An Introduction to Comparative Psychology

Chapter 1: The Wave of Consciousness

C. Lloyd Morgan

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I DO not propose to begin by defining consciousness. Any definition would be found, when analysed, to, involve a direct reference to primary experience. I shall therefore assume that my reader has this primary experience; that he is conscious, and that he knows what I mean when I say that he is conscious. And I ask him to verify in his own experience the preliminary statements which I make in this chapter. The first of these is, that we are only directly aware of Present states of consciousness. I use the word "present," not in its abstract sense of an ideal boundary between past and future, but as descriptive of a short but not inappreciable period of time. I shall speak of this short period of time as the moment of consciousness. This phrase, as used in this work, is descriptive of the short period which constitutes the now of consciousness. We are only directly aware, I repeat, of that which transpires within the moment of consciousness. This may, however, seem to be contrary to experience. It may be objected that consciousness deals not only with the present but also with the past and with the future; that this, indeed, is one of its distinctive features. But a little consideration will enable us to see that the past or the future must be made present to consciousness through memory or anticipation. The recollection of this morning's breakfast is a present state of consciousness; and the expectation of to-morrow's sunrise is also a present state of consciousness. That is to say, in strict phraseology, consciousness does not deal with the past or the. future, but with representations of past or

(12) future events. And these representations occur in the .present moment of consciousness.

The next thing to notice is, that in each present moment there is sequence and change. The question has been raised whether, in the absence of such change, we can be conscious at all,-whether such change is not one of the primary conditions of consciousness. We need not here discuss this question. It is sufficient that for ordinary practical experience, in any moment of consciousness psychical states are constantly coming into being, and passing away, and are continually changing as they pass. Repeat aloud some familiar lines of poetry, and stop suddenly after any word in the course of your recitation. You will be conscious of the last words you have uttered just fading away, and of new words, not yet uttered, but, as we say, on the tip of the tongue, just coming into consciousness. So too in hearing a familiar piece of music, one feels the coming harmonies before they are played. Fix your eyes upon any word near the middle of this page; that word is sharp, clear-cut, and well-defined in vision. Other words near it, above and below as well as on either side, are visible, but not clearly defined. The rest of the page is also visible, and probably a good deal more besides, but only dimly and in hazy outlines, Now read on slowly. Your consciousness will pass on from word to word; but you will, I think, be aware of the coming words, which are, so to speak, dawning upon consciousness, an of the words you have just read waning out of consciousness. Ask some one to read aloud rapidly from a well-printed page, and as he does so slip a piece of blank paper over the text. He will read six or seven words beyond that which he was pronouncing when the page was covered. In turning over fur a pianist, you must do so more or less in advance of the chords he is actually playing.

The moment of consciousness thus embraces a psychical

(13) wave with a summit or crest of clear consciousness, a short rising slope of dawning consciousness, and a longer falling slope of waning consciousness. This is very diagrammatically represented in Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Cross-section of the wave of consciousness

The wave of consciousness is supposed to be proceeding from left to Tight along words printed below it ; and when caught by the instantaneous photography of thought, the word "clear" occupies the


Figure 2. Plan of the wave

summit of the wave the word consciousness " is just rising or dawning; and the words "a summit or crest of" are waning out of consciousness. This is a longitudinal section of the wave. Fig. 2 represents a plan of the wave; and if we take a transverse section at right angles to the

(14)Figure 3. Traverse section of the wave line of flow (along the dotted line in the plan), we shall have that which is represented in Fig. 3. Here we do not of course see the waxing and waning of the constituent parts of the wave, but we have a diagrammatic representation of the fact that there are less intense lateral elements in consciousness, that exist along side of those which constitute the crest of the wave. As we read, the words in the line our eye is following occupy successively the summit of the psychical wave. In Fig. 3 the word "clear" occupies, as before the summit-of the wave, But our eye is also being affected by the lines above and below, and by the rest of the page. We do. not generally notice this, because it is of no practical importance in everyday life. For us, as students of psychology, it is important. We must clearly grasp the fact that in any moment of consciousness, there are in addition to and alongside the dominant elements constituting the summit of full clear, consciousness, dimly felt elements which may have little or no direct connection with those dominant elements. These we will speak of as subconscious; and I beg the reader to satisfy himself in his own experience of the reality of the existence of these subconscious elements. As I write, I am dimly aware of the ticking of the clock, of the plash of rain against the window, of the position of my body, of the pressure of my clothes, of the scent and taste of a cigarette, of in incipient headache, and of much besides. All these are merely subconscious, and subconscious in different degrees.

