19 Oct 2013

Ch. 7 of Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, “The overlap model”, summary

Corry Shores
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[All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is forthcoming; currently there are mistakes.]

Summary of

Barry Dainton

Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience

Chapter 7: 
The Overlap Model


Brief Summary: In the overlap model, the present moment of consciousness overlaps with its neighbors as do the contents of consciousness. These flows move together which calls into question their distinction. There is really just one flow and the act-content distinction in this model is not important. The model explains the immediate perception of change, because we are consciousness not of a present durationless moment but rather a small extent, including present moment and its neighbors. We are conscious of these past and future moments on account of co-consciousness. Our minds are not necessarily existing in the past and future but rather we are presently aware of the relation between the immediate past and future with the immediate present of our consciousness. This is diachronic co-consciousness, which is limited to only one step away from the present and is thus not ‘transitive.’ [Moment A is co-conscious with successor B, which is co-conscious with its successor C, but A is not co-conscious with C.]



7.1 Foster on the time within experience

The lesson Dainton obtains from his prior treatments of Husserl’s and Broad’s models of time consciousness is that anti-realist accounts face severe problems that they were unable to satisfactorily solve.

Recall the Principle of Simultaneous Awareness (PSA). We experience a past event not as being simultaneous with the present but rather we simultaneously are aware both of the present moment and the past ones as past moments no longer active in the present. Broad’s early model was realist, and it tried to be compatible with PSA. PSA seems to demand an act-object model, [because it supposes that contents can both be represented to a new act of consciousness without themselves being actually present to our awareness.] One  problem with this is that the same content will be experienced many times instead of once as our experiences suggest. Broad tries to solve it with his later model which is representationalist. It is not the same content but rather representations of its appearing in the past. This had the problem of lingering contents [Broad’s and also Husserl’s models suggest that phenomena should linger in our immediate awareness when in fact they cleanly disappear, Dainton thinks.] Dainton previously previewed another solution. Each act of awareness is not numerically distinct but rather overlaps with its neighbors. Others have posited this but John Foster gives the clearest account. (162)

Foster thinks that there are temporal objects and relations in the contents of our experience [the overlapping of moments of awareness would mean that whole temporal objects could be presented, I think Dainton is saying.] Foster has two reasons for this. The first is empirical: change and duration are given immediately to our awareness, just as much as when perceiving the homogeneity and variation of color. (162) The second is conceptual: we do not perceive color in extentless dots, we see fields, and likewise for temporal objects like sounds, we sense ‘sound-filled’ periods. (163) Foster uses the act-object model and he distinguishes two sorts of temporal relations: phenomenal relations and presentational relations. (163) When a subject is momentarily aware of a phenomenal object this is a presentational act. The acts themselves occur in presentational time but the contents are found in phenomenal time. The phenomenal object is a “a universal, a pattern of phenomenal qualities that can be apprehended by different subjects at different times.” (163) A succession of three notes we hear occupy a phenomenal time field. We can then distinguish the phenomenal time of phenomenal temporal objects from the presentational time through which they became present. (164)

Consider if we hear the C major scale with no gaps between the notes. We hear the solid succession as a single auditory experience, which is not part of a larger auditory experience. But what constitutes such an experience are the patterns exhibited. [Dainton then has us it seems consider the scale as having smaller units whose pattern is three segments with either silence or sound in each segment.’] Experience E1 has phenomenal content P1 and so on. For the scale, P1 is “2 units of silence before 1 unit of C”, P2 is “1 unit of silence before 1 unit of C before 1 unit of D” and so on. (163) As you can see, the progression of consciousness advances one step at a time with an umbrella three parts wide, making each step overlap with the neighbors. But this is strange because it means that each content is heard three times [if the progression continues, one at the end of an act, again in the middle of the next act, and again at the beginning of the third act]. So this model leads to the problem of repeated contents. However Foster offers a solution. [At first the explanation seems to be saying that because for example C is qualitatively the same in each of the three acts it appears in, they are not discerned as being different but rather as one sound happening through the passage of time.] The solution is a double overlap, the overlap of both the acts and the contents. The contents overlap because 2 thirds is always the same between any two successive acts. [The experiences have an umbrella, and the moments themselves overlap. That means it seems that when experience E2 happens, it in fact had already begun happening in the prior moment, and also in E2, experience E3 is partly beginning. So the acts overlap because every act had begun arising already in the prior act and also begun passing-away already into the act to come. Any one moment has extremities that overlap its neighbors.]

