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Content Of The Mental Stream

We have seen that our mental life may be likened to a stream flowing now
faster, now slower, ever shifting, never ceasing. We have yet to inquire
what constitutes the material of the stream, or what is the stuff that
makes up the current of our thought--what is the content of
consciousness? The question cannot be fully answered at this point, but
a general notion can be gained which will be of service.

WHY WE NEED MINDS.--Let us first of all ask what mind is for, why do
animals, including men, have minds? The biologist would say, in order
that they may adapt themselves to their environment. Each individual
from mollusc to man needs the amount and type of mind that serves to
fit its possessor into its particular world of activity. Too little mind
leaves the animal helpless in the struggle for existence. On the other
hand a mind far above its possessor's station would prove useless if not
a handicap; a mollusc could not use the mind of a man.

need? What range and type of consciousness will best serve to adjust us
to our world of opportunity and responsibility? First of all we must
know our world, hence, our mind must be capable of gathering
knowledge. Second, we must be able to feel its values and respond to
the great motives for action arising from the emotions. Third, we must
have the power to exert self-compulsion, which is to say that we possess
a will to control our acts. These three sets of processes, knowing,
feeling, and willing, we shall, therefore, expect to find making up
the content of our mental stream.

Let us proceed at once to test our conclusion by introspection. If we
are sitting at our study table puzzling over a difficult problem in
geometry, reasoning forms the wave in the stream of consciousness--the
center of the field. It is the chief thing in our thinking. The fringe
of our consciousness is made up of various sensations of the light from
the lamp, the contact of our clothing, the sounds going on in the next
room, some bit of memory seeking recognition, a tramp thought which
comes along, and a dozen other experiences not strong enough to occupy
the center of the field.

But instead of the study table and the problem, give us a bright
fireside, an easy-chair, and nothing to do. If we are aged,
memories--images from out the past--will probably come thronging in
and occupy the field to such extent that the fire burns low and the room
grows cold, but still the forms from the past hold sway. If we are
young, visions of the future may crowd everything else to the margin of
the field, while the castles in Spain occupy the center.

Our memories may also be accompanied by emotions--sorrow, love, anger,
hate, envy, joy. And, indeed, these emotions may so completely occupy
the field that the images themselves are for the time driven to the
margin, and the mind is occupied with its sorrow, its love, or its joy.

Once more, instead of the problem or the memories or the castles in
Spain, give us the necessity of making some decision, great or small,
where contending motives are pulling us now in this direction, now in
that, so that the question finally has to be settled by a supreme effort
summed up in the words, I will. This is the struggle of the will which
each one knows for himself; for who has not had a raging battle of
motives occupy the center of the field while all else, even the sense of
time, place and existence, gave way in the face of this conflict! This
struggle continues until the decision is made, when suddenly all the
stress and strain drop out and other objects may again have place in

could cut the stream of consciousness across as we might cut a stream of
water from bank to bank with a huge knife, and then look at the cut-off
section, we should find very different constituents in the stream at
different times. We should at one time find the mind manifesting itself
in perceiving, remembering, imagining, discriminating,
comparing, judging, reasoning, or the acts by which we gain our
knowledge; at another in fearing, loving, hating, sorrowing,
enjoying, or the acts of feeling; at still another in choosing, or
the act of the will. These processes would make up the stream, or, in
other words, these are the acts which the mind performs in doing its
work. We should never find a time when the stream consists of but one of
the processes, or when all these modes of mental activity are not
represented. They will be found in varying proportions, now more of
knowing, now of feeling, and now of willing, but some of each is always
present in our consciousness. The nature of these different elements in
our mental stream, their relation to each other, and the manner in which
they all work together in amazing perplexity yet in perfect harmony to
produce the wonderful mind, will constitute the subject-matter we
shall consider together in the pages which follow.

Next: Where Consciousness Resides

Previous: The Nature Of Consciousness

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