The Cognitive Penetrability of Perception in an Integrative Framework

Are Perceptual Experiences Penetrable by Higher-Order Cognitive Processes? What Are the Epistemological and Ethical Consequences?


  • Yara Katnik University of Vienna


The cognitive penetrability (CP) thesis argues that our expectations, fears, wishes, beliefs and knowledge can influence our perception. This influence is taken to be a radical one, meaning that it does not merely pertain to mechanisms prior to or after perception, such as attention or judgement effects. Instead, higher-order cognitive processes are argued to influence perceptual experience itself.

From a phenomenological perspective, CP is typically defended by means of the phenomenal contrast method. This method consists of a thought experiment in which two individuals or the same individual at varying points in time are presented to have different sensory experiences as a result of a difference in their prior outlooks. A pervasive issue with this method is that both proponents and skeptics of CP tend to explain these scenarios in ways that back up their initial views [1].

Scientific evidence on CP also remains limited. Studies in the field of experimental psychology are often not replicable and do not control for trivial kinds of influence that are not entailed by CP. Further, evidence from neuroscience mainly focuses on the primary visual cortex (V1) as a sign of early vision modulation, whereas the exact function of V1 is still debated and the demarcation line between early and late vision is not clearly established [2]. Recently, attempts have been made to relate CP to predictive processing/ coding theory. This framework essentially argues

that our perception is mostly constituted by top-down predictions rather than by bottom-up stimulus-driven processes. MacPherson [3] offers a highly nuanced account of the ways in which various readings of the CP thesis may fit together with different versions of the predictive coding account. She states that different forms of predictive coding are either (1) consistent, (2) entail or (3) do not entail CP. In the third case, the rejection of CP usually comes back to not being able to make sense of the problem CP poses since radical accounts of CP do not differ between perception and cognition as modularly distinctprocessestobeginwith.

In my thesis, I aim to evaluate and integrate theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence on CP by means of conceptually analysing current literature in this field of research. In doing so, I distinguish ways in which thinking may influence perceiving and answer which of these ways are plausible instances of CP. The broader research problem is whether disciplinary contributions towards the CP thesis is integrable in a meaningful manner. At the current stage of the project, I am therefore primarily concerned with laying out translation issues between the disciplines involved.


[1] M. Fürst, “On the Limits of the Method of Phenomenal Contrast,” Journal of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 3, pp. 168–188, 2017.

[2] P. Litwin, “Empirical Perspectives on the Cognitive Penetrability of Perception,” AVANT, vol. 8, pp. 159–182, 2017.
[3] F. Macpherson, “The Relationship Between Cognitive Penetration and Predictive Coding,” Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, vol. 47, pp. 6–16, 2017.