As a consequence of this double overlap, what Foster calls phenomenal and presentational time are locked together. Take E1 and E2. The contents of these experiences overlap by two thirds. So do the experiences themselves: the final two thirds of E1 are numerically identical with the first two thirds of E2. To put it another way, the act of awareness whose content is P1 and the act of awareness whose content is P2 share a common part, these acts overlap by two thirds. Similarly, since P1 and P3 are contents which overlap by one third, the awareness of P1 overlaps with the awareness of P3 by precisely one third. (164)

And “Not only do acts of awareness overlap to an extent proportional to the overlap in their contents, the temporal duration of acts is directly proportional to that of their contents.” (164)

But “Since both acts and their contents endure through time, and endure through exactly proportional periods of their respective times, what reason is there to continue talking of two distinct times here?” (165) [This would  seem to suggest the possibility that both times are moving in common time.] In fact Foster makes this claim, and also the further step of “inserting the unified mental time into ordinary objective time.” (165) Quoting Foster:

we have to take each experience to extend over a period of real time in a way which exactly matches the phenomenal period it presents…the sense in which E1 precedes E2, and E2 precedes E3, is not that E1, E2 and E3 occur at successive real moments, but that they occupy successive, but largely overlapping, real periods. (1991:249) (in Dainton 165)

This solution is elegant, not complex, and robustly realist.

not only do we have a direct experience of temporal relations and temporally extended phenomena, but successive phases of a stream are welded together by nothing other than direct experience. The account thus satisfies both the phenomenological constraint—we experience movement and persistence with the same immediacy as colour—and the binding principle: there is a directly experienced transition between any two adjacent phases of a stream of consciousness. (165)

It does not have the problem of Broad’s early theory where was difficulty with explaining the temporal relation between acts and contents. To explain this correspondence Husserl posited the absolute flux, but the concept was obscure. “Foster accomplishes the task in a much clearer way: successive acts of awareness overlap both in content and in substance (as he puts it), i.e. successive acts share a common part.” (165)

But there are some difficulties with Foster’s model. It seems on the one hand to have momentary acts of awareness while on the other hand every momentary act is extending into its neighbors. “But how can momentary acts overlap? A momentary act has no temporal duration, and only temporal durations (or intervals) can overlap. Two momentary acts could no more share a common part than two geometrical points.” (166) But this is not really a problem because for Foster “ awareness is not packaged into momentary acts.” (166)

To make sense of the character of our experience, we have been forced to adopt the view that acts of awareness and their contents exactly coincide in time; they run concurrently. This is the doctrine enshrined in the Principle of Presentational Concurrence, PPC. So in the course of reasoning which leads Foster to the overlap theory, he begins by (in effect) assuming PSA, and he concludes by endorsing PPC. (166)

Regarding the act-object structure Dainton argues against, he notes:

Since, according to the overlap theory, acts are themselves temporally extended and exactly coincide with their contents in temporal extent, nothing would be lost by, as it were, allowing the acts to sink into their contents, integrating awareness with content, in accord with the Simple Conception of experience. (166)

Dainton will adopt this Simple Conception and no longer distinguish acts and their contents. He will instead discuss a one-level model. (166)

Dainton then explains:

Having taken this step, it is now clear that in the context of the overlap theory, the same basic relationship of co-consciousness is responsible for the unity of consciousness both at and over time. Moreover, it is plain that although only brief and adjoining phases of a stream are co-conscious, coconsciousness is also responsible for the unity of a stream as a whole. Co-streamal experiences separated by more than the duration of the specious present are not directly co-conscious, but they are co-conscious with an | intervening succession of overlapping specious presents, which themselves are linked by co-consciousness (e.g. E1-E2-E3-E4-E5-E6). (166-167)

So co-consciousness makes neighboring moments overlap. Thus it explains the continuous overlapping of all moments. In a particular moment we are directly aware of the immediate neighboring moments. But we are indirectly aware of the ones beyond them. (167)

7.2 Innocent curiosities

But the overlap model has intriguing and perhaps problematic consequences.

