This paper is published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies,
9, number 5-6, which is devoted to the Grand Illusion. See
it is reprinted here with permission.
This special issue of JCS is also published as a book "Is the
World a Grand Illusion?", Ed. Alva Noë, Imprint Academic, 2002.
This paper is based on a conference presentation
at 'Towards a Science of Consciousness 2001, in Skövde, Sweden, 7-11
August 2001. The oral style of the original has largely been retained.
What is all this? What is all this stuff around
me; this stream of experiences that I seem to be having all the time?
Throughout history there have been people who say
it is all illusion. I think they may be right. But if they are right
what could this mean? If you just say "It's all an illusion"
this gets you nowhere - except that a whole lot of other questions
appear. Why should we all be victims of an illusion, instead of seeing
things the way they really are? What sort of illusion is it anyway?
Why is it like that and not some other way? Is it possible to see
through the illusion? And if so what happens next.
These are difficult questions, but if the stream
of consciousness is an illusion we should be trying to answer them,
rather than more conventional questions about consciousness. I shall
explore these questions, though I cannot claim that I will answer
them. In doing so I shall rely on two methods. First there are the
methods of science; based on theorising and hypothesis testing - on
doing experiments to find out how the world works. Second there is
disciplined observation - watching experience as it happens to find
out how it really seems. This sounds odd. You might say that your own
experience is infallible - that if you say it is like this for you
then no one can prove you wrong. I only suggest you look a bit more
carefully. Perhaps then it won't seem quite the way you thought it did
before. I suggest that both these methods are helpful for penetrating
the illusion - if illusion it is.
We must be clear what is meant by the word
'illusion'. An illusion is not something that does not exist, like a
phantom or phlogiston. Rather, it is something that it is not what it
appears to be, like a visual illusion or a mirage. When I say that
consciousness is an illusion I do not mean that consciousness does not
exist. I mean that consciousness is not what it appears to be. If it
seems to be a continuous stream of rich and detailed experiences,
happening one after the other to a conscious person, this is the
What's the problem?
For a drastic solution like 'it's all an
illusion' even to be worth considering, there has to be a serious
problem. There is. Essentially it is the ancient mind-body problem,
which recurs in different guises in different times. Victorian
thinkers referred to the gulf between mind and brain as the 'great
chasm' or the 'fathomless abyss'. Advances in neuroscience and
artificial intelligence have changed the focus of the problem to what
Chalmers (1995) calls the 'hard problem' - that is, to explain how
subjective experience arises from the objective activity of brain
Many people say that the hard problem does not
exist, or that it is a pseudo-problem. I think they fall into two
categories - those few who have seen the depths of the problem and
come up with some insight into it, and those who just skate over the
abyss. The latter group might heed Nagel's advice when he says
"Certain forms of perplexity—for example, about freedom,
knowledge, and the meaning of life—seem to me to embody more insight
than any of the supposed solutions to those problems." (Nagel
1986 p 4).
This perplexity can easily be found. For example,
pick up any object - a cup of tea or a pen will do - and just look,
smell, and feel its texture. Do you believe there is a real objective
cup there, with actual tea in it, made of atoms and molecules?
Aren't you also having a private subjective
experience of the cup and the taste of the tea - the 'what it is
like' for you? What is this experience made of? It seems to be
something completely different from actual tea and molecules. When the
objective world out there and our subjective experiences of it seem to
be such different kinds of thing, how can one be caused by, or arise
from, or even depend upon, the other?
The intractability and longevity of these
problems suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in
the way we think about consciousness - perhaps right at the very
beginning. So where is the beginning? For William James - whose 1890
Principles of Psychology is deservedly a classic - the beginning is
our undeniable experience of the 'stream of consciousness'; that
unbroken, ever-changing flow of ideas, perceptions, feelings, and
emotions that make up our lives.
In a famous passage he says "Consciousness
… does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. … it flows. A
'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally
described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of
thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life." (James, 1890,
i, 239). He referred to the stream of consciousness as "... the
ultimate fact for psychology." (James 1890, i, p 360).
James took introspection as his starting method,
and the stream of consciousness as its object. "Introspective
Observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always.
