|A ‘nuclear reactor’ of our mind: Stream of consciousness examined from a Psychological & Literary Perspective
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| Since the dawn of humanity, one of the most compelling conundrums that has baffled scientists and philosophers alike is the inner-workings of our mind. For centuries, people have been attempting to discover the origins of consciousness. Numerous pieces of literature have been written by famed psychologists and writers in an effort to explain the phenomenon and retrace its process. To that end, how can people explain what consciousness truly is? Is it a process, an illusion, or merely a perception which we have constantly overlooked in our daily lives? How does consciousness evince itself in humans? And most notably, is there a relation between thought and consciousness?
Apart from the great poet Ovid’s famous book Metamorphoses, which is considered the earliest example of employing stream of consciousness, the 18th and 19th Century had generally paid little attention to the notion regarding mind and thought. In fact, our contemporary term ‘stream of consciousness’ would not surface until decades later. Whilst the Modernist movement was becoming full-fledged, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, among other contemporaries, started to theorize about the human mind. Freud asserted that humans have unconscious minds teeming with desires and counterbalancing restrictions, while Jung combined the former’s theory and coined the term ‘collective unconscious’, referring to the part of a person's unconscious which is common to all human beings. In 1892, William James in his book Psychology introduced a pivotal concept called ‘stream of consciousness’, in which he postulated that it is impossible to for our minds to come across the same idea without changing our perceptions. This landmark in Psychology forever altered the way people view their own ‘consciousness’. The most essential aspect, however, is that the Modernist movement provided a radical break with traditional modes of western thought. An inevitable consequence of this movement was experimentation with the ‘stream of consciousness’, wherein many writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf began to narrate their stories using this style.
The following paper will explore the psychological and literary aspects of the ‘stream of consciousness’. It will gradually become clear that the stream of consciousness does not only establish itself as a practical technique in literature, but it also disproves the notion that it generates random and irrational thinking. In Part I we will analyze ‘stream of consciousness’ from a psychological perspective while key pieces of literature from different era will be scrutinized in Part II. In the last part of the paper we will explore how some sections of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World contain elements of the ‘stream’.
PART 1: THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
History has provided a comprehensive view about the idea of consciousness. In particular, the time period in which Modernism was at its pinnacle saw a boom in the study of consciousness. The 18th and 19th Century witnessed an extraordinary flowering of research and studies done towards exploring the concept of consciousness. In 1892, William James, a professor of Psychology from Harvard, took the idea of consciousness further and illustrated what contemporaries now identify as his masterpiece — The Principles of Psychology. The book was significant in a way that it paved the way for studying how a human interacts with his stream of consciousness. It should be noted that the studying of the stream of consciousness now constitutes a major portion in Philosophy and Psychology.
To date, stream of consciousness is defined as a trait of the mind usually considered to encompass key features such as subjectivity, self-awareness, and the ability to perceive the relationship between a person and his environment. According to James, there is no definite starting point of consciousness at any given moment. Somewhere in our higher states of consciousness are compounds of units that act as the medium of arousing the need for attention. As a matter of fact, a person’s thought process begins with “a set of supposed ‘simple ideas’ with which he has no immediate acquaintance at all.” Within an individuals mind consciousness of some degree goes on, with the multifarious states of thought succeeding in him, creating a flow of ideas and keen perceptions. But the essence of consciousness is ‘subconsciously’ derived from a man’s desire for attention and security. To most people, it would be seemingly common sense to respond that no two states of consciousness are alike concurrently. The notion of such reasoning is true, yet there is a major factor present in the world which makes the logic above totally invalid. If there is only a human on the earth at present, then the statement above will be unequivocally true. However, the fact is that more than six billion of us currently inhabit this world, and as humans interact and communicate, the states of mind will be disrupted. The constant flow of ideas and exchanging of knowledge only drive us closer and closer in achieving a unison state of mind, making the idea of a definitive thought spurious. No person’s state of mind once gone can ‘reappear’ and be identical with the former. For an identical sensation to recur “it would have to occur the second time in an unmodified brain.” Even though we may be exposed to the same people and objects on a daily basis, our consciousness and the ways we interpret them will be holistically different. The epitome of personal consciousness plays a major role into deciding how we interpret objects.
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I was born in Hong Kong on June 13th, 1989. Having lived in this Asian metropolis for 13 years and witnessed its transfer of sovereignty from Britain to the PRC, I developed my critical thinking skills about governance and international relations from these life-changing events.
My educational experience is undoubtedly one of the more interesting aspects of my life. I was brought up in a Cantonese-speaking environment and began my formal English instruction in 1996. After 1997, however, my school ceased using English as the medium of instruction and instituted Mandarin as the former's replacement in situ. I did not learn English formally (though I did study English privately for 4 years) until 2001 when I started my 7th Grade education at a Catholic-Jesuit secondary school.
In April 2002 my family decided to immigrate to the United States, after my father had almost lost his job. It was the only choice my family had, given how woeful the economy had been at that time. With great reluctance we left Hong Kong in July 2002, and settled in Rockville, Maryland, USA, where I have been living ever since.
One of my greatest passions is International Politics. I would like to learn more about the human condition and the state of the world today; we are intrinsically born into this Westphalian state system and there's no way to escape it, given how rampant globalization is and how constantly it is affecting our lives on a daily basis.
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