One issue is that one single experience maybe be a part of a varying number of total experiences. So Dainton has us imagine that two of the three slots is occupied by one single experience of a single tone. There are two slots of Do and one of Re. But this means that there is only one total experience that takes in Do in its entirety, the first one, but the Re is taken in its entirety three times. (167)

But this is not a problem because of the overlap of the moments. Re is not experienced three times, just one time across overlapping moments. (167)

Consider transitivity. Moment one is co-conscious with 2, and 2 with three, but since 1 does not overlap with 3, the two moments are not co-conscious. “Since it is plain that experiences at one end of a long stream of consciousness are not (directly) co-conscious with those at the other, transitivity must break down somewhere along the line; introspection suggests it breaks down over relatively short periods.” (168) This might be a problem [because synchronic co-consciousness must be transitive, so if co-consciousness links time moments, why is it not transitive too?]

If Do-Re and Re-Mi are co-conscious, why would Do Mi not be co-conscious [what determines where the boundary of bleeding begins and ends, especially when in synchronic co-consciousness there is no boundary?]

the principle that any two maximally connected phenomenal wholes that are co-conscious at all are fully co-conscious is not universally valid; at best it applies only to the synchronic case, where the relevant wholes are simultaneous. That co-consciousness is only transitive over short distances of time is a phenomenological fact that simply has to be accepted. (168)


And yet

However, although this means that we cannot appeal to the nature of co-consciousness in arguing for synchronic transitivity, the case for the latter is supported by the fact that breakdowns in transitivity are closely linked, and quite possibly essentially linked, to the way temporality is manifest in experience. (168)

Dainton notes that spatially synchronic contents are present together, but diachronic ones are not. (268) But “However, although this means that we cannot appeal to the nature of co-consciousness in arguing for synchronic transitivity, the case for the latter is supported by the fact that breakdowns in transitivity are closely linked, and quite possibly essentially linked, to the way temporality is manifest in experience?” (269)

7.3 Durations and thresholds

But even in our Foster model, things are not so simple because each unit of time is subdivided into many more. “their existence does raise the question of just how many total experiences occur between any two total experiences which overlap”. (169) There could be infinitely many more between any two, no matter how close [and thus be too complex]

Since these intervening experiences overlap, there is no problem with repeated contents, but their existence does raise the question of just how many total experiences occur between any two total experiences which overlap. If total experiences occur in dense successions, then between any pair of them, no matter how close together, there will always be another that is distinct from either. In which case, there will always be an infinity of total experiences between any two, with the consequence that no total experience has an immediate successor. Since these intervening experiences overlap, there is no problem with repeated contents, but their existence does raise the question of just how many total experiences occur between any two total experiences which overlap. If total experiences occur in dense successions, then between any pair of them, no matter how close together, there will always be another that is distinct from either. In which case, there will always be an infinity of total experiences between any two, with the consequence that no total experience has an immediate successor. (169)

But Dainton thinks it is inconceivable that one tone can have infinitely many distinct phenomenal tone-phases.

We will assume that the span of immediate experience is two notes long. One total experience, call it E, is centred on the note Re. The content of this experience is [one half of Do, Re, one half of Mi]. The very first total experience that occurs is [Do-Re] and the last is [Re-Mi]. Call these E- and E+ respectively. If total experiences were densely ordered, on either side of E there would be an infinite number of distinct total experiences, an infinite number between both E- and E, and between E and E+. If this were the case, the single tone Do would comprise an infinite number of distinct phenomenal tone-phases (likewise, of course, for Re and Mi). This is hard to believe. Can we really distinguish, in introspection, an infinite number of distinct phases of a single short tone, or a perceived movement? Is there any introspective evidence that we can distinguish even a hundred? Physicists currently believe that intervals of time below the Planck duration of 10-43 seconds have no physical significance—is it likely that such intervals have any phenomenological significance? (170)

Also consider some empirical findings. When repeated stimuli happen quickly enough, they are perceived as one. For example two repeated sounds happening quicker that 2-3 milliseconds are heard as one sound. But this is just for perceiving two instances. In order to perceive their order, for all sense modalities is required 30 milliseconds between them. (170)

Dainton thinks then this prevents the division of experience going to infinity. To be aware of succession might mean that the parts cannot be less than 30 milliseconds long. (170-171)

Yet he notes: “But the legitimacy of purely formal manoeuvre does not mean that all the intervals thus recognized in thought correspond to anything recognizable in experience.” (171)

Finding the duration of the specious present is not so easy to do empirically so we need instead to use introspection. But the continuity of consciousness can still make this difficult.

