flowAn interesting piece from Evan Thompson on the ‘stream of consciousness’. The phrase is probably best known now as the name for a style of modern literary prose, but it originates with William James. Thompson compares James’ concept of a smoothly rolling stream with the view taken by the Buddhist Abidharma tradition, which holds that closer consideration shows the stream to consist of discrete parts.
Thompson quotes two pieces of experimental evidence which broadly suggest the Abidharma view is closer to the truth. Experiments conducted by Francisco Varela on the young Thompson himself suggested that perception varied in harmony with the brain’s alpha waves, although it seems the results have not been successfully replicated since. The other study related to the ‘attentional blink’ in which a stimulus rapidly following another is likely to be missed. It seems successful attempts by the subjects were accompanied by a kind of phase locking with theta rhythms; certain meditative techniques of mindfulness improved both the theta phase locking and the ability to perceive the following stimulus.
Overall, Thompson concludes that conscious perception isn’t smoothly regular, but comes in pulses. Perhaps we could say that it’s more like the flow of a bloodstream than that of a river.
Still, though – is consciousness actually continuous? Suppose in fact that it was composed of a series of static moments, like the succeeding frames of a film. In a film the frames follow quickly, but we can imagine longer intervals if we like. However long the gaps, the story told by the film is unaffected and retains all its coherence; the discontinuity can only be seen by an observer outside the film. In the case of consciousness our experience actually is the succession of moments, so if consciousness were discontinuous we should never be aware of it directly. If we noticed anything at all, it would seem to us to be discontinuity in the external world.
It’s not, of course, as simple as that; there are two particular issues. One is that consciousness is not automatically self-consciousness. To draw conclusions about our conscious state requires a second conscious state which is about the first one. We’ve remarked here before on Comte’s objection that the second state necessarily disrupts the first, making reliable introspection impossible: James’ view was that the second state had to be later, so that introspection was always retrospection.
This obviously raises many potential complications; all I want to do is pick out one possibility: that when we introspect the first and second order states alternate. Perhaps what we do is a moment of first-order thinking, then a moment of second order reflection on the moment just past, then another moment of simple first-order thought and so on; a process a bit like an artist flicking his gaze back and forth between subject and canvas.
If that’s what happens, then it would clearly introduce a kind of pulse into our thoughts. This raises the curious possibility that our normal thoughts run smoothly, but start to pulsate exactly when we start to think about them. The pulse would be an artefact of our own introspection.
The other issue is more fundamental. Both James and the Abidharma school apparently assume that our thoughts seem to come in a continuous flow. Well, mine don’t. Yes, at times there is a coherent narrative sequence or a flowing perceptual experience, but these often seem like achievements of my concentration rather than the natural state of my mind. At least as often, things pop up unbidden, stop and start, and generally behave less like a flow and more like one damn thing after another. It’s noteworthy that the stream of consciousness in literature is not characterised by smooth logical development, but by a succession of fragmentary ideas and perceptions, a more realistic picture in many ways.
However, reflecting on a train of thought afterwards we can sometimes see links that we didn’t notice before. Several of our thoughts which seemed unrelated all bear on a particular anxiety or concern, say; scarcely a novel phenomenon in either psychology or literature. Hypothetically we might guess that our conscious moments are indeed part of a coherent stream, but one which includes important unconscious or subconscious elements, If we could see the whole process it might make fine logical sense, but all we get are the points where the undulating serpent’s back breaks the surface.
Neither of those issues disturbs Thompson’s modest conclusion that there is a kind of pulse on the surface of the stream; but there is deep water underneath, I think.

11 Comments

  1. 1. Evan Thompson on the “Stream” of Consciousness | Knowledge Ecology says:

    […] in phenomenology, neuroscience, and buddhism. The post also got picked up by Conscious Entities HERE, but what I really want to draw people’s attention to is the comments section of […]

  2. 2. Tracy says:

    In the Buddhist view, the stream of consciousness is really a “stream” of short duration mind-moments which are discrete (not continuous), one following another with gaps in between.

