December 7, 2013 | 7
Over the past few years, I’ve taught a humanities class for college freshmen, and among the required readings is the “Stream of Thought” section of William James’s classic 1890 work Principles of Psychology. Teaching the class makes me hyper-aware of my own stream of thought—and of the paradox of trying to approach subjectivity objectively. I sought to capture or at least acknowledge the paradox in the post below: a stream-of-thought-style account of teaching “Stream of Thought.” I based the account on notes from real classes, but the narrator, Professor Jack Mansfield, and students are fictionalized. At the risk of being grandiose, I’ll call this piece “faction,” the term coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz for imaginative writing about real people and places.
What time is it? 10:47, 13 minutes to go. Waiting for class to begin does funny things to time perception. Think: “Plenty of time, plenty of time, still plenty… No time!” Instantaneous phase transition from calm to panicky “No-time-left-I’m-late!”
Happens on longer time scales too. When exactly do you stop being young? Become old? Impossible to pinpoint transition, but it happens. Like Zeno’s paradox. Getting from here to there takes infinite steps. So how can you possibly ever arrive? Get old? Become someone looking in mirror at old guy with grey hair? It happens.
Our finite lives compounded of infinitesimals. Unless string theorists are right and strings are smallest things. The Ground of Being. There must be a Ground of Being, or we’d fall into the realm of the infinitely small.
Lay out class stuff on desk. James notes, four markers. Bring extra markers in case one or two are dry. Redundancy inefficient, but sometimes necessary to avoid disasters.
Take a leak again? Get drink of water? Still jittery before class after all these years. Used to take water bottle to class for dry mouth, side effect of “what-am-I-doing-here-I’m-an-imposter!” anxiety. Much better now. Nervousness superficial, not deep rooted. We’re creatures of habit. Fears, desires seem so permanent until experience erodes them, making way for new fears, desires.
Check time: 10:58. Damn! No-time-left-I’m-late!
Exit office clutching notes, markers. Trot down stairs across street into Blather Pavilion. Three of my students waiting for elevator. Good Lacrosse Guy. Scraggly Beard. Bad Lacrosse Guy, smartass punk.
Don’t want to overhear them saying something snide. Like my friend Jane, teaching science journalism at Columbia. During break went into ladies room, sat down in stall, heard students come in, mocking her clothes, hair, voice.
We want to know, don’t want to know what others think of us. Everyone has secrets, but there will be no more secrets after Singularity. Cyber version of Judgment Day.
“Gentlemen,” I say. They turn. “Hi Professor,” etc.
First year teaching, told students they could call me Jack instead of Professor. Few did. Don’t offer option now. Realize formality, respect for authority not so bad. We’re not equals. I’m not wise, but still wiser than them. Wisdom like Free Will: relative not absolute trait.
Elevator arrives, we shuffle in, accelerate up five floors. “Nice day, huh?” I say. “Yeah,” they nod. “That humidity last week was killing me,” I say. Yes, they agree, humidity awful.
Enter classroom, students clustered, chattering. Stumble, damn backpack on floor. That was close! Someone guffaws, back of room. Bad Lacrosse Guy. “You think that’s funny? See how funny it is when I fail your ass.” That’s what I should say. Then laugh, “Just kidding,” but look at him hard. Not kidding. Keep him guessing. I’m too nice to do that. Too chickenshit. Wish sometimes I could unleash my inner psychopath.
Settle behind podium. Breathe in, breathe out. Face still hot. Know they can see it, makes it hotter. James guessed physical symptoms come first, trigger subjective conscious emotion. Or was it vice versa? Theory too simple. Blushing leads to feeling of embarrassment, leads to more blushing. Nasty feedback effect.
My face still red? Hell with it, take charge. I am Alpha Male, Silverback Gorilla. Hear me thump my chest and bellow!
“Okay, ready for William James?” Back of room, someone with head down, eyes closed. Sleeping! Already! Nose Ring Girl. Should wake up sleepers, shame them, but never do. Chickenshit.
Grab marker, turn to whiteboard, write: “WILLIAM JAMES: 1842-1910.” Writing on whiteboard for me not them. Vents nervous energy, keep hands busy.
“James came from a really distinguished family. His brother was Henry James, the novelist. Have any of you read Henry James? No? Have any of you heard of Henry James? Okay, a few of you, that’s good. Anyway the James brothers came from this family of high achievers, who had pretty serious psychological problems. William James struggled with depression and panic attacks for most of his life. He was always searching for something that could save him from his demons. That gave his writings on psychology an emotional intensity that you don’t often see in science. Which I think you can see in what we read.”
