Stream of consciousness (psychology)

The stream of consciousness is a metaphor describing how thoughts seem to flow through the conscious mind. Research studies have shown that we only experience one mental event at a time as a fast-moving mind stream.[1][2][3] William James, often considered to be the father of American psychology, first coined the phrase "stream of consciousness".[4] 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.[5][6][7] The practice of mindfulness, which is about being aware moment-to-moment of one's subjective conscious experience[8] aid one to directly experience the "stream of consciousness" and to gradually cultivate self-knowledge and wisdom.[5] 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.[9] These mental events are also described as being influenced by other factors such as attachments and past conditioning.[5] 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.[9]


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).[10]

In this context the words "necessarily infer" are synonymous with "imply".[11] In further discussion Hamilton identified "the law" with modus ponens;[12] 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][13] 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."[14] However, the epistemological separation of two levels of analyses appears to be important in order to systematically understand the “stream of consciousness.”[9]

Bernard Baars has developed Global Workspace Theory[15] 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.”[5]


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.[16] Suggestions have also been made regarding the importance of separating “two levels of analyses” when attempting to understand the “stream of consciousness.”[9]

Literary techniqueEdit

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.[17] Amongst other modernist novelists who used it are James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929).[18]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Potter MC, Wyble B, Hagmann CE, McCourt ES (2014). "Detecting meaning in RSVP at 13 ms per picture". Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. 76 (2): 270–9. doi:10.3758/s13414-013-0605-z. hdl:1721.1/107157. PMID 24374558.
  2. ^ Raymond JE, Shapiro KL, Arnell KM (1992). "Temporary suppression of visual processing in an RSVP task: an attentional blink?". Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance. 18 (3): 849–60. doi:10.1037/0096-1523.18.3.849. PMID 1500880.
  3. ^ Shapiro KL, Arnell KA, Raymond JE (Nov 1997). "The attentional blink". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 1 (8): 291–296. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(97)01094-2. PMID 21223931.
  4. ^ a b James, William (1890). The principles of psychology. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
  5. ^ a b c d Karunamuni N, Weerasekera R (Jun 2017). "Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom". Current Psychology. 38 (3): 627–646. doi:10.1007/s12144-017-9631-7.
  6. ^ Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge 2002, page 193.
  7. ^ Specifically, in the Digha Nikaya. See Steven Collins, Selfless Persons; Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 257.
  8. ^ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4)" - Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, by Ruth A. Baer, available at
  9. ^ a b c d Karunamuni ND (May 2015). "The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind". SAGE Open. 5 (2): 215824401558386. doi:10.1177/2158244015583860.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Hamilton 1860:241-242
  13. ^ First usage of the phrase was probably James (1890); for example, Merriam-Webster's 9th Collegiate dictionary cites 1890 as 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".
  14. ^ James, William (1890), The Principles of Psychology. ed. George A. Miller, Harvard University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-674-70625-0
  15. ^ Baars, Bernard (1997), In the Theater of Consciousness New York: Oxford University Press
  16. ^ "There is no stream of consciousness". 2002-03-25. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
  17. ^ Wilson, Leigh, 2001. May Sinclair The Literary Encyclopedia
  18. ^ Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p.212.