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The Nature Of Consciousness








INNER NATURE OF THE MIND NOT REVEALED BY INTROSPECTION.--We are not to
be too greatly discouraged if, even by introspection, we cannot discover
exactly what the mind is. No one knows what electricity is, though
nearly everyone uses it in one form or another. We study the dynamo, the
motor, and the conductors through which electricity manifests itself. We
observe its effects in light, heat, and mechanical power, and so learn
the laws which govern its operations. But we are almost as far from
understanding its true nature as were the ancients who knew nothing of
its uses. The dynamo does not create the electricity, but only furnishes
the conditions which make it possible for electricity to manifest
itself in doing the world's work. Likewise the brain or nervous system
does not create the mind, but it furnishes the machine through which the
mind works. We may study the nervous system and learn something of the
conditions and limitations under which the mind operates, but this is
not studying the mind itself. As in the case of electricity, what we
know about the mind we must learn through the activities in which it
manifests itself--these we can know, for they are in the experience of
all. It is, then, only by studying these processes of consciousness that
we come to know the laws which govern the mind and its development.
What it is that thinks and feels and wills in us is too hard a problem
for us here--indeed, has been too hard a problem for the philosophers
through the ages. But the thinking and feeling and willing we can watch
as they occur, and hence come to know.

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 outside 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 anaesthetic,
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.


THE WAVE IN THE STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS.--The surface of our mental
stream is not level, but is broken by a wave which stands above the
rest; which is but another way of saying that some one thing is always
more prominent in our thought than the rest. Only when we are in a
sleepy reverie, or not thinking about much of anything, does the stream
approximate a level. At all other times some one object occupies the
highest point in our thought, to the more or less complete exclusion of
other things which we might think about. A thousand and one objects are
possible to our thought at any moment, but all except one thing occupy a
secondary place, or are not present to our consciousness at all. They
exist on the margin, or else are clear off the edge of consciousness,
while the one thing occupies the center. We may be reading a fascinating
book late at night in a cold room. The charm of the writer, the beauty
of the heroine, or the bravery of the hero so occupies the mind that the
weary eyes and chattering teeth are unnoticed. Consciousness has piled
up in a high wave on the points of interest in the book, and the bodily
sensations are for the moment on a much lower level. But let the book
grow dull for a moment, and the make-up of the stream changes in a
flash. Hero, heroine, or literary style no longer occupies the wave.
They forfeit their place, the wave is taken by the bodily sensations,
and we are conscious of the smarting eyes and shivering body, while
these in turn give way to the next object which occupies the wave. Figs.
1-3 illustrate these changes.



CONSCIOUSNESS LIKENED TO A FIELD.--The consciousness of any moment has
been less happily likened to a field, in the center of which there is an
elevation higher than the surrounding level. This center is where
consciousness is piled up on the object which is for the moment foremost
in our thought. The other objects of our consciousness are on the margin
of the field for the time being, but any of them may the next moment
claim the center and drive the former object to the margin, or it may
drop entirely out of consciousness. This moment a noble resolve may
occupy the center of the field, while a troublesome tooth begets
sensations of discomfort which linger dimly on the outskirts of our
consciousness; but a shooting pain from the tooth or a random thought
crossing the mind, and lo! the tooth holds sway, and the resolve dimly
fades to the margin of our consciousness and is gone.

THE PILING UP OF CONSCIOUSNESS IS ATTENTION.--This figure is not so
true as the one which likens our mind to a stream with its ever onward
current answering to the flow of our thought; but whichever figure we
employ, the truth remains the same. Our mental energy is always piled up
higher at one point than at others. Either because our interest leads
us, or because the will dictates, the mind is withdrawn from the
thousand and one things we might think about, and directed to this one
thing, which for the time occupies chief place. In other words, we
attend; for this piling up of consciousness is nothing, after all, but
attention.





Next: Content Of The Mental Stream

Previous: How Mind Is To Be Known



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