The word introspection need hardly be defined(it means, of course, the
looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover. Every
one agrees that we there discover states of consciousness. ...
I regard this belief as the most fundamental of all the
postulates of Psychology, and shall discard all curious inquiries
about its certainty as too metaphysical for the scope of this
book." (1890, i, p
He quotes at length from Mr. Shadworth Hodgson,
who says "What I find when I look at my consciousness at all is
that what I cannot divest myself of, or not have in consciousness, if
I have any consciousness at all, is a sequence of different feelings.
I may shut my eyes and keep perfectly still, and try not to contribute
anything of my own will; but whether I think or do not think, whether
I perceive external things or not, I always have a succession of
different feelings. ... Not to have the succession of different
feelings is not to be conscious at all." (quoted in James 1890, i,
James adds "Such a description as this can
awaken no possible protest from any one." I am going to protest.
I shall challenge two aspects of the traditional stream; first that it
has rich and detailed contents, and second that there is one
continuous sequence of contents.
But before we go any further it is worth
considering how it seems to you. I say this because sometimes people
propose novel solutions to difficult problems only to find that
everyone else says - 'Oh I knew that all along'. So it is helpful to
decide what you do think first. Many people say that it feels
something like this. I feel as
though I am somewhere inside my head looking out. I can see and hear
and feel and think. The impressions come along in an endless stream;
pictures, sounds, feelings, mental images and thoughts appear in my
consciousness and then disappear again. This is my 'stream of
consciousness' and I am the continuous conscious self who experiences
If this is how it seems to you then you probably
also believe that at any given time there have to be contents of your
conscious stream - some things that are 'in' your consciousness and
others that are not. So, if you ask the question 'what am I conscious
of now?' or 'what was I conscious of at time t?' then there has to be
an answer. You might like to consider at this point whether you think
there does have to be an answer.
For many years now I have been getting my
students to ask themselves, as many times as possible every day “Am
I conscious now?”. Typically they find the task unexpectedly hard to
do; and hard to remember to do. But when they do it, it has some very
odd effects. First they often report that they always seem to be
conscious when they ask the question but become less and less sure
about whether they were conscious a moment before. With more practice
they say that asking the question itself makes them more conscious,
and that they can extend this consciousness from a few seconds to
perhaps a minute or two. What does this say about consciousness the
rest of the time?
Just this starting exercise (we go on to various
elaborations of it as the course progresses) begins to change many
students’ assumptions about their own experience. In particular they
become less sure that there are always contents in their stream of
consciousness. How does it seem to you? It is worth deciding at the
outset because this is what I am going to deny. I suggest that there
is no stream of consciousness. And there is no definite answer to the
question 'What am I conscious of now?'. Being conscious is just not
I shall try to explain why, using examples from
two senses; vision and hearing.
The Stream of Vision
When we open our eyes and look around it seems as
though we are experiencing a rich and ever-changing picture of the
world; what I shall call our 'stream of vision'. Probably many of us
go further and develop some sort of theory about what is going on -
something like this perhaps.
"When we look around the world, unconscious
processes in the brain build up a more and more detailed
representation of what is out there. Each glance provides a bit more
information to add to the picture. This rich mental representation is
what we see at any time. As long as we are looking around there is a
continuous stream of such pictures. This is our visual
There are at least two threads of theory here.
The first is the idea that there is a unified stream of conscious
visual impressions to be explained, what Damasio (1999) calls 'the
movie-in-the-brain'. The second is the idea that seeing means having
internal mental pictures - that the world is represented in our heads.
People have thought this way at least for several centuries, perhaps
since Leonardo da Vinci first described the eye as a camera obscura
and Kepler explained the optics of the eye (Lindberg 1976). Descartes'
famous sketches showed how images of the outside world appear in the
non-material mind and James, like his Victorian contemporaries, simply
assumed that seeing involves creating mental representations.
Similarly, conventional cognitive psychology has treated vision as a
process of constructing representations.
Perhaps these assumptions seem unremarkable, but
they land us in difficulty as soon as we appreciate that much of
vision is unconscious. We
seem forced to distinguish between conscious and unconscious
processing; between representations that are 'in' the stream of
consciousness and those that are 'outside' it. Processes seem to start
out unconscious and then 'enter consciousness' or 'become conscious'.