Lucky for us poor bastard never found salvation.
Write “PSYCHOLOGY” on board.
“Also, just to provide some context for our discussion, let me remind you that we’re talking about psychology in a humanities class. Right? Along with history, literature and philosophy. Why isn’t psychology taught in the science department? Along with physics and chemistry? Maybe as we talk about James we can also talk about the field of psychology and how it has progressed–or not progressed—over the last century.” Pause. Scan room.
“So what are your thoughts about James’s thoughts about thoughts?” Fatima smiles. All I ask, a little appreciation, especially from smart kids like Fatima.
Bad Lacrosse Guy thrusts hand up first as usual. Missed classes, crappy papers, handed in late. Thinks he can make up for it by blabbing when he’s here.
Bad Lacrosse Guy: “I thought it was interesting, the whole part where he talks about how”—pauses, making it up as he goes, probably skimmed reading right before class—”you can’t think what someone else thinks. Because, like, in general your life makes you think the way you do. So no one else can think the way you do. It’s kind of, like, individuality.”
Me: “Mmm hmm.” I won’t honor him with follow-up remark. Good Lacrosse Guy lifts hand. Smile, nod at him.
Good Lacrosse Guy: “James reminds me a little of Descartes, because they both focus so much on thinking? Like when he says, ‘I think therefore I am’? But I wanted to ask you. Was James worried that the world might just be a figment of our imagination, the way Descartes was?”
Kiss-ass but a good one. Knows how to play the game. He’ll get a good grade.
Me: “That’s a really good comparison.” Write “Descartes” on board. “Yeah, James and Descartes do have some obsessions in common. But as far as I know James never worried, the way Descartes did, that reality is really an illusion created by evil demons. Like in The Matrix.”
Good Lacrosse Guy: “Also, I liked James’s writing style. It was easy to follow along, but it was also scientific. It explained things, and gave good examples, and talked about peoples’ research. I like him a lot more than Descartes and most of the other people we’ve had to read so far.”
Me: “I’m glad you brought up his writing style. James is one of my all-time favorite writers. I read him for pleasure as well as for insight, and information. The irony is that James agonized over how inadequate words are for describing all the things that go on in our heads. He pointed out that lots of our thoughts can’t be put into words, and we distort them when we try.”
Hold hands up, thumbs out, framing head. Roll eyes upward as if trying to see into my brain.
“Okay, now I’m going to look at a thought in my head. What does that even mean? James says it’s like trying to study snowflakes by capturing them in your hand. As soon as you capture the snowflake, it starts to melt. As soon as you pay attention to a thought”—clench fists, flick fingers out like a magician—”it’s gone. Poof!”
Is that true? What about this thought in my head right now? Can’t I think it and observe it? Put it into words? Sure. But while I observe it, pay attention to it, express it, I’m missing all the other thoughts swarming around it.
“James also has a great metaphor for trying to understand subconscious thoughts. He compares it to studying darkness by shining a light into it. But James’s brilliance as a writer brings me back to the question of whether psychology is really a science. If we value a scientist primarily because of his verbal skill, is he really a scientist? Or is he more of a literary figure, like Shakespeare?”
Bad Lacrosse Guy: “Also I think that…”
Me: “Hold on! Leave something for other people to talk about.” Giggles. Bad Lacrosse Guy looks annoyed. Good.
Mick in monotonic robot voice: “I like when James talks about consciousness being ‘sensibly continuous.’ It’s like when you black out. The moments before you blacked out and the moments after just flow together, like a river or stream. It feels like one whole, continuous thing.”
Jesus. Referring to his own blackout experiences? Mick told me after missing first paper deadline he’s depressed, having hard time caring about school. Report him to school psychologist? Cover my ass?
Pony Tail Girl with usual brisk confidence: “One thing I liked was when James was talking about how physical things don’t change, but our feelings do. So you’re always playing the same piano, but the feeling you have each time you play is different. Or you look at the grass, and it’s physically the same, but it will look different in daytime and nighttime. So although it’s the same thing you’re looking at, your thoughts will always vary.”
Me: “Yes, exactly. What’s the title of this piece by James again? ‘Stream of Thought,’ right? That’s a great metaphor to help us grasp how fluid our thoughts are. They’re always moving and changing. They never stand still.”
