Stream of consciousness (psychology)

Stream of consciousness refers to the flow of thoughts in 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] William James, often considered to be the father of American psychology, first coined the phrase “stream of consciousness".[3] The full range of thoughts - that one can be aware of - can form the content of this stream.


See also: Mindstream

The phrase "stream of consciousness" (Pali; viññāna-sota) occurs in early Buddhist scriptures.[4] The Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism developed the idea into a thorough theory of mind.[5]

The practice of mindfulness involves being aware moment-to-moment of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective.[6] In other words, when practising mindfulness, one becomes aware of one’s "stream of consciousness." Buddhist teachings describe six triggers that can result in the generation of different mental events.[7] These are input from the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touch sensations), or a thought (relating to the past, present or the future) that happen to arise in the mind. The mental events generated as a result of these triggers are: feelings, perceptions and intentions/behavior.[7] In Buddhist teachings, the manifestation of the "stream of consciousness” is described as being affected by physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws, volitional laws, and universal laws.[7]

Hammalawa Saddhatissa Mahathera writes: "There is no 'self' that stands at the mentality to which characteristics and events accrue and from which they fall away, leaving it intact at death. The stream of consciousness, flowing through many lives, is as changing as a stream of water. This is the anatta doctrine of Buddhism as concerns the individual being."[8]


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).[9]

In this context the words "necessarily infer" are synonymous with "imply".[10] In further discussion Hamilton identified "the law" with modus ponens;[11] thus the act of "necessarily infer" detaches the consequent for purposes of becoming the (next) antecedent in a "chain" of connected inferences.

William James[3][12] 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." [13]

Bernard Baars has developed Global Workspace Theory[14] which bears some resemblance to stream of consciousness.


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.[15]

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

See also


  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. 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. 1 2 James, William (1890). The principles of psychology. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
  4. Specifically, in the Digha Nikaya. See Steven Collins, Selfless Persons; Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 257.
  5. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge 2002, page 193.
  6. (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4)" - Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, by Ruth A. Baer, available at
  7. 1 2 3 Karunamuni ND (May 2015). "The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind". SAGE Open. 5 (2). doi:10.1177/2158244015583860.
  8. Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics. Wisdom Publications, 1997, page 23.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Hamilton 1860:241-242
  12. 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".
  13. James, William (1890), The Principles of Psychology. ed. George A. Miller, Harvard University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-674-70625-0
  14. Baars, Bernard (1997), In the Theater of Consciousness New York: Oxford University Press
  15. "There is no stream of consciousness". Retrieved 2007-11-05.
  16. Wilson, Leigh, 2001. May Sinclair The Literary Encyclopedia
  17. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p.212.
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