Stream of consciousness (psychology)

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Stream of consciousness refers to the flow of thoughts in the conscious mind. The full range of thoughts that one can be aware of can form the content of this stream, not just verbal thoughts. Commonly used experimental techniques, including self-reporting, gives easier access to verbal thoughts than to thoughts more closely connected to senses other than hearing and activities other than speaking and writing.


The phrase "stream of consciousness" (Pali; viññāna-sota) occurs in early Buddhist scriptures.[1] The Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism developed the idea into a thorough theory of mind.[2]

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."[3]


William James is given credit for the concept. 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." [4]

Bernard Baars has developed Global Workspace Theory[5] which bears some resemblance to stream of consciousness.


Susan Blackmore challenged the concept of stream of consciousness in several papers. "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".[6]

Literary technique[edit]

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.[7] Amongst other modernist novelists who used it are James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury (1929).[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Specifically, in the Digha Nikaya. See Steven Collins, Selfless Persons; Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 257.
  2. ^ Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge 2002, page 193.
  3. ^ Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics. Wisdom Publications, 1997, page 23.
  4. ^ James, William (1890), The Principles of Psychology. ed. George A. Miller, Harvard University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-674-70625-0
  5. ^ Baars, Bernard (1997), In the Theater of Consciousness New York: Oxford University Press
  6. ^ "There is no stream of consciousness". Retrieved 2007-11-05. 
  7. ^ Wilson, Leigh, 2001. May Sinclair The Literary Encyclopedia
  8. ^ Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p.212.

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