The term “Stream of Consciousness” was coined by William James at the end of the 19th century, to designate how thoughts emanate and flow in the conscious mind. Through this concept, James analyzed the wide variety of thoughts that we are aware of and how they shape the flow of consciousness.
Next, we will see what William James’ idea of Consciousness Flow is, what its attributes are, and how our thoughts are shaped.
The flow of consciousness: context and definition
In 1889, the American William James published one of the works which made him one of the fathers of psychology: “The principles of psychology”. In this book he has explored and described consciousness in terms of “flow” or “current”, that is, as a continuous succession of experiences through which we select or direct our attention to certain stimuli.
Among other things, James had the agitation, like many other scientists and philosophers of the day, of explore the content of consciousness and know how we perform this complex action that we call “thinking”, And what’s more: how do we realize (become aware) that we think.
He called it “flow” (in the English original), to make a metaphorical reference to some sort of caravan of ideas, images, feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc., which appear and constantly disappear into our consciousness.
According to this idea, all the above elements, contrary to what one usually thought, are not so separate and differentiated from each other; they are part of the same conscious flow where past and present thoughts are connected. According to this way of understanding the human mind, consciousness is characterized by the constant flow of psychological contents, one related to the other, and the existence of each of them cannot be understood separately, because they go together and overlap.
There is then an overlap of our cognitive experiencesWhere the current experience may be easiest to recognize immediately, but there are times when past experiences continue to become present and subsequent ones gradually enter into the mainstream.
In other words, mental states follow one another. “Isolated thoughts” do not exist, but they are all in the same continuous stream of consciousness, regardless of timing and even what we can anticipate or decide.
4 descriptive properties of the flow of consciousness
According to Tornay and Milan (1999), the four descriptive properties that James attributes to the flow of consciousness are:
- Every mental state tends to be part of a personal consciousness
- Within personal consciousness, mental states are constantly changing
- Personal awareness is continuous
- Consciousness fixes interest on certain parts of its object, excluding others, and chooses between them.
How do we think?
William James said that consciousness, and more specifically thought, it follows a process which in appearance is necessarily driven by intelligence. However, according to the psychologist, the figure of the “thinker” does not necessarily have to manifest as a leader.
Rather, the act of thinking is a goal-oriented process, which is fundamentally driven by the sense of satisfaction we get when we are on the verge of reaching those goals.
Thinking would then be an automated process that has been consolidated as a logical result of our evolution, that is, it does not want the existence of an independent or spiritual entity to guide this process. In other words, far from the existence of a being (ourselves) separated from our consciousness, dictating the paths it takes; Rather, the conscious state is a process driven by our desire to experience satisfaction in the belief that our thoughts are leading us to accomplish something.
Determinism and free will
Inevitably, certain questions derived from determinism and free will in man arise from this. We could quickly draw the conclusion that, for James, humans live, feel, and think like automatons.
however, James suggests that humans are, rather than automatons, selective organs. This is because, although we cannot consciously select what will initially appear in our consciousness, we can choose what element to keep here or not once it has become present; or what stimulus we pay attention to and what we don’t.
Although this is a discussion present in much of his work, James shifts the debate on free will to the realms of philosophy, making it clear that psychology, as a science, should be added to a tradition of more deterministic consciousness.
How does William James’ ideas relate to advances in neuroscience?
The concept of Flow of Consciousness is no longer used in current psychology (at least systematically), but is rather considered part of the history of this science and of the work of William James. However, its essence seems to go according to what the last decades of neuroscience research have enabled us to learn about the human mind.
For example, neural networks are known to work by coordinating and overlapping each other, and not from differentiated “brain modules” that work in parallel. Outraged, that one thought leads to the next is part of the normal activity of the nervous systemAnd this is how an inertia occurs that always pushes mental processes forward, without letting them stagnate completely.
- Bayne, T. and Montague, M. (2012). Cognitive phenomenology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Carrière, J. (2013). William James, The Consciousness of the Flow and of Free Will. Philosophy is not a luxury. Accessed August 10, 2018.Available at https://philosophyisnotaluxury.com/2013/03/21/william-james-the-stream-of-consciousness-and-freewill/
- Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. London and New York: Routledge.
- Pawelski, JO (2007). The Dynamic Individualism of William James, Albany: New York State University Press.
- Tornay, FJ and Milan, I. (1999). James’ ideas on the flow of consciousness and current scientific theories of consciousness. Journal of the History of Psychology, 20 (3-4): 187-196.
- Tieszen, R. (2005). Phenomenology, logic and philosophy of mathematics. Cambridge and New York: Camabridge University Press.