.
Curtis, C. E. (2006). Prefrontal and parietal contributions to spatial working memory. Neuroscience, 139(1), 173–180.
Dehaene, S. (2009). Neural global workspace. In P. Wilken & A. C. Tim Bayne (Eds.), The Oxford companion to consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dehaene, S., & Changeux, J. P. (2004). Neural mechanisms for access to consciousness. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The cognitive neuroscience (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dehaene, S., & Naccache, L. (2001). Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: Basic evidence and a workspace framework. Cognition, 79, 1–37.
Dehaene, S., Kerzberg, M., & Changeux, J. P. (1998). A neuronal model of a global workspace in effortful cognitive tasks. Proceedings of the National Academy for Sciences of the United States of America, 95, 14529–14534.
Dement, W., & Kleitman, N. (1957). The relation of eye movements during sleep to dream activity: An objective method for the study of dreaming. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53, 339–346.
Dennett, D. (1976). Are dreams experiences? Philosophical Review, 73, 151–171.
Domhoff, W. (1996). Finding meaning in dreams: A quantitative approach. Boston, MA: Springer.
Dresler, M., Koch, S., Wehrle, R., Spoormaker, V., Holsboer, F., Steiger, A., et al. (2011). Dreamed movement elicits activation in the sensorimotor cortex. Current Biology, 21, 1833–1837.
Dresler, M., Wehrle, R., Spoormaker, V., Koch, S., Holsboe, F., Steiger, A., et al. (2012). Neural correlates of dream lucidity obtained from contrasting lucid versus non-lucid REM sleep: A combined EEG/fMRI case study. Sleep, 35, 1017–1020.
Fahrenfort, J. J., & Lamme, V. A. (2012). A true science of consciousness explains phenomenology: Comment on Cohen and Dennett. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(3), 138–139.
Funahashi, S., Bruce, C. J., & Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1989). Mnemonic coding of visual space in the monkeys dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neurophysiology, 61(2), 331–349.
Funahashi, S., Bruce, C. J., & Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1990). Visuospatial coding in primate prefrontal neurons revealed by oculomotor paradigms. Journal of Neurophysiology, 63(4), 814–831.
Funahashi, S., Bruce, C. J., & Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1991). Neuronal activity related to saccadic eye movements in the monkeys dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neurophysiology, 65(6), 1464–1483.
Funahashi, S., Bruce, C. J., & Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1993). Dorsolateral prefrontal lesions and oculomotor delayed-response performance: Evidence for mnemonic scotomas. Journal of Neuroscience, 13(4), 1479–1497.
Fuster, J. (2008). The prefrontal cortex (4th ed.). London: Academic Press.
Fuster, J., & Alexander, G. E. (1971). Neuron activity related to short-term memory. Science, 173(997), 652–654.
Goldman, P. S., & Rosvold, H. E. (1970). Localization of function within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the rhesus monkey. Experimental Neurology, 27(2), 291–304.
Goldman-Rakic, P. (1987). Circuitry of primate prefrontal cortex and regulation of behavior by representational knowledge. In: Handbook of physiology. Bethesda, MD: American Physiological Society.
Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1988). Topography of cognition: Parallel distributed networks in primate association cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 11, 137–156.
Hall, C. S., & Van de Castle, R. (1966). The content analysis of dreams. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Haynes, L., & Rees, G. (2003). What defines a contour in metacontrast masking? Perception 32.
Heekeren, H. R., Marrett, S., Bandettini, P. A., & Ungerleider, L. G. (2004). General mechanism for perceptual decision-making in the human brain. Nature, 431(7010), 859–862.
Hobson, A. (2009). The neurobiology of consciousness: Lucid dreaming wakes up. International Journal of Dream Research, 2, 41–44.
Hobson, J., Pace-Schott, E., & Stickgold, R. (2000). Toward a cognitive neuroscience of conscious states. Behavioral and Brain Science, 23, 793–842.
Horikawa, T., Tamaki, M., Miyawaki, Y., & Kamitani, Y. (2013). Neural decoding of visual imagery during sleep. Science, 340(6136), 639–642.
Ichikawa, J. (2009). Dreaming and imagination. Mind and Language, 24(1), 103–121.
