As I was writing recently, a slip of the pen turned a stream of consciousness into a steam of consciousness.

I quickly inserted the missing “r”, but then it made me think that steam is actually a better metaphor than stream. Consciousness is not like a stream that flows predictably along a set course from its source to its destination. In my experience, it’s a lot more like steam. New thoughts constantly bubble up like steam from a singing kettle, forever changing shape, forming beautiful clouds that exist only for a second before drifting off into the air.

A steam of consciousness is a chaotic, anarchic process. Try to control it, and you might just get scalded.

Have you ever found your thoughts a million miles from where you left them? You try to reconstruct what happened, how you went from the electricity to a long-forgotten memory of a childhood holiday, but it’s often impossible. And if you can do it, you’ll find the links are far from logical; they are associational. They make sense only at a deeper level—on the surface, they look random.

Whereas a stream follows the course that it has carved through the landscape for centuries, steam is easily blown off-course. Open a window, let in a draught, and that cloud of steam will change direction.

Doesn’t that happen with your thoughts too? A steam of consciousness is a volatile, unpredictable thing. You try to stay on track, but sometimes it feels as if you’re being blown in so many different directions. We call it distraction and try to tame the mind so that we can complete our allotted tasks, but what if our minds our wild by nature? What if, by taming them, we are killing their spirit and condemning them to wander dull-eyed like a tiger in a cage?

There is no point to this post. There is no handy, actionable takeaway to use in your writing. I don’t for a moment think that the phrase “steam of consciousness” will catch on, now that the stream has been flowing for more than a century and has carved deep canyons into our language.

I just find it interesting that the choice of metaphor by an American psychologist in 1890 has had such an influence on how we think about the mind. Would we think about consciousness differently if William James had chosen to call it a steam of consciousness instead of a stream? Would stream-of-consciousness writers like Virginia Woolf have written differently?

Perhaps not. But, as I noted recently, language matters. The words and the metaphors that we use affect the way we think, the way we see things, the way we see ourselves. So, even if the steam of consciousness never catches on, I’m grateful for the slip of the pen that made me think about it.

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