If I listen to a sequence of notes, and try to gauge whether a given pair of notes X and Y are directly experienced together, even if several notes occur between X and Y, I will experience Y at the end of a continuous period of awareness; I will have been continuously experiencing from the moment X starts through to the moment Y ends. This fact can, I suspect, easily lead to overestimations of the span of immediate experience. The figure of three seconds mentioned earlier is based on people’s ability to discern distinctive, memorable, or pleasing patterns in their experience, temporal gestalts: think of how the notes in a musical phrase, or the words in a line of spoken poetry hang together, or seemingly form natural units, However, given that these patterns extend quite some way through time, there is no guarantee that the beginning and end of a given pattern fall within the scope of immediate experience. For my own part, I would tentatively estimate the duration of my typical specious present to be half a second or less. (171)


What qualifies as a total experience is complicated by the fact that there is a variety of different things being thought and perceived each moment. (see 171-172)

When Dainton speaks of moments of consciousenss, by moment he means “some brief interval that is shorter than the specious present.” Also there are co-conscious cross-overs. In one moment our visual and auditory impressions are synchronically co-conscious. In two moments, our auditory moments are co-conscious with one another and our visual moments are co-conscious with one another, because their moments overlap. But also in two moments, the auditory impression of the first moment is co-conscious with the visual impression of the second moment. (see 172)

The interval of the specious present might different for other species or for different people or the same person at different times. (172)

7.4 Symmetry, flow and mode

It is possible that the overlap theory is phenomenological inadequate. (173)

[In this next paragraph, Dainton says that phenomenal time is both symmetrical but has a direction. (Later he speaks of asymmetricality so maybe my copy has a mistake). Often times the directionality of time is said to be what makes it asymmetrical, it flows one way and not both, so Dainton does not mean symmetrical in that sense here, but rather probably in the structural sense. Our consciousness is in flow. That means at every moment we are in transition. This means that every moment is overlapping with its neighbors. A succeeding moment then is happening now just as much as the passing-away moment is diminishing. Maybe something like a bell curve, and symmetrical in that sense.]

Co-consciousness within a stream may not be transitive, but it is symmetrical. In the sequence Do-Re (without a gap), Do is co-conscious with Re, but it is equally the case that Re is co-conscious with Do. Yet when we hear the sequence, we experience the notes as occurring in a definite temporal order: we first hear Do and then hear Re. But we do not merely first hear Do, and then hear Re whilst simultaneously remembering hearing Do a moment before, we hear Do giving way to Re, we hear the first note flow into the second note. The transition between the notes is directly experienced, and it is experienced as occurring in a particular direction. It is not only the transition from one note to the next that has this feature: an individual auditory sensation itself exhibits flow. For the short time it lasts, the tone seems to be extruding itself forward into the future. All types of experience which possess noticeable duration exhibit a similar characteristic. A pain may be unvarying in its painful character, but it seems to endure in a particular direction, as the same pain-content is continually renewed from moment to moment. The same applies to other bodily sensations. When nothing is changing within our visual field, our visual sensory-contents are also being continuously renewed; even if we do not reflect on the situation, there is a constant (non-attentive) passive awareness of the scene before us continuing on in its unchanged state. When we see an object move, say from P1 to P2, then from P2 to P3, we see the latter movement as smoothly continuing on from the former. The same applies to remembered and imagined sensations and perceptions. Thought to take place sequentially: we are aware of one thought giving way to the next, then the next. Consciousness as a whole has a phenomenally manifest flowing character; this is why the stream metaphor seems so apt. How can we account for this feature of phenomenal flow or passage in the context of the overlap theory? Since the temporal asymmetry is phenomenal, we cannot appeal to memory, and since co-consciousness is symmetrical with respect to time, co-consciousness cannot be the answer. (173)


The representational theories like the ones of Broad and Husserl explain phenomenal passage as being a matter of the modes of contents changing from present to past. But Dainton’s overlap theory does not recognize temporal modes. If parts from one experience to the next did not match in mode, then it does not make sense to say that they overlap.