As the validity of many of the arguments in this book depend upon the real existence of subconscious elements in

(15)the psychical wave, I will further illustrate my meaning in another way and in other phraseology, which, together with that of " the wave of consciousness," I shall have frequent occasion to employ. My further illustration is that from vision, -- in most of us the dominant sense. If we fix our eyes on any distant object, such as a church spite or clump of trees, this is in the focus of vision ; but it is set in the midst of a wide visual field. The focus shades off into and is surrounded by a margin, in which the objects, instead of being clear-cut and well-defined, like the church spire or the clump of trees, are dim and blurred in outline. The focus here answers to the summit or crest of the psychical wave; the margin to its subconscious body, comprising all the rest of the wave other than the crest. Now, although this illustration is based on vision, it is applicable to consciousness generally. Those who have an ear for, and some little knowledge of, music, can, when they are listening to a fourpart song, focus their attention on the treble, alto, tenor, or bass, making that the dominant theme, and allowing the -other parts to be marginal. For the ordinary listener, the air is focal, the other parts marginal. Music, which so often gives us a leading theme, vocal or other, and its setting or accompaniment, affords indeed an excellent illustration of what I am seeking to enforce,-that in addition to what is focal in consciousness (the theme) there is much that is, subconscious or marginal (the accompaniment). And this I repeat is true not -only of vision or of hearing, but of consciousness in general. I take a walk in the country with a friend, and we are discussing the relation of music to poetry. This is our theme; it is focal to our consciousness;, the. points in the discussion as they arise successively occupy the crest of the psychical wave. But there is plenty of accompaniment; there is much body to the wave. A thousand sights, scents, sounds, all breathing the life of spring; the soft yet invigorating air; the tingling of the

(16) muscles to the exercise,-- all these form a 'delightful setting

to the theme, a margin to the focus, a body to the wave of consciousness. And any one of these subconscious elements may by increased intensity rise at any moment into dominance, and occupy the crest of the wave or the focus of consciousness. My friend, for example, who is a keen naturalist, stops in the middle of his sentence to point out some rare bird which has caught his attention. Often when one is reading or listening to a discourse, there is an undercurrent of subconsciousness, wholly unconnected with the subject of the book or the lecture; presently this may rise unbidden, and monopolise the wave crest; and one finds that the words over which the eye has been travelling, or which have been falling upon the ear, have suggested nothing definite and rememberable. They have merely entered the margin of consciousness, the focus being other wise occupied.

In riding a bicycle slight movements of the handle are constantly necessary. But the skilful rider spinning along a good road guides the machine automatically or unconsciously, as we are wont to say,-subconsciously, as we should more correctly say. In all matters of skill, when it is wellestablished, the mere carrying out of the skilled action is marginal and subconscious, focal consciousness being concentrated on the end to be attained, or on some particular factor in the process. The swordsman who had to focus his attention on, and exercise fully conscious control over each several parry, would soon succumb to his better trained antagonist in whom all this is a matter of organised habit carried out subconsciously. His attention is focussed on his adversary's 9 sword-point. I would ask the reader, who is a billiard-player, or cricketer, or a player of lawn-tennis-- in fact of any game requiring skill-to exercise a little self-observation in the matter. He will, if I mistake not, be able to verify the truth of my assertion, that his focal conscious

(17)-ness is constantly fixed on some salient point of the skilled action, while the application of the skill to that salient and focal point is marginal ; and, further, that this marginal exercise of the skill is not really unconscious, but is subconscious. He who kicks a goal at football rivets his attention on striking the ball precisely there and thus ; all the rest is marginal to his consciousness.