Pony Tail Girl: “Also I like what James said about art. If you try to describe color to a blind person, you say, ‘I feel like the color blue is calming.’ But someone else might feel something different about blue. So your sensation of something will not always be the same as someone else’s.”
Me: “Right, and here’s the thing: I can try to tell you how the world looks to me, and you can tell me. But our words can’t really capture our experiences. I can’t really know what you are experiencing. No one really has access to the subjective experience of anyone else.”
Bad Lacrosse Guy, sitting next to Pony Tail Girl, whispers something in her ear. He smirks, she smiles slightly. Hope they’re not a couple. She’s too good for him, too sensible, hard-working, pretty. She should dump him, hang out with Good Lacrosse Guy. Hope she’s not a Girl Who Likes Bad Boys.
Dragon Tattoo hand up. So brave! Opens his mouth: ” I I I… ” Pauses, composes himself. I beam encouragement at him. He always has something smart to say, if he can get it out. Does his stutter cause stage fright or vice versa? Stutter from primal trauma? Genetic neurochemical glitch?
Dragon Tattoo: “I th-th-think a lot of the things we d-d-do, we think in similar ways. For example, a lot of artists are going to agree about what color goes with another color in a painting. Also if you go into a c-c-court with lawyers debating in front of a jury, they are usually going to reach a conclusion because of the evidence provided, and say, ‘This p-p-person is guilty.’”
Can feel mirror neurons pinging. Must damp down empathy, or I’ll stutter too. “Okay, let me see if I understand what you’re saying. The hope of philosophers going back to Plato and Aristotle is that reason and observation should lead us to the same conclusions about reality. Is that what you’re suggesting?”
Dragon Tattoo: “Yeah. Like if… if… if you’re doing math. If y-y-you write 1 + 1 on the board, everyone will think ’2.’ And everyone accepts the P-P-Pythagorean Theorem. Or accepts that a circle’s circumference is p-p-pi times the diameter. And f-f-physicists agree on how atoms work, or the structure of molecules.”
Me: “This is really important: How universal is reason? Sometimes reason leads all of us, or most of us, in the same direction. It overcomes the differences in our subjective perceptions. But often it doesn’t. When it comes to things like religion, and morality, and government policies–and even science!–smart, rational people can look at the same data and reach different conclusions.”
Yeah, think of all the brainiacs who believe crap like Singularity, strings, multiverse. I alone am truly rational.
Pony Tail Girl: “I was thinking about whether psychology is a science or not. I think one problem with psychology is that different people react so differently to the same stimuli. So two people can grow up in the same circumstances, and one will be suicidal and the other will be optimistic and successful. So over here you have studies that say, ‘This is how these people think and act.’ But that’s not true if you look at other people.”
Me: “Another good point. Just think about how hard psychology is compared to physics. If you understand one electron, you understand every single electron in the universe, right? And you understand electrons a billion years ago and a billion years into the future, as far as we know. But every single human who has ever been born is different than every other human. And not only that. You”—jab finger at Pony Tail Girl—”are different right now than you were before this class! James was pointing out these problems, but he wasn’t saying, ‘Let’s throw up our hands and give up.’ He was saying, ‘We have to come to grips with this.’ Right?”
Plane hum wafts through window. Louder louder, softer softer.
Hand up. Nose Ring Girl. She’s aliiiiiiiiive! “So you mentioned whether psychology is a science? And whether psychology has really evolved since James was writing? I think one of the main ways is how we diagnose people? And the way psychologists go about treating them? In James’s time, if someone had multiple personality disorder or something, people would say, ‘You’re, like, possessed by the Devil.’ Or, like, ‘You’re crazy, let’s throw you in prison.’ And there are much better medicines now?”
Me: “Actually, our treatments for mental illness haven’t progressed that much over the last 100 years. All the supposedly amazing drugs we have for schizophrenia, depression and other mental disorders don’t work that well. And neither do all our modern psychotherapies.”
Nose Ring Girl, others look baffled, suspicious. Probably some on meds for depression, anxiety, attention deficit, whatever. Voice pipes up in me: “Who the Hell do you think you are! Standing in front of vulnerable young people spouting cranky anti-medical crap. The gall! You have no right! No authority!” But voice, once strong, is now faint, easy to reject. I, Professor Jack Mansfield, am in charge! I have authority!
Scraggly Beard, scowling, shifting in seat, thrusts hand up. “When James says no one can think what you think, that’s not entirely true. I have a couple of friends back home who are twins. One is a girl, one is a guy. And if one is in danger, the other one will almost, like”—snaps his fingers—”have this… hint, and know something is wrong.”
