Stream of consciousness

This is an article that describes an exercise called ‘stream of consciousness’ originating from poetry and creative writing. I describe how you can use this exercise as a self reflection tool.


Write continuously for a set time (for example somewhere between 5-10 minutes). What you write does not matter, the only goal is to not pause to review or reflect. Your hand should keep moving throughout the whole exercise. When the time is up, read what you have written and underline the parts that speak to you most. You can then use these sentences to create a seperate reflection or poem.

Alternatively you can start with a sentence stem related to a topic you want to reflect on. If you want to reflect on friendship, you could start with the sentence stem: ‘To me friendship…’ or ‘If I had not known friendship..”.


In both literature and psychology the term ‘stream of consciousness’ makes an appearance and both these fields offer information to enhance the appreciation for this exercise and variations on it’s theme. The term “stream of consciousness” was coined by philosopher and psychologist William James (1842 – 1910). James was influential in the shaping of the philosophy of psychology in the late nineteenth century in America. He was one of the first people who tried to conceptualize the constant stream of our thoughts, in print while also writing about his theories on brain functioning in relation to psychology (in the Western world, I should add. In Buddhist philosophy this concept is written about centuries BCE).

“Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits … it is nothing joined; it flows.
A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter,
let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.”

William James (1890)
In literature this term pops up almost a century later, and the use of the term at this time points towards ‘Attempting to depict the multitudinous (i.e. numerous) thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind (Cuddon, 2014, p. 866)’. In 1918 the novelist May Sinclair (1863–1946) first applied the term stream of consciousness, in a literary context, as a narrative device (to move the plot forwards) that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character’s thought processes. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation. (This is different from dramatic monologue, where an audience or another is addressed.) The format laid out above is inspired by not only ‘stream of consciousness’ as a writing style in literature but also by a writing technique called ‘free writing’ (Brande, 1934). This technique involves continuous writing, usually for a predetermined period of time (often five to fifteen minutes). The writer writes without regard to spelling, grammar, etc., and makes no corrections. If the writer reaches a point where they can’t think of anything to write, they write that they can’t think of anything, until they find another line of thought. The writer freely strays off topic, letting thoughts lead where they may. Buchalter (2015, p. 106) approaches this uses a form of free writing in an art therapy context she calls ‘brain dumping’: “It’s best to let your mind tell you when you’re done. (…) You can start with a specific thing that is causing you stress or anxiety, but let your mind take you wherever it wants to roam. The point is to get all your thoughts out on paper so they don’t eat away at your mind. This is a good way to gain a new perspective of your situation with a deeper level of understanding about how you feel. It’s also a great way to release your creativity and free your mind to think of ways to get out problems. This process helps weed out destructive or unproductive thoughts, to get the thoughts that will help you move forward.”

Self reflection

What appeals to me is that ‘stream of consciousness’ is a way of expressing yourself creatively without a lot of pressure. This aspect is highlighted in the free writing technique: ‘Free writing is based on a presumption that, while everybody has something to say and the ability to say it, the mental wellspring may be blocked by apathy, self-criticism, resentment, anxiety about deadlines, fear of failure or censure, or other forms of resistance. The accepted rules of free-writing enable a writer to build up enough momentum to blast past blocks into uninhibited flow.’ (Cole, 2001) Free-writing is all about loosening and limbering the thought process, not about a product or a performance for a student or a writer. (Robinson, 1967) This unpressured form of creating content is highly useful in a when you are blocked by low self-esteem or negative emotions in your expression or creation process. When freed from blockages expression and creation can take place. This creates material which lives outside of yourself. With the distance gained between you and your material the self reflection process gains a new depth.  As I mentioned before you can combine this with the use of sentence stems to guide yourself to an area you would like to explore. Nathaniel Brandon writes about how he uses sentence stems in self-esteem groups. An example he uses is: ‘To me, self-responsibility means…’ he then instructs to “…write this down (..), then, as rapidly as possible, without pausing for reflection, write as many endings for that sentence as you can in two or three minutes – never less than six, and ten is enough. Do not worry if your endings are literally true or make sense or are “profound.” Write anything, but write something.” Lastly, sharing parts of writing that flow from this exercise combined with the use of sentence stems can not only lead to (self) reflection but also bring forth invigorating discussion. Doing this exercise in a group or with another can create an opportunity to ask each other reflective questions about what is written or related topics. Sometimes even just reading your writing or poem aloud to another can bring forth new feelings and thoughts or conversation which further stimulates your self reflection process. When you get creative, there is a lot to explore.
Leonie der Kinderen
Leonie der Kinderen

Leonie is a dramatherapist who works within centrum vaktherapie. In her workshops and therapy sessions she uses creative and expressive exercises to facilitate personal development, processing and self expression.

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Leonie der Kinderen
Leonie der Kinderen

Drama therapist


Buchalter, S. I. (2015). Raising self-esteem in adults: An eclectic approach with art therapy, CBT and DBT based techniques. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Brande, D. Becoming a Writer (1934) New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
Cole, A.L. (2001). “The Thesis Journey: Travelling with Charley”. Brock Education. 13 (1): 1–13. Retrieved 2017-07-12.
Cuddon, J. A. (2014). The Penguin dictionary of literary terms and literary theory. London: Penguin Books.
James, W. (2012). The principles of psychology: Vol. 1.New York: Dover Publications.
Ross, J.; Robinson, L. (1967). “Guided Writing and Free Writing: A Textbook in Composition for English as a Second Language”. TESOL Quarterly. Vol. 1, No. 2. 1 (2): 58–60.

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