Note then the complexity of the wave of consciousness. We are too apt in psychology to pay attention. solely to focal consciousness, omitting all reference to the great body of marginal subconsciousness. But this is a great mistake. The focal consciousness very often is what it is in virtue. of the- subconscious margin in which it is set. The dawning elements of the psychical wave, the waning elements, and all the marginal elements, form parts of any present state of consciousness, and are more or less instrumental in determining its nature. I shall employ the phrase "state of consciousness " to describe all that is comprised in the psychical wave in any moment of consciousness. This braces not only the focal constituent, but a greater or less number of marginal constituents, which form the peculiar setting of the focus in the moment of consciousness in question. At different times in the same individual, and presumably in different individuals, the states of consciousness whose succession constitutes the onward flowing wave, vary considerably in complexity and in intensity. In moments of quiet concentrated thought the states of consciousness are relatively homogeneous and simple. In moments of distraction and of bustling excitement they are heterogeneous and complex. When we languidly let out thoughts wander hither and thither without aim or purpose, the states of consciousness are of low intensity; but in moments of keen excitement, of breathless interest, or of strenuous thought, the intensity is much increased. In the psychical wave, intensity may be represented

(18) by the height of the wave-crest above the base line which is termed the "threshold of consciousness;" complexity, by its width, or the number of constituent elements in the state of consciousness embraced by the wave.

The phraseology in which I have endeavoured to express some of the observable facts of consciousness, is based on that, method of diagrammatic or graphic representation which has been found of conspicuous assistance wherever it has been employed; I mean the use of curves. And now we may proceed to give to our curve its simplest geometrical expression. In Fig. 4, the horizontal line represents the threshold of consciousness, the vertical line a scale by which the intensity of focal or marginal elements in

Figure 4. Some observable facts of consciousness

consciousness may be measured. The several elements which go to the composition of a state of consciousness are thus spread out along the curve in order of their intensity, from the focal constituents of maximum intensity to the

(19) marginal elements near the extreme edge or point of origin of the curve, hardly rising at all above the threshold of consciousness. In this way it is ideally possible to plot down the curve of consciousness. And if in the present condition of our knowledge, and for reasons which will be given directly, it is practically impossible to represent with anything approaching accuracy either Vie form of the curve or its conscious content,-so complex and difficult of analysis is a state of consciousness,-- yet this does not show that the method of representation is false in principle. The question is not whether the method can at present be applied with complete exactitude, but whether as a method it is right in principle. I am convinced that in principle it is right. I believe that, if we fail to recognise that there is such a curve of consciousness, that there is a margin to consciousness as well as the focus, we shall find, that the solution of some of the problems of psychology presents difficulties which are almost if not quite insuperable.

But why cannot we apply the method with anything approaching accuracy? In the first place, it is difficult to estimate focal intensity ; in the second place, it is quite impossible, I think, to estimate the relative intensities of the marginal elements. Directly we endeavour reflectively to bring any portion of the hazy marginal region into the clear light of focal consciousness, we inevitably find that the measure of our success is also the measure of our failure. Directly we begin to examine and measure any part of the margin, it thereby ceases to be marginal and becomes focal, In the full light of clear consciousness, it must needs seem other than it was when it lurked in the dim shadowy region of subconsciousness. We shall find this a great source of difficulty in some of the investigations into the nature of our conscious states, which are to follow in this book. Moreover, the state of consciousness as experienced is a complex synthetic product not yet analysed. The psychical wave in

(20) the moment of consciousness is one and indivisible. The focal element, the dawning elements, the waning elements, the subconscious accompaniment, all fuse into one state of consciousness, from which no element could be omitted without altering its identity and making it other than it is. It is only by a process of ~ introspection or looking within at the workings of our own consciousness, that we can gain any direct knowledge of psychical processes. But all such introspection is also retrospection. We cannot examine the psychical wave as it passes; we can only endeavour to focus it, or its constituent parts, in the mental vision, as it Was when it was passing. And here not only is memory apt to play us tricks, but, as before noticed, the act of focussing a marginal constituent thereby makes it other than it was.