Oh no. Do I want to deal with this? “Yeah, you’re talking about ‘extrasensory perception.’ ESP.”
Scraggly Beard: “Yeah! That’s what they call it!”
Me: “According to the vast majority of scientists, ESP isn’t real, but a lot of people believe in it. You mentioned a classic example. You’re tossing and turning in bed, and suddenly you have this vision of a friend or relative in trouble. And then you get a phone call and find out that person was in a car crash. How many of you think that happens? Or you’ve had an experience like that yourself?”
Thirteen, fourteen. More than half the class. Probably some don’t raise hands because they think I’ll disapprove. Or just don’t care.
Pony Tail Girl: “I think a lot of these ESP-type experiences are really based on subconscious clues that we pick up. Because a lot of times, with me and my brother, I’ll be at the kitchen table or something, and he’ll come in singing the same song I was singing a couple of minutes ago. And we’ll go, ‘That’s really strange.’ But it could have been that earlier in the day he was singing the song, and I heard him, and it got in my head.”
Me: “Yes! That’s how a good scientist thinks. If you’re a scientist, you go through all the boring, common sense explanations before you consider the cool, far out explanations. For example, when you’re thinking about someone and get the phone call or whatever, it’s natural to remember that coincidence and come up with a causal theory for it, because that’s what our big brains do. You don’t remember all the other times when you’re thinking about someone and you don’t get the phone call.”
Scraggly Beard: “But could there maybe be, like, some kind of signals that our brains are using to communicate with each other? Like some kind of electromagnetic waves that science hasn’t discovered yet?”
Me: ” Okay, we’re really getting off topic, but what the Hell. There is a something in quantum mechanics that some people think could explain ESP. It’s called quantum non-locality, or ‘spooky action at a distance.’” Giggles. “Seriously. Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’ to make fun of it. He didn’t believe in it. It was too weird. The basic idea is, you have two particles, like photons, particles of light, that are produced by the same source and then fly apart. If you do something to this photon over here, like detect it with an instrument, you affect the other photon instantly, even if it’s light years away. It makes absolutely no sense according to ordinary physics, but it’s been confirmed experimentally. ‘Spooky action’”—raise hands, curl fingers—”is real.”
Scraggly Beard: “So why can’t that explain why there’s this ESP connection between humans? Between, like, twins and other people?”
Me: “Some scientists think that’s possible. But for spooky action to happen, particles have to be totally isolated in a vacuum or under very cold conditions, near absolute zero. As soon as you get into something warm and squishy, like a human brain, all the spooky quantum effects wash out.”
Scraggly Beard: “Yeah, but, like, there are so many things in the universe that we don’t understand yet. So maybe ESP is real. I’m just saying. Like, the whole universe blows your mind.”
You’re telling me, Scraggly. Should I tell him my ghost story? Sipping cocktails with Meg in her old farmhouse in Maine. Heard sobbing. A woman. Upstairs. Even though no one else there. Hairs on back of my neck actually stood up, just like cliche. Meg and her roommate laughed, watching me. They had heard Crying Ghost Lady before, told me about her, but I didn’t believe them. Crying stopped when I ran up stairs.
Still can’t explain Crying Ghost Lady. Anomaly. Not enough to abandon skepticism, get all flakey, New Age-y.
Me: “William James was open-minded about ESP. And I know some big shot modern scientists who believe in it. I don’t believe in ESP, because I haven’t seen good evidence for it. I wish there was! If we found solid evidence for ESP, that would be so cool! It would blow science wide open! But there is nothing. Yet.” Pause. “That’s enough about ESP. What other reactions do you have to James?”
Bad Lacrosse Guy: “I was really interested in what James said about subconscious selves, because I have had experience of that. Like last year, when I was trying to decide where to go to college. My parents wanted me to go to this Catholic college. But something told me I should go to here. It felt like the decision was kind of made for me, by, like, some kind of subconscious force. And it made the right decision for me, because I really like it here.”
Brilliant insight moron, thanks for sharing. “Umm, yeah. All of us occasionally do things because of a hunch, or intuition, which we can’t really explain. Also, any of you who have struggled with, like, smoking cigarettes, or eating junk food, you know how divided your self can be. One part of you is saying, ‘Don’t do that, that’s bad.’ It’s trying to control this other self in you doing the bad thing. Your selves are fighting with each other!”