But if all of them are representations built by the activity of
neurons, what is the difference? What makes some into conscious
representations and others not.
Almost every theory of consciousness we have
confronts this problem and most try to solve it. For example, global
workspace (GW) theories (e.g. Baars 1988) explicitly have a functional
space, the workspace, which is a serial working memory in which the
conscious processing occurs. According to Baars, information in the GW
is made available (or displayed, or broadcast) to an unconscious
audience in the rest of the brain. The 'difference' is that processing
in the GW is conscious and that outside of it is not.
There are many varieties of GWT. In Dennett's
(2001) 'fame in the brain' metaphor, as in his previous multiple
drafts theory (Dennett 1991 and see below), becoming conscious means
contributing to some output or result (fame is the aftermath, not
something additional to it). But in many versions of GWT being
conscious is equated with being available, or on display, to the rest
of the system (e.g. Baars 1988, Dehaene and Naccache 2001). The
question remains; the experiences in the stream of consciousness are
those that are available to the rest of the system. Why does this
availability turn previously unconscious physical processes into
As several authors have pointed out there seems
to be a consensus emerging in favour of GWTs. I believe the consensus
is wrong. GWTs are doomed because they try to explain something that
does not exist - a stream of conscious experiences emerging from the
unconscious processes in the brain.
The same problem pervades the whole enterprise of
searching for the neural correlates of consciousness. For example
Kanwisher (2001) suggests that the neural correlates of the contents
of visual awareness are represented in the ventral pathway - assuming,
as do many others, that visual awareness has contents and that those
contents are representations. Crick asks “What is the “neural
correlate” of visual awareness? Where are these “awareness
they in a few places or all over the brain¾and
do they behave in any special way?” One might think that these are
rhetorical questions but he goes on " ... this knowledge may help
us to locate the awareness neurons we are looking for." (Crick
1994, 204). Clearly he, like others, is searching for the neural
correlates of that stream of conscious visual experiences. He admits
that "... so far we
can locate no single region in which the neural activity corresponds
exactly to the vivid picture of the world we see in front of our
eyes." (Crick 1994, 159). Nevertheless he obviously assumes that
there is such a "vivid picture". What if there is not? In
this case he, and others, are hunting for something that can never be
I suggest that there is no stream of vivid
pictures that appear in consciousness. There is no movie-in-the-brain.
There is no stream of vision. And if we think there is we are victims
of the grand illusion.
Change blindness is the most obvious evidence
against the stream of vision. In 1991 Dennett reported unpublished
experiments by Grimes who used a laser tracker to detect people's eye
movements and then change the picture they were looking at just when
they moved their eyes. The changes were so large and obvious that
under normal circumstances they could hardly be missed, but when they
were made during saccades, the changes went unnoticed. It subsequently
turned out that expensive eye trackers are not necessary.
I suggested moving the whole picture instead, and this produced
the same effects (Blackmore, Brelstaff, Nelson & Troscianko 1995)
. Other, even simpler, methods have since been developed, and change
blindness has been observed with brief blank flashes between pictures,
with image flicker, during cuts in movies or during blinks (Simons
That the findings are genuinely surprising is
confirmed in experiments in which people were asked to predict whether
they or others would notice the changes. A large metacognitive error
was found - that is, people grossly overestimated their own and
others' ability to detect change (Levin, Momen & Drivdahl 2000).
James long ago noted something similar; that we fail to notice that we
overlook things. “It is true that we may sometimes be tempted to
exclaim, when once a lot of hitherto unnoticed details of the object
lie before us, “How could we ever have been ignorant of these things
and yet have felt the object, or drawn the conclusion, as if it were a
continuum, a plenum? There would have been gaps¾but
we felt no gaps” (p 488).
Change blindness is not confined to artificial
laboratory conditions. Simons and Levin (1998) produced a comparable
effect in the real world with some clever choreography. In one study
an experimenter approached a pedestrian on the campus of Cornell
University to ask for directions. While they talked, two men rudely
carried a door between them. The first experimenter grabbed the back
of the door and the person who had been carrying it let go and took
over the conversation. Only half of the pedestrians noticed the
substitution. Again, when people are asked whether they think they
would detect such a change they are convinced that they would - but
they are wrong.
