The Stream of Thought

The characteristics of the process of thought were defined and explained by William James, the Father of Psychology, over one hundred years ago.

He began by stating that “every thought is part of a personal consciousness.” However personal consciousness was one of the terms he could not define. He said “we know its meaning so long as no one asks us to define it.” To give an accurate account of it is the most difficult of philosophic tasks. He later compared consciousness within his definitions of self.

Our thoughts belong to us. Within a room full of people there is a multitude of thoughts that never bump into each other. Each mind keeps its own thoughts to itself. Every thought is owned by the individual who thought it. James believed that the universally conscious fact is not “feelings and thoughts exist,” but rather “I think” and “I feel.”

What Was Once Exciting Is Now Stupid

“Within each personal consciousness thought is always changing.” Meaning is that we have sequences of thoughts and feelings, and therefore over a period of time there is a succession of different feelings. “The chain of consciousness is a sequence of differences,” from Hodgson’s The Philosophy of Reflection. Our state of mind is never precisely the same. Strictly speaking every thought we have is unique, but also has a relationship to other thoughts of the same fact. When the identical fact recurs we must view it from a somewhat different angle. We ourselves are struck at the strange differences in our successive view of the same thing. We wonder how we could have thought what we did last month about a certain fact. How, from one year to another, can we see things in a new light. What we thought of as unreal has grown real. What we thought exciting is now stupid.

The Continuity of Thought

“Within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous.” Even if there is a time-gap the consciousness after it feels like it belongs together with the consciousness before it. The changes from one moment to another are never absolutely abrupt. On waking from sleep, if we have a thought about what we thought about before going to sleep, there is a sense of continuity despite the interruption of sleep. The thought parts are inwardly connected and belong together. A deaf and dumb man can weave his tactile and visual images into a system of thought quite as effectively and rationally as a word user.

Consciousness then, does not appear to chop itself up in bits. Such words as “chain” or “train” do not describe it. A “river” or a “stream” is more to James’ liking. He declares “in talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought…”

Where You Spend Your Caring Energy

Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, take a few moments now and then to ask yourself a simple question: On what are my thoughts dwelling right now? Try not to judge or manipulate your thoughts. Just observe them mindfully. Most of our thinking is so habitual we are not always fully conscious of the content of our thoughts. The point is to be more mindful of your impulse to care and to notice where your caring energy is spent. Jot down a few things that come to mind when you think. Who and what do I care about? And notice were your thoughts turn.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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