When we say that Re occurs in two different total experiences, E1=[Do-Re] and E2=[Re-Mi], we are talking about numerically the same experience. If Re in E1 possessed a different phenomenal character from Re in E2, it would make no sense to say that these two total experiences overlapped: the Re in E1 would be a numerically distinct experience from the Re in E2. (174)


Lockwood thinks that theories of phenomenal time must accommodate temporal modes, because temporal modes explain how things pass in and out of the present. (174)

Dainton has three reasons to think that a content apprehended at different times does not thereby have different intrinsic phenomenal characteristics [like pastness presentness and futureness]. (174)


1. Dainton already showed that the phenomenal properties of pastness and presentedness are problematic.

2. Dainton thinks that the durratin of immediate experience is short, like half a second. [This immediate present would have a center of most presentedness that trails of to the limit of the present, along a series of degrees of presentedness.] If there were 10 degrees of presentedness, then in that half second each degree of variation would last a 20th of a second. But it is not likely Dainton thinks that we can perceive such fine and fast variation of such a phenomenal property. This might be easier to conceive for longer term phenomena like an entire melodic line, but that does not mean it makes sense for the immediate present. (175)

3. Different moments do however have external relations. Maybe this is really what accounts for what seems to be changing modality?

We have a problem with the overlap model. We can explain how moments are unified on the basis of co-consciousness, but co-consciousness does not seem to explain why there is asymmetrical order of succession. (175)

Dainton notes that immediate experience in this model is not momentary, which means it has a duration, which furthermore means that the contents have intrinsic temporal organization. And the temporal pattern of the contents is dynamic, because if in one immediate present we see an object move from one point to another, we do not see it at both points at once, rather we see it move between them.

According to the overlap theory, most contents of immediate experience are not momentary, they possess some short duration, and consequently these | temporal pattern. What is the character of these temporal patterns—is it static or dynamic? The answer is clear: it is dynamic, the flow or passage in experience is included in the phenomenal content of experience. The total experience that results from my seeing a ball move between P1 and P2 does not consist of stationary image of the ball at two different places. The content is a ball moving. Movement or animation is, as it were, built into the content from the start. It is similar for auditory experience. When I hear the note Do, the content of my immediate experience is a note enduring. (175-176)

So we can thus explain how the overlap model accounts for temporal order. One moment sees the ball go from P1 to P2. the next moment from P2 to P3. These acts of awareness overlap. Thus the order of P1 P2 P3 is maintained in the constant overlapping flow. (176)

Thus: “the fact that co-consciousness is symmetrical with respect to time is quite compatible with experience itself possessing an inherent direction: all that is required is for co-conscious experiences to have contents which are not symmetrical with respect to time. And clearly, the contents of our experience have this feature.” (176)

[Also the extrinsic relations of coming before and after are enough to explain their temporal distinction. The need not be intrinsic properties of presentedness] (177)

The link between phenomenal temporality and non-transitive co-consciousness remains intact, and Dainton further discusses its nature. (177)

7.5 Passage within a four-dimensional world

Dainton then examines the four-dimensional or block view of the universe, which says that “every moment and event is equally real, the future exists as much as the present or past; there is no such thing as a ‘moving present’ | gliding smoothly forward along the time-line of history.” Dainton says that even if we presume the block view, the phenomenon of passage can still be real. (178)


Dainton continues this analysis, which would be interesting for those who want to know how the block view is compatible with the overlap model. (see 177-179)

7.6 Time, awareness and simultaneity

Recall again the Principle of Simultaneous Awareness (PSA). We experience a past event not as being simultaneous with the present but rather we simultaneously are aware both of the present moment and the past ones as past moments no longer active in the present.

There are two reasons PSA seems compelling. 1) it makes a distinction between the succession of experiences and the experience of succession. 2) for us to be continuously aware of the continuity of our consciousness, we must at each instant be aware of some temporally extended portion of our experience. (180)

In overlap theory every temporally extended experience is an experience of succession. (180)

Now recall PPC. [“To make sense of the character of our experience, we have been forced to adopt the view that acts of awareness and their contents exactly coincide in time; they run concurrently. This is the doctrine enshrined in the Principle of Presentational Concurrence, PPC.”] Overlap theory embraces PPC. To experience continuity means that the experience must have duration. This is impossible in momentary consciousness.  (180)

Dainton then has us conduct an exercise where we rotate in our imagination our visual field 90 degrees not in space but in time [somehow]. (180) He later concludes “The overlap theory does not make the mistake of spatializing temporal awareness. For the overlap theory, change within experience is experienced only as it occurs, over a period of time.” (181)

Dainton then concludes by summarizing the chapter and  mentioning other related topics that are not directly relevant to the current project. (181-182)


Barry Dainton. Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

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