Change blindness could also have serious
consequences in ordinary life. For example, O'Regan, Rensink and Clark
(1999) showed that dangerous mistakes can be made by drivers or pilots
when change blindness is induced by mudsplashes on the windscreen.
Further experiments have shown that attention is
required to notice a change. For example there is the related
phenomenon of 'inattentional blindness' (Mack & Rock 1998) in
which people attending to one item of a display fail to detect the
appearance of unexpected new items, even when these are clearly
visible or in the centre of the visual field. However, though
attention is necessary to detect change, it is not sufficient. Levin
and Simons (1997) created short movies in which various objects were
changed, some in arbitrary locations and others in the centre of
attention. In one case the sole actor in the movie went to answer the
phone. There was a cut in which the camera angle changed and a
different person picked up the phone. Only a third of the observers
detected the change.
What do these results mean? They certainly
suggest that from one saccade to the next we do not store nearly as
much information as was previously thought. If the information were
stored we would surely notice the change. So the 'stream of vision'
theory I described at the start has to be false. The richness of our
visual world is an illusion (Blackmore et
al 1995).Yet obviously something is retained otherwise there could
be no sense of continuity and we would not even notice if the entire
scene changed. Theorists vary in how much, and what sort of,
information they claim is retained.
Perhaps the simplest interpretation is given by
Simons and Levin (1997). During each visual fixation we experience a
rich and detailed visual world. This picture is only detailed in the
centre, but it is nevertheless a rich visual experience. From that we
extract the meaning or gist of the scene. Then when we move our eyes
the detailed picture is thrown away and a new one substituted, but if
the gist remains the same our perceptual system assumes the details
are the same and so we do not notice changes. This, they argue, makes
sense in the rapidly changing and complex world we live in. We get a
phenomenal experience of continuity without too much confusion.
Slightly more radical is Rensink's (2000) view.
He suggests that observers never form a complete representation of the
world around them - not even during fixations. Rather, perception
involves 'virtual representation'; representations of objects are
formed one at a time as needed, and they do not accumulate. The
impression of more is given because a new object can always be made
'just in time'. In this way an illusion of richness and continuity is
Finally, O'Regan (1992) goes even further in
demolishing the ordinary view of seeing. He suggests that there is no
need for internal representations at all because the world can be used
as an external memory, or as its own best model - we can always look
again. This interpretation fits with moves towards embodied cognition
(e.g. Varela, Thomson and Rosch, 1991) and towards animate vision in
artificial intelligence (Clark 1999) in which mind, body and world
work together, and sensing is intertwined with acting. It is also
related to the sensorimotor theory of perception proposed by O'Regan
and Noë (in press). On this view seeing is a way of acting; of
exploring the environment. Conscious visual experiences are generated
not by building representations but by mastering sensorimotor
contingencies. What remains between saccades is not a picture of the
world, but the information needed for further exploration. A study by
Karn and Hayhoe (2000) confirms that spatial information required to
control eye movements is retained across saccades. This kind of theory
is dramatically different from existing theories of perception. It
entails no representation of the world at all.
It is not yet clear which of these
interpretations, if any, is correct but there is no doubt about the
basic phenomenon and its main implication. Theories that try to
explain the contents of the stream of vision are misguided. There is
no stable, rich visual representation in our minds that could be the
contents of the stream of consciousness.
Yet it seems there is doesn't it? Well does it?
We return here to the problem of the supposed infallibility of our own
private experiences. Each of us can glibly say 'Well I know what my
experience is like and it is a stream of visual pictures of the world,
and nothing you say can take away my experience'. What then do we make
of the experiments that suggest that anyone who says this is simply
I suggest that we all need to look again - and
look very hard, with persistence and practice. Experimental scientists
tend to eschew personal practice of this kind. Yet I suggest we should
encourage it for two reasons. First, we cannot avoid bringing implicit
theories to bear on how we view our own experiences and what we say
about them. So perhaps we should do this explicitly. As we study
theories of consciousness, we can try out the proposals against the
way it seems to us. As we do so our own experience changes - I would
say deepens. As an example, take theories about change blindness. Many
people find the evidence surprising because they are sure that they
have rich visual pictures in their mind whenever they are looking at
something. If you ask “What am I conscious of now?” again and
again, this certainty begins to fall apart, and the change blindness
evidence seems less surprising. This must surely help us to become
better critics. At the very least it will help us to avoid dismissing
theories of consciousness because of false assumptions we make about
our own experiences.
