It's Not a 'Stream' of Consciousness

Posted on May 13, 2015

IN 1890, the American psychologist William James famously likened our conscious experience to the flow of a stream. "A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described," he wrote. "In talking of it hereafter, let's call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life."

While there is no disputing the aptness of this metaphor in capturing our subjective experience of the world, recent research has shown that the "stream" of consciousness is, in fact, an illusion. We actually perceive the world in rhythmic pulses rather than as a continuous flow.

We are exploring the possibility that brain rhythms are not merely a reflection of mental activity but a cause of it, helping shape perception, movement, memory and even consciousness itself.

What this means is that the brain samples the world in rhythmic pulses, perhaps even discrete time chunks, much like the individual frames of a movie. From the brain's perspective, experience is not continuous but quantized.

Another clue that led to this discovery was the so-called wagon-wheel illusion, in which the spokes on a wheel are sometimes perceived to reverse the direction of their rotation. This illusion is easy to induce with a strobe light if the rotation of the wheel is such that each strobe flash captures the spoke location slightly behind the location captured on the previous flash, leading to the perception of reverse motion. The illusion results from "sampling" the scene in discrete frames or time chunks.

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Source material from New York Times

Mental Health News