Although the concept of the mind possessing a streaming consciousness can be found in early Buddhist texts, the first modern approach to the phenomenon was put forward by William James (1842-1910), one of the United States’ first recognized psychologists in his 1,200-word masterwork The Principles of Psychology in 1899.
In this book, James speaks of consciousness as being “unbroken” and states that there are no “gaps,” or as he liked to say no “intrusive alien substances,” that come along to distinguish or break up one period of consciousness from the next. For consciousness to be interrupted by gaps or intrusions, James thought, is like “expecting the eye to feel a gap of silence because it does not hear, or the ear to feel a gap of darkness because it does not see. So much,” he said, “for the gaps that are unfelt.”
Consciousness, rather than being “chopped up,” was likened instead by James to a river or stream, a process that is ever-flowing even in the event of a sudden interruption, such as an explosion or losing one’s footing and falling over. These sorts of things-a clap of thunder or the sound of a gunshot—are about as disconnected from our present thoughts as “a joint in bamboo is a break in the wood.” The thunder clap is as intrinsically a part of our continuing, unbroken consciousness as the joint is a part of the bamboo in which it grows. James believed that our cognitive experiences overlap one another and are linked by what he called “fringes,” subconscious tabs, which act as clasps that are necessary in binding our conscious thoughts together, and prevent us from living in a chaotic inner world of random, unrelated experiences.
James’s theory influenced literature and became a narrative device to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings that pass through an individual’s mind. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is one of the best-known examples of the stream of consciousness technique. William James wrote in Principles of Psychology (1890) that, “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.”