The second reason is that this kind of practice
can give rise to completely new hypotheses about consciousness. And
this in turn can lead to testable predictions and new experiments. If
these are derived from a deeper understanding of one's own awareness
then they are more likely to be productive than those based on the
mistake of believing in the stream of conscious.
Note that what I am proposing here is first
person practice - first person discipline - first person methods of
inquiry. But the results of all this practice will be words and
actions; saying things to oneself and others. This endeavour only
becomes science when it is put to use in this way and it is then, of
course, third person science.
How does one do it? There have been many methods
developed for taking 'the view from within' (Varela and Shear 1999)
but I am suggesting something quite simple here. Having learned about
the results of the change blindness research we should look hard and
persistently at our own visual experiences. Right now is there a rich
picture here in my experience? If there seems to be, something must be
wrong, so what is wrong? Look again, and again. After many years of
doing this kind of practice, every day, it no longer seems to me that
there is a stream of vision, as I described at the start. The research
has changed not only my intellectual understanding of vision but the
very experience of seeing itself.
The stream of sounds
Listening to what is going on it might seem as
though there is a stream of sounds to match the stream of pictures.
Suppose we are listening to a conversation, then turn our attention to
the music in the background, and then to the conversation again. We
may say that at first the conversation was in the conscious stream
while the music remained unconscious, then they reversed and so on. If
asked 'what sounds were in your stream of consciousness at a
particular time?' you might be sure that there definitely was an
answer, even if you can't exactly remember what it was. This follows
from the idea that there is a stream of consciousness, and sounds must
either be in it or not.
Some simple everyday experiences cast doubt on
this natural view. To take a much used favourite, imagine you are
reading and just as you turn the page you become aware that the clock
is striking. You hadn't noticed it before but now you feel as though
you were aware of it all along. You can even remember that it has
struck four times already and you can now go on counting. What has
happened here? Were the first three 'dongs' really outside the stream
(unconscious) and have now been pulled out of memory and put in the
stream? If so what was happening when the first one struck, while you
were still reading? Was the sound out of the stream at the time, but
after you turned the page it just felt as though it had been in there
all along - with the contents of the previous page - even though it
wasn't really? Or have you gone back in time and changed the contents
of the stream retrospectively? Or what? You might think up some other
elaborations to make sense of it but I don't think any will be very
simple or convincing (in the same spirit Dennett (1991) contrasts
Orwellian with Stalinesque revisions). The trouble all comes about
because of the idea that there is a stream of consciousness and things
are either in or out of it.
There are many other examples one could use to
show the same thing. For example, in a noisy room full of people
talking you may suddenly switch your attention because someone has
said "Guess who I saw with Anya the other day - it was
Bernard". You prick up your ears - surely not - you think. At
this point you seem to have been aware of the whole sentence as it was
spoken. But were you really? The fact is that you would never have
noticed it at all if she had concluded the sentence with a name that
meant nothing to you.
Even simpler than this is the problem with all
speech. You need to accumulate a lot of serial information before the
meaning of a sentence becomes unambiguous. What was in the stream of
consciousness while all this was happening? Was it just meaningless
words? Gobbledegook? Did it switch from gobbledegook to words half way
through? It doesn't feel like that. It feels as though you listened
and heard a meaningful sentence as it went along, but this is
Or take just one word, or listen to a blackbird
trill its song. Only once the trill is complete, the word finished,
can you know what it was that you heard. What was in the stream of
consciousness before this point? Would it help to go even smaller? to
try to break the stream down into its constituent bits? Perhaps there
is a stream of raw feels, or indivisible bits of conscious stuff out
of which the larger chunks are made. The introspectionists assumed
this must be the case and tried - in vain - to find the units. James
did a thorough job of disposing of such ideas in 1890, concluding
"No one ever had a simple sensation by itself" (James 1890,
i, 224) and there have been many objections since. There is no easy
way to answer these questions about what really was in the stream of
consciousness at a given time. Perhaps the idea of a stream of
consciousness is itself the problem.
