Stream of Thought (Psychology Definition)

Interested in learning more about consciousness? You’re in the right place. This article is about your steam of thought and the complexity of “consciousness” in the world of psychology. While there are ways to step back and “observe” your stream of thought, being able to define it, or why it exists, isn’t so easy. 

What Is Stream of Thought? 

The “stream of thought,” also known as the “stream of consciousness,” refers to the constant movement and appearance of thoughts in the conscious mind. William James is said to be the first psychologist to use the term. “Consciousness” refers to the awareness of what is happening in and around us.

Example of Stream of Thought

What are you thinking about right now? 

Maybe you are thinking about how silly this question was. Or you’re analyzing the cartoons on your computer screen. Maybe you’re thinking about the time that you asked your significant other this question, only to feel frustrated when they responded “nothing” or “you wouldn’t understand.” 

Right now, your conscious mind might be focused on the words on this page. After you move to a new webpage, you may continue to think about what you have learned, or you might be focused on scrolling through TikTok videos. 

That’s the funny thing about conscious thought. Everyone, while conscious, is experiencing their own stream of thought that is completely personal to them. Even if you tried to communicate everything that was going through your mind right now, you probably couldn’t. You wouldn’t be able to catch up to your stream of consciousness as new thoughts arose or your environment shifted. 

Steam of Thought and Psychology 

Conscious thought has been on the minds of many psychologists, but answers to big questions aren’t easy to obtain. Why are we conscious? When does consciousness begin? What influence does it have on our personality and behaviors? 

Some of the first psychologists to attempt this research was the structuralists. They wanted to study the structure of the mind to understand how it worked. To do this, they used a process called introspection. Structuralists would observe or examine their sensations and feelings, in order to trace their origins and organize the mind. 

Here’s the problem with introspection. While the process encouraged more psychologists to take a more scientific approach, they didn’t get too far with introspection. 

Why? 

Everyone is so different. There is so much variation in the way that we connect our thoughts. Our stream of consciousness (although it didn’t have a name yet) is influenced by our memories, experiences, and knowledge – it’s highly subjective. 

What’s In the Stream of Consciousness

Our stream of consciousness may “flow” from thinking about our grumbling stomach to the memory of the best burger we’ve ever had. The stream doesn’t have to flow in a relatable way – you might be reminiscing on that burger and all of a sudden you’re listening to the doorbell ring. 

thinking of many different things

Where this steam goes, what we pay attention to, and the significance of this stream are all topics that a psychologist might study. 

Psychologists may also be concerned with what’s happening “under” the stream. Sigmund Freud, for example, was less concerned with the conscious mind and more concerned with studying the unconscious mind. He believed that through talk therapy, word association, and dream interpretation, he could pull information from the unconscious mind into the stream of consciousness to reveal key information about a patient’s condition. 

Early Definition of Stream of Thought 

Freud and William James were far from the first psychologists to discuss consciousness or stream of thought. While James coined the term “stream of consciousness,” it’s very similar to the Buddhist idea of citta-santāna, or “stream of mind.” The contents of the mind-stream are very similar to what we understand as consciousness today. It’s a combination of information from our senses, influenced by our feelings, perceptions, and past knowledge. 

One distinction between the Buddhist mind-stream and James’ stream of consciousness is that the mind-stream travels from one life to another. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, or the existence after one’s death. 

Another concept within Buddhism proves to be useful today, especially as it makes a comeback in self-help books and fitness studios. Through mindfulness, Buddhists believe that one could better understand their mind-stream and become more knowledgeable. While today’s experts rarely connect mindfulness to reincarnation, many agree that mindfulness has its benefits. Mindfulness meditation, for example, can help to lower stress, boost your mind, and increase focus. When it comes to stream of consciousness, mindfulness can help you “slow down” the stream or make it more clear. As you become more mindful, you will be able to identify your feelings as they arise, “navigate” the stream, and even change its direction more efficiently. 

There Is Still a Lot to Learn About Consciousness

Even if you are aware of your thoughts, the purpose behind those thoughts and the purpose of consciousness is probably beyond you. Fortunately, technology has advanced a lot from the days of early Buddhism and the Structuralists. Psychologists can now see conscious thought in action – and as they study conscious thought, we may become closer to answering the bigger questions about individual consciousness and why our streams flow in the way that they do.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.