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The Nature Of Consciousness


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
r /> 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.


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.


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