Of course we should have known all this. Dennett
(1991) pointed out much the same using the colour phi phenomenon and
the cutaneous rabbit. To produce colour phi a red light is flashed in
one place and then a green light flashed a short distance away. Even
on the first trial, observers do not see two distinct lights flashing,
but one moving light that changes from red to green somewhere in the
middle. But how could they have known what colour the light was going
to turn into? If we think in terms of the stream of consciousness we
are forced to wonder what was in the stream when the light seemed to
be in the middle - before the second light came on.
There's something backwards about all this. As
though consciousness is somehow trailing along behind or making things
up after the fact. Libet's well-known experiments showed that about
half a second of continuous cortical activity is required for
consciousness, so consciousness cannot be instant. But we should not
conclude that there is a stream of consciousness that runs along half
a second behind the real world; this still wouldn’t solve the
chiming clock problem. Instead I suggest that the problem lies with
the whole idea of the stream.
Dennett (1991) formulated this in terms of the
Cartesian Theatre - that non-existent place where consciousness
happens - where everything comes together and I watch the private show
(my stream of experiences) in my own theatre of the mind. He referred
to those who believe in the existence of the Cartesian Theatre as
Cartesian materialists. Most contemporary consciousness researchers
deny being Cartesian materialists. Typically they say that they do not
believe that 'everything comes together' at a point in the brain, or
even a particular area in the brain. For example, in most GWTs the
activity of the GW is widely distributed in the brain. In Edelman and
Tononi's (2000) theory the activity of groups of neurons in a widely
distributed dynamic core underlies conscious experience.
However, many of these same theorists use phrases
that imply a show in the non-existent theatre; such phrases as 'the
information in consciousness', 'items enter consciousness',
'representations become conscious', or 'the contents of
consciousness'. But consciousness is not a container - whether
distributed or not. And, if there is no answer to the question “what
is in my consciousness now?” such phrases imply that people are
assuming something that does not exist. Of course it is difficult to
write clearly about consciousness and people may write this way when
they do not really mean to imply a show in a Cartesian Theatre.
Nevertheless, we should beware these phrases. If there is an answer to
the question 'what is in my consciousness now?' then it makes sense to
speak of things 'entering consciousness' and so on. If there is no
answer it does not.
How can there not be an answer? How can there not
be a stream of consciousness or a show in the theatre of the mind?
Baars claims that "all of our unified models of mental
functioning today are theater metaphors; it is essentially all we
have." (1997, 7) but it is not. It is possible to think about
consciousness in other ways - I would say not just possible but
Dennett's own suggestion is the theory of
multiple drafts. Put simply it is this. At any time there are multiple
constructions of various sorts going on in the brain - multiple
parallel descriptions of what's going on. None of these is 'in'
consciousness while others are 'out' of it. Rather, whenever a probe
is put in - for example a question asked or a behaviour precipitated -
a narrative is created. The rest of the time there are lots of
contenders in various stages of revision in different parts of the
brain, and no final version. As he puts it "there are no fixed
facts about the stream of consciousness independent of particular
what we are conscious of within any particular time duration is not
defined independently of the probes we use to precipitate a narrative
about that period. Since these narratives are under continual
revision, there is no single narrative that counts as the canonical
version, ... the events that happened in the stream of consciousness
of the subject.” (Dennett 1991 p 136)
I would put it slightly differently. I want to
replace our familiar idea of a stream of consciousness with that of
illusory backwards streams. At any time in the brain a whole lot of
different things are going on. None of these is either ‘in’ or
‘out’ of consciousness, so we don't need to explain the
‘difference’ between conscious and unconscious processing. Every
so often something happens to create what seems to have been a stream.
For example, we ask “Am I conscious now?”. At this point a
retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of
consciousness a moment before, together with a self who was apparently
experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a
stream, but it now seems as though there was. This process goes on all
the time with new stories being concocted whenever required. At any
time that we bother to look, or ask ourselves about it, it seems as
though there is a stream of consciousness going on. When we don't
bother to ask, or to look, it doesn't, but then we don't notice so it
doesn't matter. This way the grand illusion is concocted.