Ichikawa, J., & Sosa, E. (2009). Dreaming, philosophical issues. In P. Wilken & A. C. Tim Bayne (Eds.), The Oxford companion to consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ivanowich, M. (2013). Commentary on ’Not a HOT dream’ by Miguel Angel Sebastian. In: Consciousness inside and out: Phenomenology, neuroscience, and the nature of experience. Dordrecht: Springer.
Jacobsen, C. (1936). Studies of cerebral function in primates. I. The functions of the frontal associations areas in monkeys. Comparative Psychology Monographs, 13, 3–60.
Kahn, D., & Hobson, J. A. (2005). A comparison of waking and dreaming thought. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 429–438.
Kosslyn, S. M., & Koenig, O. (1992). Wet mind: The new cognitive neuroscience. New York: Macmillan.
Kouider, S., de Gardelle, V., Sackur, J., & Dupoux, E. (2010). How rich is consciousness? The partial awareness hypothesis. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 301–307.
Kouider, S., Sackur, J., & de Gardelle, V. (2012). Do we still need phenomenal consciousness? Comment on Block. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(3), 140–141.
LaBerge, S. (1988). Lucid dreaming in western literature. In: Conscious mind, sleeping brain. Perspectives on lucid dreaming. New York: Plenum.
LaBerge, S. (2000). Lucid dreaming: Evidence and methodology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23(6), 962–963.
LaBerge, S., & Dement, W. (1982). Voluntary control of respiration during REM sleep. Sleep Research, 11, 107.
LaBerge, S., Nagel, L. E., Dement, W. C., & Zarcone, V. P. (1981). Lucid dreaming verified by volitional communication during REM sleep. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 5, 727–732.
Landman, R., Spekreijse, H., & Lamme, V. A. F. (2003). Large capacity storage of integrated objects before change blindness. Vision Research, 43(2), 149–164.
Lau, H., & Passingham, R. (2006). Relative blindsight in normal observers and the neural correlate of visual consciousness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science United States of America, 103(49), 18763–18768.
Leclair-Visonneau, L., Oudiette, D., Gaymard, B., Leu-Semenescu, S., & Arnulf, I. (2010). Do the eyes scan dream images during rapid eye movement sleep? Evidence from the rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder model. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 133, 1737–1746.
Malcolm, M. (1959). Dreaming. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Maquet, P., Peters, J., Aerts, J., Delore, G., Degueldre, C., Luxen, A., et al. (1996). Functional neuroanatomy of human rapid-eye-movement sleep and dreaming. Nature, 383, 163–166.
Maquet, P., Ruby, P., Maudoux, A., Albouy, G., Sterpenich, V., Dang-Vu, T., et al. (2005). Human cognition during REM sleep and the activity profile within frontal and parietal cortices: A reappraisal of functional neuroimaging data. Progress in Brain Research, 150, 219–227.
Metzinger, T. (2003). Being no one: The self-model theory of subjectivity, illustrated edition edn. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Metzinger, T. (2009). The Ego Tunnel. The science of the mind and the myth of the self. New York: Basic Books.
Miller, E. K., Erickson, C. A., & Desimone, R. (1996). Neural mechanisms of visual working memory in prefrontal cortex of the macaque. Journal of Neuroscience, 16(16), 5154–5167.
Miyake, A., & Shah, P. (1999). Models of working memory: Mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Muzur, A., Pace-Schott, E. F., & Hobson, J. A. (2002). The prefrontal cortex in sleep. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 475–481.
Oliveri, M., Turriziani, P., Carlesimo, G. A., Koch, G., Tomaiuolo, F., & Panella, M. (2001). Parieto-frontal interactions in visual-object and visual-spatial working memory: Evidence from transcranial magnetic stimulation. Cerebral Cortex, 11(8), 606–618.
Oudiette, D., Dealberto, M., Uguccioni, G., Golmard, J., Tafti, M., Garma, L., et al. (2012). Dreaming without REM sleep. Conscious Cognition, 21, 1129–1140.
Overgaard, M., & Gruennbaum, T. (2012). Cognitive and non-cognitive conceptions of consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(3), 137–138.
Phillips, I. (2011). Perception and iconic memory: What Sperling does not show. Mind and Language, 26, 381–411.
