Philosophy:Stream of consciousness (psychology)

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Short description: Metaphor describing how thoughts seem to flow through the conscious mind

The metaphor "stream of consciousness" suggests how thoughts seem to flow through the conscious mind. Research studies have shown that humans only experience one mental event at a time as a fast-moving mind-stream.[1][2][3] The term was coined by Alexander Bain in 1855 in the first edition of The Senses and the Intellect, when he wrote, "The concurrence of Sensations in one common stream of consciousness (on the same cerebral highway) enables those of different senses to be associated as readily as the sensations of the same sense" (p. 359). But it is commonly credited to William James (often considered the father of American psychology), who used it in 1890 in his The Principles of Psychology.[4][5] The full range of thoughts—that one can be aware of—can form the content of this "stream".


Early Buddhist scriptures describe the "stream of consciousness" (Pali; viññāna-sota) where it is referred to as the Mind Stream.[6][7][8] The practice of mindfulness, which is about being aware moment-to-moment of one's subjective conscious experience[9] aid one to directly experience the "stream of consciousness" and to gradually cultivate self-knowledge and wisdom.[6] Buddhist teachings describe the continuous flow of the "stream of mental and material events" that include sensory experiences (i.e., seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch sensations, or a thought relating to the past, present or the future) as well as various mental events that get generated, namely, feelings, perceptions and intentions/behaviour.[10] These mental events are also described as being influenced by other factors such as attachments and past conditioning.[6] Further, the moment-by-moment manifestation of the "stream of consciousness" is described as being affected by physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws, volitional laws, and universal laws.[10]


In his lectures circa 1838–1839 Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet described "thought" as "a series of acts indissolubly connected"; this comes about because of what he asserted was a fourth "law of thought" known as the "law of reason and consequent":

"The logical significance of the law of Reason and Consequent lies in this, – That in virtue of it, thought is constituted into a series of acts all indissolubly connected; each necessarily inferring the other" (Hamilton 1860:61-62).[11]

In this context the words "necessarily infer" are synonymous with "imply".[12] In further discussion Hamilton identified "the law" with modus ponens;[13] thus the act of "necessarily infer" detaches the consequent for purposes of becoming the (next) antecedent in a "chain" of connected inferences.

William James[4][14] asserts the notion as follows:

"Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life. (James 1890:239)

He was enormously skeptical about using introspection as a technique to understand the stream of consciousness. "The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks."[15] However, the epistemological separation of two levels of analyses appears to be important in order to systematically understand the "stream of consciousness."[10]

Bernard Baars has developed Global Workspace Theory[16] which bears some resemblance to stream of consciousness.

Conceptually understanding what is meant by the "present moment," "the past" and "the future" can aid one to systematically understand the "stream of consciousness."[6]


Susan Blackmore challenged the concept of stream of consciousness. "When I say that consciousness is an illusion I do not mean that consciousness does not exist. I mean that consciousness is not what it appears to be. If it seems to be a continuous stream of rich and detailed experiences, happening one after the other to a conscious person, this is the illusion." However, she also says that a good way to observe the "stream of consciousness" may be to calm the mind in meditation. The criticism is based on the stream of perception data from the senses rather than about consciousness itself. Also, it is not explained the reason why some things are conscious at all.[17] Suggestions have also been made regarding the importance of separating "two levels of analyses" when attempting to understand the "stream of consciousness".[10]

Baars is in agreement with these points. The continuity of the "stream of consciousness" may in fact be illusory, just as the continuity of a movie is illusory. Nevertheless, the seriality of mutually incompatible conscious events is well supported by objective research over some two centuries of experimental work. A simple illustration would be to try to be conscious of two interpretations of an ambiguous figure or word at the same time. When timing is precisely controlled, as in the case of the audio and video tracks of the same movie, seriality appears to be compulsory for potentially conscious events presented within the same 100 ms interval.[citation needed]