The constant changes which the psychical wave undergoes increase the difficulty of accurately representing it at any one phase of its unceasing onward progress in time. For the wave never pauses, but must ever pass on through new changes to new developments. As we read the page of a book, fresh words and ideas are successively dawning, rising to the summit, and waning. The same is true when we throw aside the book, and abandon ourselves to a train of reverie. The wave of consciousness constantly flows on, lifting now these, now those, representations of past or future events to its summit, and letting them sink gently down its, backward slope into oblivion. Even when we look moodily out of window, and watch "the rain falling continuously against the same dull background of leaden cloud, the wave of consciousness is not arrested. We merely place ourselves under such conditions that the wave of consciousness during succeeding moments remains practically identical in content. The state of consciousness remains the same, only in the sense that the rain, seems to remain the same because there is a constant succession of similar raindrops.


There is one more characteristic of the wave of consciousness I that remains to be noticed. We have seen that [the wave is complex, with focal and duly subordinated marginal constituents; and we have seen that in its ceaseless onward progress in time it is continually undergoing change, so that it seldom remains identical in content for more than a few moments in succession. We have now to draw attention to the fact that in all its changes during its onward course., in time it preserves its unity or individuality. Continuity of the psychical wave is unquestionably a characteristic of our conscious experience, which must neither be neglected nor slurred over. In what then does this continuity consist ? 'When we are reading rapidly and with interest, or when in ,reverie we are reviewing an exciting or amusing scene, the focal constituents of the wave are constantly changing. It is not here, I think, that we must look for that which gives continuity to the wave as a whole. It is rather in the marginal body of the wave that we should seek those relatively abiding elements which are carried on from one moment into the next, and so on through a whole series,, and which thus serve to link the successive phases into a ,Continuum. For what is necessary to give continuity to anything which -is undergoing continual transformation is, .that amid the successive changes of certain parts other I arts are relatively constant and abiding. Now there would seem to be two sets of elements which contribute to the ,relatively permanent, and abiding subconscious body of the wave of consciousness. First, there is a group of subconscious elements arising out of the organic condition of the tissues of the body, which, although it varies according as we are healthy or unwell, fresh or tired, bright or depressed, yet retains a considerable amount of uniformity. While the focal consciousness of the crest of the wave is constantly changing, this organic contribution to its marginal body retains a constancy sufficient to form a

(22) partial basis of continuity. Secondly, there is a group of subconscious elements arising out of our intellectual and moral existence. Among these are our settled purpose in life, the ideal to which we would attain, our fixed beliefs, and healthy fundamental prejudices. All these in man contribute very largely to that continuity of conscious existence of which every one of us has daily experience.

There is, however, another important mode of linkage of state to state in consciousness. We have seen that a more or less rapid succession of focal elements occupy successively the crest of the wave; and it is clear that when any one of these is succeeded by that which follows, it ceases to exist as a focal state. Bnt (sic) it does not disappear out of consciousness. It is carried on as a marginal element. This we may represent diagrammatically thus:

A B C D E F &c.
a b c d e &c.
a b c d &c.

Here A B C are successive focal elements. But A when it ceases to be focal is carried on as a, and a, into the marginal region of consciousness. So that when E is focal, d and c are still hovering in the margin, and tending to give continuity to the phases in which C D and E are focal. D E F, E F G, and so on, are similarly bound together; and in general, throughout any series of successive phases, continuity is maintained by the constant carrying on of focal elements into the margin. This diagrammatic representation is, of course, far simpler than even our simplest experiences. When we are reading a paragraph, we carry with us to the end the gist of the preceding sentences. In the climax of an interesting play, we retain in the margin of our consciousness the main drift of all the preceding scenes. States of consciousness are enormously complex, and there is room for much marginal matter in the broad body of the psychical wave.


Enough has now been said to give a preliminary conception of what has been termed the wave of consciousness. I am desirous that it should be clearly grasped how very complex a state of consciousness is ; and yet with an orderly complexity, such that we might express the relative intensities of the constituent elements in a curve. These complex states are constantly changing as the wave of consciousness flows onwards in time ; but amid all these changes there is a continuity, the nature of which I have endeavoured to explain. The explanation as it stands may likely seem inadequate. But we have at present only just made a beginning of our study of the wave of consciousness.


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