Dreamless Sleep, Embodied Cognition, and Consciousness: The Relevance of a Classical Indian Debate to Cognitive Science

A terrific talk (see abstract below) by Evan Thompson as a curtain raiser to his forthcoming book from Columbia University Press entitled Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. In the meantime check out the expansive review of his Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind to be found in JMB.

One of the issues debated between the Advaita Vedānta and Nyāya schools in classical Indian philosophy is whether consciousness is present in dreamless sleep. Advaita Vedānta argues that the waking report “I slept well” is a memory report and hence requires previous experience, whereas Nyāya argues that the report expresses a retrospective inference. Consideration of this debate, especially the reasoning Advaita Vedānta uses to try to rebut the Nyāya view, calls into question the standard neuroscience way of operationally defining consciousness as that which disappears in dreamless sleep and reappears when we wake up or dream. The Indian debate also offers new resources for contemporary philosophical concern with the relationship between phenomenal consciousness (subjective experience) and access consciousness (accessibility to working memory and verbal report). At the same time, findings from cognitive neuroscience have important implications for the Indian debates about cognition during sleep, as well as for Indian and Western philosophical discussions of the nature of the self and its relationship to the body. Finally, considerations about sleep drawn from Advaita Vedānta, as well as the Yoga school and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, suggest new experimental questions and protocols for the cognitive neuroscience of sleep and consciousness.