Thursday, November 20, 2008

Consciousness as a Process or Stream | The Nature of Consiousness | The Mind and Its Education

Consciousness as a Process or Stream.—In looking in upon the mind we must expect to discover, then, not a thing, but a process. The thing forever eludes us, but the process is always present. Consciousness is like a stream, which, so far as we are concerned with it in a psychological discussion, has its rise at the cradle and its end at the grave. It begins with the babe's first faint gropings after light in his new world as he enters it, and ends with the man's last blind gropings after light in his old world as he leaves it. The stream is very narrow at first, only as wide as the few sensations which come to the babe when it sees the light or hears the sound; it grows wider as the mind develops, and is at last measured by the grand sum total of life's experience.

This mental stream is irresistible. No power outside6 of us can stop it while life lasts. We cannot stop it ourselves. When we try to stop thinking, the stream but changes its direction and flows on. While we wake and while we sleep, while we are unconscious under an anæsthetic, even, some sort of mental process continues. Sometimes the stream flows slowly, and our thoughts lag—we "feel slow"; again the stream flows faster, and we are lively and our thoughts come with a rush; or a fever seizes us and delirium comes on; then the stream runs wildly onward, defying our control, and a mad jargon of thoughts takes the place of our usual orderly array. In different persons, also, the mental stream moves at different rates, some minds being naturally slow-moving and some naturally quick in their operations.

Consciousness resembles a stream also in other particulars. A stream is an unbroken whole from its source to its mouth, and an observer stationed at one point cannot see all of it at once. He sees but the one little section which happens to be passing his station point at the time. The current may look much the same from moment to moment, but the component particles which constitute the stream are constantly changing. So it is with our thought. Its stream is continuous from birth till death, but we cannot see any considerable portion of it at one time. When we turn about quickly and look in upon our minds, we see but the little present moment. That of a few seconds ago is gone and will never return. The thought which occupied us a moment since can no more be recalled, just as it was, than can the particles composing a stream be re-collected and made to pass a given point in its course in precisely the same order and relation to one another as before. This means, then, that we can never have precisely the same mental state twice; that the thought of the moment cannot have the same associates that it had the first time; that the thought of this moment will never be ours again; that all we can know of our minds at any one time is the part of the process present in consciousness at that moment.

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