Mick hand up: “I feel like the subconscious is who you really are.” Flat tone, deadeye gaze. No symptom of anxiety, stage fright. So depressed he doesn’t care what we think. But cares enough to come to class and talk. Good sign.
Mick: “And you don’t really change that much. You do different things, and try different things, but you always come back to the way you are.”
Fatima, softly: “An innate self.”
Mick: “An innate self, yeah. So for example when you get drunk…” Giggles, whispers.
Me: “Hey, quiet back there! Can everyone hear what Mick is saying? Okay, he is trying to say that we all have a core self that never really changes. Is that a fair paraphrase?”
Mick: “Yeah. If you’re drunk, obviously on one level your brain is not working properly. But at the same time, part of you still sees things clearly, the same way as when you’re sober.”
Yeah, I’ve been there. Getting drunk when you’re really depressed like pouring water on a stone. Nothing changes. Tell him that? No. Getting too heavy. Lighten things up. Smiling: “Maybe you see things clearly when you’re drunk, but that has not been my experience.” Mick looks steadily at me as others giggle. Damn. Joke at his expense. Not nice.
Fatima: “I agree with Mick that you have one self that is true to your values and how you actually feel. And then you have the persona that is more acceptable to everyone else, the persona that you show to other people, what you think everyone else wants to see. So you’re just altering yourself to please everyone else. But deep down inside, that’s how you actually are. That’s where your real thoughts are.”
Look into her intelligent lovely brown eyes, wonder what her real thoughts are right now. Nod briskly, look away, keep speaking.
Me: “Yes, good point. And actually, you have a lot of public selves, right? You have one self for a situation like this, in a classroom, versus when you’re with your family or boyfriend or girlfriend. So all of us have these different personas, which to a certain extent are acting. Playing a role.”
Tell them about anatta? Sure why not.
Me: “Some Buddhists have a very radical hypothesis about the self, which is called anatta. They say when you meditate, you should look at all your thoughts and ask, ‘Where am I in these thoughts?’ And you’ll realize, as each thought comes and goes, ‘That’s not me, that’s just a passing thought.’ If you keep doing this, you discover that underlying all your thoughts, perceptions, memories, emotions—everything that makes you what you are—there is this kind of emptiness, or pure consciousness, that’s not unique to you. Your own personal, unique, individual self doesn’t exist. There is only one Big Self, that we all share.”
Look at them looking at me, wondering what the Hell I’m talking about. Class almost over, still time for James and mysticism.
“James was also fascinated by these experiences that many people throughout history have had, where they feel like they’re seeing Reality with a capital R. They leave Plato’s cave and see the Sun. These are called religious or mystical experiences. James was desperate to have one. He even took drugs that could supposedly trigger mystical experiences. Peyote, for example. Which just made him really sick. He also sniffed nitrous oxide. Laughing gas. When he was high, he wrote down his insights. Once he wrote, ‘Good and evil reconciled in a laugh,’ which is pretty profound. But most of what he wrote was gibberish, which isn’t surprising. James himself said that mystical insights are ineffable, which means they can’t be put into words. Except maybe, ‘Wow!’ or ‘Holy Cow!’”
Waggle hands and bug eyes out for comic effect.
Mick, unsmiling: “Do you believe in God?”
Damn. Serious or jokey answer? “It depends on what kind of day I’m having.” Smile at him. “Usually I call myself an agnostic. Does everyone know what ‘agnostic’ means? It means I’m completely mystified by the world.” Glance again at watch.
“Any questions?” Students already zipping open backpacks, stuffing books inside. Used to think this was rude, now no big deal. “If you have one takeaway from James”—loudly so they can hear me over noise—”I hope it’s that you think about your own thinking a little more.”
Everyone poised to leave. Watching me.
“All right! Thanks for a great discussion. We will talk about Freud on Thursday. Have something to say about the differences between Freud and James. Okay?”
Students file out chitchatting. Go to board. Erase WILLIAM JAMES PSYCHOLOGY DESCARTES TELEPATHY QUANTUM NONLOCALITY BUDDHISM MYSTICISM.
Lots of digressions. Used to worry about digressing in class. Felt guilty, self-indulgent, unprofessional. Then decided: I’m the Professor! Whatever I say is important, is important.
And who’s to say what’s a digression, what’s important? Digressions like spandrels, start out as pointless side effects of important things, things with a purpose, but end up becoming important themselves. And isn’t consciousness itself really just a spandrel? Yeah, that’s good, should riff on that in next class.