Posner, M. (1994). American physiological society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 91, 7398–7403.
Pribram, K., Mishkin, M., Rosvold, H., & Kaplan, S. (1952). Effects on delayed-response performance of lesions of dorsolateral and ventromedial frontal cortex of baboons. Journal of Comparative Physiology Pschology, 45, 565–575.
Revonsuo, A. (2006). Inner presence. Consciousness as a biological phenomenon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rowarg, H. P., Dement, W. C., & Muzio, J. N. J. N. (1962). Dream imagery: Relationship to rapid eye movements of sleep. Archives of General Psychiatry, 7, 235–258.
Rosenthal, D. M. (2007). Phenomenological overow and cognitive access. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 521–522.
Schenck, C., & Mahowald, M. (2002). REM sleep behavior disorder: Clinical, developmental, and neuroscience perspectives 16 years after its formal identification in sleep. Sleep, 25(2), 120–138.
Schwarz, S., & Maquet, P. (2002). Sleep imaging and neuropsychological assessment of dreams. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 23–30.
Sebastian, M. A. (2013). Not a HOT dream. In R. Brown (Ed.), Consciousness inside and out: Phenomenology, neuroscience, and the nature of experience, studies in brain and mind. Dordrecht: Springer.
Shanahan, M., & Baars, B. (2007). Global workspace theory emerges unscathed. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 524–525.
Sligte, I. G., Scholte, H. S., & Lamme, V. A. F. (2008). Are there multiple visual short-term memory stores? PLoS One, 3, 1–9.
Sligte, I. G., Wokke, M. E., Tesselaar, J. P., Scholte, H. S., & Lamme, V. A. (2010). Magnetic stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex dissociates fragile visual short-term memory from visual working memory. Neuropsychologia, 49, 1578–1588.
Sosa, E. (2005). Dreams and philosophy. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 79, 7–18.
Soto, D., Maentylae, T., & Silvanto, J. (2011). Working memory without consciousness. Current Biology, 21(22), R912–R913.
Sperling, G. (1960). The information available in brief visual presentation. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 74(11), 1–29.
Stazicker, J. (2011). Attention, visual consciousness and indeterminacy. Mind and Language, 26, 156–184.
Stickgold, R., Malia, A., Maguire, D., Roddenberry, D., & O’Connor, M. (2000). Replaying the game: Hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics. Science, 290, 350–353.
Tononi, G. (2009). Sleep and dreaming. In S. Laurey & G. Tononi (Eds.), The neurology of consciousness: Cognitive neuroscience and neuropathology. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Turatto, M., Sandrini, M., & Miniussi, C. (2004). The role of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in visual change awareness. Neuroreport, 15(16), 2549–2552.
Vogel, G. W., Barrowclough, B., & Giesler, D. D. (1972). Limited discriminability of REM and sleep onset reports and its psychiatric implications. Archives of Genaral Psychiatry, 26(5), 449–455.
Voss, U., Holzmann, R., Tuin, I., & Hobson, J. A. (2009). Lucid dreaming: A state of consciousness with features of both waking and non-lucid dreaming. Sleep, 32(9), 1191–1200.
Wehrle, R., Czisch, M., Kaufmann, C., Wetter, T. C., Holsboer, F., Auer, D. P., et al. (2005). Rapid eye movement-related brain activation in human sleep: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroreport, 16, 853–857.
Wehrle, R., Kaufmann, C., Wetter, T. C., Holsboer, F., Auer, D., Pollmaecher, T., et al. (2007). Functional microstates within human REM sleep: First evidence from fMRI of a thalamocortical network specific for phasic REM periods. European Journal of Neurosciences, 25, 863–871.
Weisberg, J. (2013). Sweet dreams are made of this? A hot response to Sebastian. In: Consciousness inside and out: Phenomenology, neuroscience, and the nature of experience, studies in brain and mind. Dordrecht: Springer.
Windt, J. (2010). The immersive spatiotemporal hallucination model of dreaming. Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, 9, 295–316.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Sebastián, M.Á. Dreams: an empirical way to settle the discussion between cognitive and non-cognitive theories of consciousness. Synthese 191, 263–285 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-013-0385-y