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Stream of Consciousness: How to Make Sense of Our Messy Thoughts

Logic will get you from A to B, imagination will take you everywhere.

Albert Einstein

How messy are your thoughts? If they’re anything like mine, they’re perpetually incoherent, repetitive, disconnected, incohesive, repetitive, disconnected and all over the place. As Einstein’s quote suggests, thinking is not always as static, linear or straightforward a process. That leaves us with the question of how we can tame our thoughts and make sense of them. Stream of consciousness, a concept from the world of literature and storytelling, has some answers.

First, we’re going to look into the origins of the idea of stream of consciousness before we go into detail about three ways to harness messy thoughts to our advantage.

Stream of Consciousness in Literature

The term stream of consciousness was coined by American psychologist and philosopher William James. In his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology, James discusses the concept as a metaphor for our thinking. He noted:

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; 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.

It’s believed that the method made its way into literature from there. As a literary technique, stream of consciousness describes a narrative mode that aims at presenting what’s going on in a character’s mind. It’s a mode of presentation that provides associations of thought from the first-person point of view and as a direct quote. Their thoughts flow unfiltered, unedited, disregarding coherence in terms of time and place. This way, the technique tries to record the whole of a character’s consciousness, even if it only consists of seemingly meaningless fragments.

A protagonist going from A to B – hopefully with some struggle to overcome along the way – is the essential blueprint of a story. (I touched on this idea before in a post about the famous Ship of Theseus paradox on identity change.) Stream of consciousness is a bit of an outlier in terms of how a protagonist’s journey is presented. It’s neither the use of telling (‘Sam took a plane to London.’) nor showing (Sam: “I bought a ticket and flew to London.”) to drive the story forward. It’s a special case.

Ulysses and Sensemaking

I can’t think of a better illustration of what that looks like in a story than quoting from James Joyce’s Ulysses [affiliate link]. The novel chronicles the day in the life of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, during a normal day in 1904. Here’s Bloom in Episode 8 in a restaurant where he is disgusted by watching a bunch of men eat:

That fellow ramming a knifeful of cabbage down as if his life depended on it. Good stroke. Give me the fidgets to look. Safer to eat from his three hands. Tear it limb from limb. Second nature to him. Born with a silver knife in his mouth. That’s witty, I think. Or no. Silver means born rich. Born with a knife. But then the allusion is lost.

An illgirt server gathered sticky clattering plates. Rock, the head bailiff, standing at the bar blew the foamy crown from his tankard. Well up: it splashed yellow near his boot. A diner, knife and fork upright, elbows on table, ready for a second helping stared towards the foodlift across his stained square of newspaper. Other chap telling him something with his mouth full. Sympathetic listener. Table talk. I munched hum un thu Unchster Bunk un Munchday. Ha? Did you, faith?

What a magnificent piece of classic literature! Towards the end, the novel increasingly dissolves into undecipherable fragments of thoughts. Ulysses is part of the modernism movement, a literary genre that intentionally broke with traditional ways of writing. It’s a challenging read, to say the least. But we can still discern a whole lot about the character.

Making Sense of Ulysses

For starters, we learn every single bit of what Bloom thinks. What his mind picks up: The tables, men devouring food, knives. Where his seemingly random thoughts go: Chatter, knife analogies, attempts at humour. Stream of consciousness gives us an exclusive insight into Bloom’s character, state of mind and even level of education. For example, he seems restless, at times sarcastic, cynical. This way we learn about him beyond his persona and beyond what he would say in politeness if he was asked about the scene in the restaurant.

In short, we’re kind of engaged in a form of thought forensics that can drive a plot forward in the end. Just not in a way we might be used to. And while not everyone can achieve literary fame with their raw thoughts, we can find ways to utilise our own messy thoughts by applying similar principles.

Stream of Consciousness in Real Life

Alan Watts described it beautifully when he explained how trying to calm our thoughts is like “trying to smoothen water with a flat iron. All we do is stir it up even more”. So the idea is to let the stream of consciousness flow and channel it into something productive. Here are three methods.

1. Brainstorming

Stream of Consciousness

A brainstorming exercise is probably the obvious candidate for a method to make use of our stream of consciousness. After all, It’s a form of uninhibited creative thinking to generate new ideas and get fresh perspectives. Brainstorming harnesses our tendency to use mental shortcuts. It expects and welcomes unusual ideas that are not fully formed yet.

Storming one’s brain can be done individually or in a group. It’s in the latter where the troubles may begin, though. Some people rather prefer to be alone with their thoughts and work. Counting the minutes until they can return to their desk. What’s more, the nature of the exercise gives others a window into our unfiltered imagination, thought processes and state of mind. This can lead to self-censorship and a lack of input from the people with the most innovative ideas.