    Thoughts are not the same as consciousness. They are objects of the mind/brain sense organ. Backing up a bit, Buddhism considers six senses, the usual five plus the mind. In the same way that the eye processes visual objects, the mind processes thought objects.
    There are six consciousnesses, each corresponding to one of the six senses. In order to experience an object, the appropriate sense, consciousness, and object need to come together in what is called “contact”. For example, when you experience a thought, your mind-consciousness must advert to a thought which was processed by the mind/brain sense organ.

    Short answer: You can only cognize a thought when “contact” occurs between mind-consciousness, mind, and the thought, and so, thoughts are not continuous. Consciousness is not continuous either, but consists a series of individual mind-moments.

  3. 3. Scott Bakker says:

    “If that’s what happens, then it would clearly introduce a kind of pulse into our thoughts. This raises the curious possibility that our normal thoughts run smoothly, but start to pulsate exactly when we start to think about them. The pulse would be an artefact of our own introspection.”

    Wonderful observation. Or it could be the case that ‘smooth’ or ‘discrete’ mean little or nothing in the context of experience. That it’s like asking someone to conjure a mental image of their front lawn and to begin counting blades of grass. The information available just isn’t sufficient to make those kinds of determination because our ancestors never required it.

    I’ve been trying to pin him down on the way his reading of ‘stream’ as an artifact of neglect easily generalizes, and so raises the spectre of dogmatism for neurophenomenology. The one thing you can always expect from a phenomenologist is the attempt to qualify their way out of answering tough questions! (Just saying–I’ve been done this road many times…) We’ve been at it for a bit now, and you’ll notice that he’s done nothing but stomp his foot regarding the problems the cognitive neuroscience of metacognition poses his project. The simple question is why we should expect experience to provide the information required to discursively solve for experience, especially given the practical nature of metacognition in pretheoretical contexts. Cognitive neuroscience is revealing a suite of metacognitive capacities that seem pretty closely tied to specific abilities.

  4. 4. Peter says:

    Thanks, Scott.

    Scott’s dialogue with Evan in the comments on the piece itself is well worth a look, btw folks.

  5. 5. ihtio says:

    Scott #3,

    Or it could be the case that ‘smooth’ or ‘discrete’ mean little or nothing in the context of experience. That it’s like asking someone to conjure a mental image of their front lawn and to begin counting blades of grass. The information available just isn’t sufficient to make those kinds of determination because our ancestors never required it.

    You know you just “proved” that we cannot do abstract algebra, build supercomputers, develop quantum theory, find cure to smallpox just because “our ancestors never required it”.

  6. 6. dmf says:

    @ihtio, that’s a mighty huge leap there, could you offer us the steps you took from Scott’s take on evolution (which by my understanding is completely in keeping with, and follows from, scientific/empirical research) to your conclusion that this would somehow negate such work products?

  7. 7. ihtio says:

    dmf #6,

    Sure. My pleasure.

    It is indeed a huge leap but it is not me who is making it. Also, Scott’s argument certainly does not follow from any theory of evolution. However Scott’s conclusion – namely that we are cognitively limited, most importantly with regards to our own minds – is certainly in line with most scientific research that I’ve read about the topic. You see: I’m not necessarily criticizing the conclusion, but merely the way (the argument) it had been delivered.

    To get into more detail, let me bring into our attention the fact that Scott says repeatedly that our cognitive capacities are very specific, they build on smaller specific abilities. We have capacities to discriminate colors and tastes, we notice movement, we look for berries when we’re hungry, we hunt, we make simple shelters, we communicate and make social hierarchies. That’s all we needed to do to survive for around 200 000 years (and our ancestors from other homo lineages for millions of years).
    In our hunter-gatherer life style we didn’t really need to approximate movements of ballistic bodies and planets with calculus nor did we need to know the “truth” about what exact cognitive processes finally gave rise to our decisions. We are therefore incapable of solving some problems and we don’t see that there are gaps in our cognitions, perceptions, etc.

