Sampling from the stream of consciousness

The New York Times has a fascinating article revisiting a classic problem in psychology of whether our accounts of our individual ‘streams of consciousness’ have any useful role in the scientific understanding the mind.

Many of the early studies in psychology relied on people simply reporting ‘what they thought’ and got a bad reputation due to the rather haphazard ways in which studies were conducted.

In part, this led to a swing in the other direction, where the extremes of behaviourism suggested that not only were these methods useless but that the ‘stream of consciousness’ played no causal role in our behaviour – in effect, it was seen as uninteresting mental fluff.

Thankfully, mainstream psychology has moved on and now often tries to integrate conscious experience with objective observational data, but this isn’t always the easiest of tasks either practically or theoretically (indeed, the difficulty is the basis of the ‘hard problem‘ of consciousness).

Recently, psychologists have developed the experience sampling method to try and make sample the stream of consciousness a little more systematic. It involves giving someone a device that beeps randomly and when it sounds, they have to record exactly what they were thinking about or have to rate a certain aspect of the current psychological state.

The resulting mental freeze-frames are remarkably diverse.

On the third day of Melanie’s experiment, as her boyfriend was asking her a question about insurance, she was trying to remember the word “periodontist.” On the fourth day, she was having a strong urge to go scuba diving. On the sixth day, she was picking flower petals from the sink while hearing echoes of the phrase “nice long time” in her head.

These dispatches from the front lines of consciousness might be useful to a novelist seeking authentic material. But can they contribute to a scientific understanding of the mind?

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, says after-the-fact interviews should be treated with caution: one cannot assume the subjects will be honest, or that they are not twisting their answers to conform with their own biases, or telling the experimenter what they think he wants to hear, or simply filling in details they forgot.

The article is riffing on the recent book by Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel called Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic and a recent article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies where the debate was opened out to a range of cognitive scientists for their views.

Link to NYT piece ‘Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves’.

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