So a few guidelines are in order to achieve the goal of a brainstorming session, which is to extract every bit of useful ideas out of a group. Criticism must be avoided, the structuring and the evaluation of the collected ideas should be separate stages. To allow for an uninhibited flow of ideas, brainstorming can be silent, in writing and therefore anonymous. Deliberately involving people outside the field of interest can help, too.

Associations are a great way to kickstart a brainstorming session: It may start with a word or phrase, or a hypothesis. We could even use the above webcomic to generate free associations around potentially ignored risks of a project. Inverted thinking is another unorthodox way to give our stream of consciousness a direction. We ask ourselves what needs to be done to drive a project against the wall (to later invert them to positives).

With all ideas captured and recorded we or the group then turn to the structuring, categorisation and evaluation of the generated ideas. This way the messy thoughts are harvested and the thinking process is externalised and outsourced so to speak. A similar concept can be applied to writing.

2. A Writing Hack

Writing is a phenomenal critical thinking exercise. It helps us structure our thoughts, question them, clarify or even find out what we really think in the first place. If only it weren’t for that pesky white paper in front of us. We can easily end up Yak Shaving, a form of procrastination in which you lose yourself in increasingly trivial activities and thoughts. Luckily, those trivial thoughts can be harnessed. Here’s comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld with an analogy on how to be a good writer:

The key to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, very extremely nurturing and loving.

I love that analogy. It’s on point on several levels. What are young children like? They’re inexperienced and naive, but also carefree and self-unconscious. Once they learn to talk, they tend to have a direct line between their mind and mouth. Unfiltered, unedited. And how do we treat a child then? As Jerry implies, we help them develop their thoughts and speech. So instead of staring at a blank page for ages trying to force our minds to come up with something useful, we allow our infantile thoughts to flow and write them down as we think them.

Admittedly, coherence and cohesion are two key concepts in writing. That’s why Jerry has a few more words to say about editing:

Then, when you edit, switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman and just be a harsh prick, a ball-busting son of a bitch.

We could also say, write freely and badly if you must, then iterate to perfection. What used to be a potentially painful suggestion in the age of the typewriter is a small ask today. It’s surely better than staring at a blank piece of paper listening to your own thoughts going in circles.

Alternatively, you can skip Jerry’s second step on the off chance your writing becomes another stream of consciousness classic.

3. The Chewbacca Defense

The last method is less about your own stream of thought and more about examining someone else’s. Though, we might say that the legal strategy known as the Chewbacca Defense can easily cause you some confusing thoughts as well. Because that’s the whole point of it. Sometimes the use of stream of consciousness-like language is deliberate.

The Chewbacca Defense aims to discombobulate a jury with a rampant argument full of pointless talking points, needless repetitions, logical fallacies and irrelevant conclusions. It originated from another fictional work of art called South Park and was meant as a spoof on the legal defence of the O.J. Simpson trial.[1] In Episode 2×14 Chef Aid, lawyer Johnnie Cochran ends his closing argument like this:

Look at me. I’m a lawyer defending a major record company, and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you’re in that jury room deliberatin’ and conjugatin’ the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.

The goal of someone deploying the Chewbacca Defence is not to be productive, but to obfuscate and to manipulate. Clouding and perplexing the audience with brain dumps. It is to make full use of Goodhart’s Law, the idea that the world is full of bullsh*t because it’s much harder to refute gobbledygook than to produce it. The more meaningless the word salad is, the more language forensics a listener has to do. The more their own stream of thought goes around in circles, so the idea, the more likely it is that they eventually accept the nonsensical conclusion presented to them.

Bonus: The Mind Palace Technique

Perhaps the problem with our messy thoughts lies more in our forgetfulness, our inability to recall what we already know. In this case, the Mind Palace Technique might be helpful. The memory method was coined in the BBC series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and is based on the ancient memorisation technique. The so-called method of loci is scientifically proven and can help us remember what’s relevant. Check out my post on the Mind Palace and how to memorise information like Sherlock Holmes.

Closing Thoughts

I do secretly wish talking in a stream of consciousness manner was widely socially accepted. But I guess language is vague enough as it is. A better way to look at it, I think, is to see our thoughts as a raw material from which we can craft something of value.

In that way, imagination and logic don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The former might get you “everywhere”, but “everywhere” is not exactly a destination you can navigate to. You do need a bit of logic to specify your As and Bs, and eventually take people somewhere worthwhile.

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