J. W. Dalton has criticized the global workspace theory on the grounds that it provides, at best, an account of the cognitive function of consciousness, and fails even to address the deeper problem of its nature, of what consciousness is, and of how any mental process whatsoever can be conscious: the so-called "hard problem of consciousness".[18] A. C. Elitzur has argued, however, "While this hypothesis does not address the 'hard problem', namely, the very nature of consciousness, it constrains any theory that attempts to do so and provides important insights into the relation between consciousness and cognition.", as much as any consciousness theory is constrained by the natural brain perception limitations.[19]

New work by Richard Robinson shows promise in establishing the brain functions involved in this model and may help shed light on how we understand signs or symbols and reference these to our semiotic registers.[20]

Literary technique

In literature, stream of consciousness writing is a literary device which seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his or her sensory reactions to external occurrences. Stream-of-consciousness as a narrative device is strongly associated with the modernist movement. The term was first applied in a literary context, transferred from psychology, in The Egoist, April 1918, by May Sinclair, in relation to the early volumes of Dorothy Richardson's novel sequence Pilgrimage.[21] Amongst other modernist novelists who used it are James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929).[22]

See also


  1. "Detecting meaning in RSVP at 13 ms per picture". Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 76 (2): 270–9. 2014. doi:10.3758/s13414-013-0605-z. PMID 24374558. 
  2. "Temporary suppression of visual processing in an RSVP task: an attentional blink?". Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance 18 (3): 849–60. 1992. doi:10.1037/0096-1523.18.3.849. PMID 1500880. 
  3. "The attentional blink". Trends in Cognitive Sciences 1 (8): 291–296. Nov 1997. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(97)01094-2. PMID 21223931. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 James, William (1890). The principles of psychology. New York: Henry Holt. 
  5. James, William (13 July 2012). The Principles of Psychology. 1 (reprint, revised ed.). New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 9780486123493. Retrieved 20 October 2023. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 "Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom". Current Psychology 38 (3): 627–646. Jun 2017. doi:10.1007/s12144-017-9631-7. 
  7. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge 2002, page 193.
  8. Specifically, in the Digha Nikaya. See Steven Collins, Selfless Persons; Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 257.
  9. (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4)" - Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, by Ruth A. Baer, available at
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Karunamuni ND (May 2015). "The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind". SAGE Open 5 (2): 215824401558386. doi:10.1177/2158244015583860. 
  11. Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet, (Henry L. Mansel and John Veitch, ed.), 1860 Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic, in Two Volumes. Vol. II. Logic, Boston: Gould and Lincoln. Downloaded via googlebooks.
  12. To imply is "to involve or indicate by inference, association or necessary consequence rather than by direct statement", the contemporary use of 'infer' is slightly different. Webster's states that Sir Thomas More (1533) was the first to use the two words "in a sense close in meaning", and "Both of these uses of infer coexisted without comment until sometime around the end of World War I". cf Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc, Springfield, MA, ISBN:0-87779-508-8.
  13. Hamilton 1860:241-242
  14. First usage of the phrase was probably James (1890); for example, Merriam-Webster's 9th Collegiate dictionary cites 1890 as the first usage. But James was not necessarily the first to assert the concept. Furthermore, whereas James uses the phrase "the stream of thought" throughout his 1890 (he dedicates an entire chapter IX to "The Stream of Thought"), in the 689 pages of text he offers just nine instances of "stream of consciousness", in particular in consideration of the "soul".
  15. James, William (1890), The Principles of Psychology. ed. George A. Miller, Harvard University Press, 1983, ISBN:0-674-70625-0
  16. Baars, Bernard (1997), In the Theater of Consciousness New York: Oxford University Press
  17. "There is no stream of consciousness". 2002-03-25. Retrieved 2007-11-05. 
  18. Dalton, J. W. The unfinished theatre, JCS, 4 (4), 1997, pp. 316-18
  19. Elitzur, A. C. Why don't we know what Mary knows? Baars' reversing the problem of qualia. JCS, 4 (4), 1997, pp.319-24
  20. Robinson, Richard (2009). "Exploring the "Global Workspace" of Consciousness". PLOS Biology 7 (3): e1000066. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000066. PMID 20076729. 
  21. Wilson, Leigh, 2001. May Sinclair The Literary Encyclopedia
  22. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p.212.