There are some odd implications of this view.
First, as far as neuroscience is concerned we should not expect always
to find one global workspace, or other unified correlate of the
contents of consciousness. With particular sorts of probes there may,
for a time, be such a global unification but at other times there may
be several integrated patterns going on simultaneously, any of which
might end up being retrospectively counted as contents of a stream of
consciousness. Second, the backwards streams may overlap with
impunity. Information from one ongoing process may end up in one
stream, while information from another parallel process ends up in a
different stream precipitated a bit later but referring to things that
were going on simultaneously. There is no requirement for there really
to be only one conscious stream at a time - even though it ends up
seeming that way.
This is particularly helpful for thinking about
the stream of sounds because sounds only make sense when information
is integrated over appreciable lengths of time. As an example, imagine
you are sitting in the garden and can hear a passing car, a bird
singing, and some children shouting in the distance, and that you
switch attention rapidly between them. If there were one stream of
consciousness then each time attention switched you would have to wait
while enough information came into the stream to identify the sound -
to hear it as a passing car. In fact attention can switch much faster
than this. A new backwards stream can be created very quickly and the
information it uses may overlap with that used in another stream a
moment later, and another, and so on. So at time t was the bird song
really in your stream of consciousness or was it the children's
shouting? There is no answer.
Is it really this way? Do you want to protest
that it doesn't seem this way? As with vision it is possible to look
harder into one's own experience of sound and the results can be quite
strange. Thinking about the chiming clocks, and listening as sounds
come and go, the once-obvious linear stream begins to disappear.
I have suggested that we need to look hard into
our own experience, but what does this mean? How can we look? If the
models sketched above are correct then looking means putting in a
probe and this precipitates a backwards stream. So we cannot catch
ourselves not seeming to be having a stream of consciousness. As
William James so aptly put it "The attempt at introspective
analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to
catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see
how the darkness looks." (James, 1890, i, 244).
The modern equivalent is the metaphor of the
fridge door. Is the light always on inside the fridge?
You may keep opening the door, as quickly as you can, but you
can never catch it out - every time you open it, the light is on.
Things, however, are not quite that bad for the
stream of consciousness. We do, after all, have those obvious examples
such as the chiming clock and the meaningless half a word to go on.
And we can build on this. But it takes practice.
What kind of practice? A good start is calming
the mind. There are many meditation traditions whose aim is to see the
mind for what it really is, and all of these begin with calming the
mind. You might say that at first it is more like a raging torrent or
even a stormy ocean than a stream. To see whether there even is a
stream we need to slow everything down. This is not easy. Indeed it
can take many years of diligent practice, though some people seem to
be able to do it much more easily than others. Nevertheless, with a
calm mind it is easier to concentrate, and to concentrate for longer.
Now we can ask “What am I hearing now?”. At
first there seems always to be an answer. “I am hearing the
traffic” or “I am hearing myself ask the question in my head”.
But with practice the answer becomes less obvious. It is possible to
pick up the threads of various sounds (the clock ticking, the traffic,
ones own breathing, the people shouting across the road) and notice in
each case that you seem to have been hearing it for some time. When
you get good at this it seems obvious that you can give more than one
answer to the question “what was I hearing at time t”. When you
can do this there no longer seems to be a single stream of sounds.
My purpose here is not to say that this new way
of hearing is right, or even better than the previous way. After all,
I might be inventing some idiosyncratic delusion of my own. My
intention is to show that there are other ways of experiencing the
world, and finding them can help us throw off the false assumptions
that are holding back our study of consciousness. If we can find a
personal way out of always believing we are experiencing a stream of
consciousness, then we are less likely to keep getting stuck in the
I asked at the outset 'What is all this? What is
all this stuff - all this experience that I seem to be having, all the
time?'. I have now arrived at the answer that all this stuff is a
grand illusion. This has not solved the problems of consciousness, but
at least it tells us that there is no point trying to explain the
difference between things that are in consciousness and those that are
not because there is no such difference. And it is a waste of time
trying to explain the contents of the stream of consciousness because
the stream of consciousness does not exist.
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