    Therefore if we are blind to our introspective functioning because “our ancestors never required it” to survive. Notice that our ancestors also never required calculus, abstract algebra, logical theory or philosophy.
    Simply:
    if our ancestors never required X, then we can’t do X,
    our ancestors never required X,
    – – – – – –
    therefore we can’t do X.

    Scott says that X = reliable metacognition / introspection.
    Notice however that you can assign many different, already mentioned by me, items to X, and you will get a conclusion that the reality contradicts. Therefore this line of argumentation is incorrect.

  8. 8. Scott Bakker says:

    Ihtio – “You know you just “proved” that we cannot do abstract algebra, build supercomputers, develop quantum theory, find cure to smallpox just because “our ancestors never required it””

    And that would be because? You seem to be mistaking the claim that we lack the ability to determine whether experience ‘truly is’ continuous or discrete with the claim that we cannot distinguish continuous from discrete within experience.

  9. 9. Scott Bakker says:

    Ihtio: “Therefore if we are blind to our introspective functioning because “our ancestors never required it” to survive. Notice that our ancestors also never required calculus, abstract algebra, logical theory or philosophy.”

    Strawman. My argument most certainly isn’t that we can only do what our ancestors could do ancestrally. My argument is simply that adaptation to ancestral requirements is a good way to think through the kinds of constraints faced by our attempts to devise calculus, intuit the nature of the soul, or what have you, and to dissolve a good number of perplexities, such as, why do we still have no bloody clue what things like calculus consist of, or fit into nature more generally?

  10. 10. ihtio says:

    Scott,

    You seem to be mistaking the claim that we lack the ability to determine whether experience ‘truly is’ continuous or discrete with the claim that we cannot distinguish continuous from discrete within experience.

    You may very well be right. I’m deeply confused right now.

    Strawman. My argument most certainly isn’t that we can only do what our ancestors could do ancestrally. My argument is simply that adaptation to ancestral requirements is a good way to think through the kinds of constraints faced by our attempts to devise calculus, intuit the nature of the soul, or what have you, and to dissolve a good number of perplexities, such as, why do we still have no bloody clue what things like calculus consist of, or fit into nature more generally?

    Thinking in terms of adaptations to environment, problems, ways of life of species to get a sketch of kinds of cognitive constraints is a good strategy in my opinion, too.
    I see the impressive, even extraordinary, abilities to generalize, abstract and create mathematical structures and methods as a proof that the “cognitive organ” does much more than “take a tool from a brain-toolbox and use it” – instead the mind is pretty good at constructing new tools, improving old ones, taking tools previously specific to some class of problems and utilizing them in novel ways, mixing the tools, etc. That is per contra to thinking in terms of specific mental abilities fit to ancestral requirements and to:

    Cognitive neuroscience is revealing a suite of metacognitive capacities that seem pretty closely tied to specific abilities.

    Of course there is no 100% contradiction, merely the reduction of validity or generality of these two items listed above.

    That is of course what I reckon from short comments under posts. So due to the very brevity of the comments the danger of straw manning other ideas is huge, without a doubt. If I had done so, it was unintentional. I always try to understand the other side to the best of my abilities.

  11. 11. Scott Bakker says:

    ihtio: “I always try to understand the other side to the best of my abilities.”

    As I know. The very economy this medium imposes is what drives the ambiguity. But it’s better than silence, to be sure. Far better to be misinterpreted than never interpreted at all!

    I agree with you on the incredible versatility of our basic toolkit, but I think we’ll come to understand that versatility better if we understand the constraints shaping them. Think about mathematics, the whopping difference between mathematical inferences and inferences about mathematics. It underwrites all science, and yet we simply do not know what it is, how it works, or why it works.

    Something very similar can be said about consciousness. Looking at metacognition as a bundle of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ tasked to practical applications which is *subsequently repurposed,* called on to answer radically different questions, raises a number of interesting possibilities. Suddenly, instead of ruminating on social gaffes we’re ruminating on the nature of ruminating…

    Small wonder cognitive science can’t heave the philosophers overboard!

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