‘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.’ William James.
There are several subtly different interpretations of the phrase ‘stream of consciousness,’ coined by psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. It is used both in psychology and literature. Those who have sought to clearly define and refine the term through formal research still appear not to have found consensus.
For example, in their paper The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness,’ the writers largely bracket these two functions together. In contrast, in his paper Focused Dreaming and Mind- Wandering, Dorsch regards mind-wandering and focussed daydreaming as different. He sees each of these functions as ‘segments’ or elements of the stream of consciousness and regards focussed daydreaming as having more agency and purpose than mind-wandering:
‘The other classical example of what we sometimes take to be daydreaming is mind- wandering. Just like focused daydreaming, mind-wandering involves sequences of connected mental episodes. But, this time, the connection is not—or not primarily— due to imaginative purposiveness and mental agency, but instead to association and similar causal factors.’
In actuality, the boundaries between focussed daydreaming, mind wandering and stream of consciousness are, across the research literature on the subject, rather fuzzy. They overlap. However, there is general agreement that, however they are classified or subdivided, in the right circumstances, all these activities can be creative.
They all involve the experience of a free-flowing, uninterrupted process of thought and feeling, unencumbered by concerns about convention, structure or explanation, whether in a psychotherapeutic or literary sense.
Psychotherapeutically, James’ stream of consciousness may be similar to, or include Freud’s term ‘free association,’ in which the patient is encouraged to verbalise any thoughts or feelings he experiences, without editing or censoring these. This enables previously repressed, hidden unconscious material to emerge into consciousness more naturally, as psychological defences are lowered.
Gestalt therapy also uses the stream of consciousness to help the patient be mindfully aware of what is happening ‘now,’ in the present moment. The concept of ‘flow’ is used here, as it is in the inspiring book by Barry Stevens entitled Don’t Push the River (it flows by itself.)
This book utilises the stream of consciousness both in a literary and therapeutic way, intimately revealing the author’s inner feelings as she experiences life and learning at the Gestalt Institute of Canada in 1969:
‘Light from the desk lamp is shining on my typewriter, the bluish color gleaming, fading into dull away from the lamp. The carriage handle shadow moves along this dullness, then slides away. The little square criss-crossed light which shows that the motor is running (as though I couldn’t hear it-and even if I had no eyes, I feel the vibrations) is steady orange, more sturdy than the machine itself. Hands touching keys. When I notice this touching, my hands become softer than they were, more gentle, using just enough pressure to move the keys, no more, and then there is no kickback against myself. It is more like music. I feel in harmony.’
In a literary context, the stream of consciousness is a flee-flowing narrative technique used in a novel, poem or other written work, that aims to create a sense of being inside the mind of the characters. It is a method of portraying a character’s inner world that aims to make them more familiar and more real as people. It produces a narrative that is less encumbered by what might be regarded as artificial strictures. Free from the imposition of punctuation, grammar or sentence structure, there is less to inhibit the natural flow of thought and feeling:
‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.’ (Virginia Woolf)
The writer might use reported speech, or create a direct interior monologue, with the character’s thoughts expressed in the first person.This technique was utilised by Modernist writers in the early twentieth century such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
The internal narratives Woolf creates reveal the private and secret thoughts of her characters, those thoughts that reside on ‘the floor of the mind’ :
‘For now she need not think about anybody . She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expensive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.’ (To The Lighthouse)
David Lodge also uses the stream of consciousness technique in his novel, Thinks, previously mentioned in an earlier post. This is a work of fiction, yet it sheds light on the reality and complexity of thinking. Lodge researched the whole area of thinking extensively for this book.
As we have seen, Lodge’s principal character records his own thoughts in a stream of consciousness, as a way of researching into the ‘structure of thought’. He questions the difference between being and thinking, and wonders, ‘against Descartes,’ whether one can ‘be without thinking:’
Can I just am without thinking? The verb to am…..meaning to merely be without thinking…. but is thinking the same as being conscious, no….’
This is an important point. Thinking is not the same as being conscious, but the stream of consciousness is surely different from consciousness itself. It is more active, it is more than merely being, more than having an awareness of one’s existence. It is sequential, fluid, dynamic, a moving procession of memories, ideas, sensations and impressions. The term is, as its originator first stated, referring to thought itself, in all its many forms.
A final thought: what might be happening in this digital age to our streams of consciousness? Will this concept of creative flow be relevant in the twenty-first century? Or will consciousness itself undergo a radical metamorphosis?
In the book Reframing Consciousness:Art, Mind and Technology, (edited by Roy Ascott) contributor Christiane Paul says:
‘In the age of the Internet, the notions of fragmentation, multiplicity and ‘streams of consciousness’ are revived in a different context and carried to further levels. The networked society has profoundly affected our concepts of self and identity. The on-line self is now commonly understood as a multiple, distributed, time-sharing system…..The computer age promises to open up new dimensions for consciousness: the ultimate (utopian and dystopian) dream is to download consciousness into the machine and stream it live over the network.’
The concept of consciousness, flow, and the digital age will be explored in more detail in a future post.