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What is the Flow of Consciousness (in Psychology)?

What is the Flow of Consciousness (in Psychology)?

October 23, 2020

The term "Flow of Consciousness" was coined by William James at the end of the 19th century, to refer to how thoughts emanate and circulate in the conscious mind . Through this concept, James analyzed the great variety of thoughts we are aware of and how they shape the flow of consciousness.

Next, we will see what the idea of ​​the flow of William James's consciousness consists of, what its attributes are and how our thoughts conform.

The Flow of Consciousness: background and definition

In the year of 1889, the American William James published one of the works that consecrates him as one of the fathers of psychology: "The Principles of Psychology" (The principles of psychology). In this book he explored and described consciousness in terms of a "flow" or "flow", that is, as a continuous succession of experiences through which we select or direct our attention to certain stimuli.


Among other things James had the concern, like many other scientists and philosophers of the time, to explore the contents of consciousness and know the way in which we carry out that complex action we call "thinking", and what is more: how is it that we realize (we become conscious) that we are thinking.

He called it "flow" (stream, in the original English), to make a metaphorical reference about a kind of caravan of ideas, images, feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc., that appear and disappear constantly in our consciousness.

According to this idea, all the previous elements, contrary to what used to be thought, are not so separated and differentiated from each other; they are part of the same conscious flow where past and current thoughts are connected.


There is then an overlap of our cognitive experiences , where the current experience may be the easiest to recognize for immediate, but it happens that past experiences continue to be present, and the next gradually enter the flow.

That is to say, the mental states succeed one another. There are no "isolated thoughts", but all of them are in the same current of continuous consciousness, regardless of temporality and even what we can anticipate or decide.

4 descriptive properties of the Flow of Consciousness

According to Tornay and Milan (1999), the four descriptive properties James attributes to the flow of consciousness are the following:

  • Each mental state tends to be part of a personal consciousness
  • Within the personal consciousness, the mental states are in constant change
  • The personal conscience is continuous
  • Consciousness fixes interest in some parts of its object, excluding others, and chooses among them.

How do we think?

William James said that consciousness, and more specifically thought, follows a process that in appearance is necessarily directed by intelligence . However, according to the psychologist, not necessarily the figure of the "thinker" has to manifest as a leader.


Rather, the action of thinking is a goal-oriented process, which is fundamentally driven by the sense of satisfaction we experience when we are reaching these goals.

The thought would then be an automated process that has been consolidated as a logical result of our evolution, that is, does not want the existence of an independent or spiritual entity to guide this process. In other words, far from there being an entity (ourselves) separated from our conscience, dictating the ways that it follows; the conscious state is rather a process directed by our desire to experience satisfaction under the belief that our thoughts lead us to fulfill something.

Determinism and free will

Inevitably, some questions derived from determinism and free will in human beings are derived from here. We could quickly draw the conclusion that, for James, humans experience, feel and think as automatons.

However, James suggests that human beings are, rather than automatons, sectoral organs . This is because, although we can not consciously select what will initially appear in our consciousness, we can choose which element we keep there or not once it has been present; or before what encouragement we remain attentive and before which no.

Although this was a discussion present in much of his work, James moves the debate on free will into the fields of philosophy, clarifying that psychology, as a science, should be added to a more deterministic tradition of consciousness.

Bibliographic references:

  • Carreira, J. (2013). William James, The stream consciousness and free will. Philosophy is not a luxury. Retrieved August 10, 2018. Available at // philosophyisnotaluxury.com/2013/03/21/william-james-the-stream-of-consciousness-and-freewill/
  • Tornay, F.J. and Milan, E. (1999). James's ideas on the flow of consciousness and current scientific theories of consciousness. Journal of the history of psychology, 20 (3-4): 187-196.

Consciousness - Crash Course Psychology #8 (October 2020).


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