Stream of consciousness

metaphor describing how thoughts seem to flow through the conscious mind

Stream of consciousness refers to the flow of thoughts in the conscious mind. It was a term used by the American psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890.[1] James said:

"Consciousness, then, [is not] 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". (James, p239)

The idea (but not the term) had been noted before James, by the philosopher William Hamilton in his lectures of 1838/9. He described thought as "a series of acts all... connected".[2]

A similar idea occurs in early Buddhist writings,[3] and is sometimes called the mindstream.

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  1. James, William 1890. The principles of psychology. New York, Henry Holt. James the entire chapter IX to "The stream of thought".
  2. Hamilton, William 1859/61. (Henry L. Mansel and John Veitch eds) Lectures on metaphysics and logic. Edinburgh.
  3. In the Digha Nikaya. See Steven Collins, Selfless persons; imagery and thought in Theravāda Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 257.