Friday, November 21, 2008

Attention | Nature of Attention | Effects of Attention | Points of Failure in AttentionThe Mind and Its Education

Fig 4


How do you rank in mental ability, and how effective are your mind's grasp and power? The answer that must be given to these questions will depend not more on your native endowment than on your skill in using attention.


It is by attention that we gather and mass our mental energy upon the critical and important points in our thinking. In the last chapter we saw that consciousness is not distributed evenly over the whole field, but "piled up," now on this object of thought, now on that, in obedience to interest or necessity. The concentration of the mind's energy on one object of thought is attention.

The Nature of Attention.—Everyone knows what it is to attend. The story so fascinating that we cannot leave it, the critical points in a game, the interesting sermon or lecture, the sparkling conversation—all these compel our attention. So completely is our mind's energy centered on them and withdrawn from other things that we are scarcely aware of what is going on about us.

We are also familiar with another kind of attention. For we all have read the dull story, watched the slow game, listened to the lecture or sermon that drags, and16 taken part in conversation that was a bore. We gave these things our attention, but only with effort. Our mind's energy seemed to center on anything rather than the matter in hand. A thousand objects from outside enticed us away, and it required the frequent "mental jerk" to bring us to the subject in hand. And when brought back to our thought problem we felt the constant "tug" of mind to be free again.

Normal Consciousness Always in a State of Attention.—But this very effort of the mind to free itself from one object of thought that it may busy itself with another is because attention is solicited by this other. Some object in our field of consciousness is always exerting an appeal for attention; and to attend to one thing is always to attend away from a multitude of other things upon which the thought might rest. We may therefore say that attention is constantly selecting in our stream of thought those aspects that are to receive emphasis and consideration. From moment to moment it determines the points at which our mental energy shall be centered.


Attention Makes Its Object Clear and Definite.—Whatever attention centers upon stands out sharp and clear in consciousness. Whether it be a bit of memory, an "air-castle," a sensation from an aching tooth, the reasoning on an algebraic formula, a choice which we are making, the setting of an emotion—whatever be the object to which we are attending, that object is illumined and made to stand out from its fellows as the one prominent thing in the mind's eye while the attention rests on it. It is like the one building which the searchlight picks out among a city full of buildings and lights up, while the remainder are left in the semilight or in darkness.

Attention Measures Mental Efficiency.—In a state of attention the mind may be likened to the rays of the sun which have been passed through a burning glass. You may let all the rays which can pass through your window pane fall hour after hour upon the paper lying on your desk, and no marked effects follow. But let the same amount of sunlight be passed through a lens and converged to a point the size of your pencil point, and the paper will at once burst into flame. What the diffused rays could not do in hours or in ages is now accomplished in seconds. Likewise the mind, allowed to scatter over many objects, can accomplish but little. We may sit and dream away an hour or a day over a page or a problem without securing results. But let us call in our wits from their wool-gathering and "buckle down to it" with all our might, withdrawing our thoughts from everything else but this one thing, and concentrating our mind on it. More can now be accomplished in minutes than before in hours. Nay, things which could not be accomplished at all before now become possible.

Again, the mind may be compared to a steam engine which is constructed to run at a certain pressure of steam, say one hundred and fifty pounds to the square inch of boiler surface. Once I ran such an engine; and well I remember a morning during my early apprenticeship when the foreman called for power to run some of the lighter machinery, while my steam gauge registered but seventy-five pounds. "Surely," I thought, "if one hundred and fifty pounds will run all this machinery, seventy-five pounds should run half of it," so I opened the valve. But the powerful engine could do but little more than turn its own wheels, and refused to do the required work. Not until the pressure had risen above one hundred pounds could the engine perform half the work which it could at one hundred and fifty pounds. And so with our mind. If it is meant to do its best work under a certain degree of concentration, it cannot in a given time do half the work with half the attention. Further, there will be much which it cannot do at all unless working under full pressure. We shall not be overstating the case if we say that as attention increases in arithmetical ratio, mental efficiency increases in geometrical ratio. It is in large measure a difference in the power of attention which makes one man a master in thought and achievement and another his humble follower. One often hears it said that "genius is but the power of sustained attention," and this statement possesses a large element of truth.


Someone has said that if our attention is properly trained we should be able "to look at the point of a cambric needle for half an hour without winking." But this is a false idea of attention. The ability to look at the point of a cambric needle for half an hour might indicate a very laudable power of concentration; but the process, instead of enlightening us concerning the point of the needle, would result in our passing into a hypnotic state. Voluntary attention to any one object can be sustained for but a brief time—a few seconds at best. It is essential that the object change, that we turn it over and over incessantly, and consider its various aspects and relations. Sustained voluntary attention is thus a repetition of successive efforts to bring back the object to the mind. Then the subject grows and develops—it is living, not dead.

Attention a Relating Activity.—When we are attending strongly to one object of thought it does not mean that consciousness sits staring vacantly at this one object, but rather that it uses it as a central core of thought, and thinks into relation with this object the things which belong with it. In working out some mathematical solution the central core is the principle upon which the solution is based, and concentration in this case consists in thinking the various conditions of the problem in relation to this underlying principle. In the accompanying diagram (Fig. 4) let A be the central core of some object of thought, say a patch of cloud in a picture, and let a, b, c, d, etc., be the related facts, or the shape, size, color, etc., of the cloud. The arrows indicate the passing of our thought from cloud to related fact, or from related fact to cloud, and from related fact to related fact. As long as these related facts lead back to the cloud each time, that long we are attending to the cloud and thinking about it. It is when our thought fails to go back that we "wander" in our attention. Then we leave a, b, c, d, etc., which are related to the cloud, and, flying off to x, y, and z, finally bring up heaven knows where.

The Rhythms of Attention.—Attention works in rhythms. This is to say that it never maintains a constant level of concentration for any considerable length of time, but regularly ebbs and flows. The explanation of this rhythmic action would take us too far afield at this point. When we remember, however, that our entire organism works within a great system of rhythms—hunger, thirst, sleep, fatigue, and many others—it is easy to see that the same law may apply to attention. The rhythms of attention vary greatly, the fluctuations often being only a few seconds apart for certain simple sensations, and probably a much greater distance apart for the more complex process of thinking. The seeming variation in the sound of a distant waterfall, now loud and now faint, is caused by the rhythm of attention and easily allows us to measure the rhythm for this particular sensation.


Lack of Concentration.—There are two chief types of inattention whose danger threatens every person. First, we may be thinking about the right things, but not thinking hard enough. We lack mental pressure. Outside thoughts which have no relation to the subject in hand may not trouble us much, but we do not attack our problem with vim. The current in our stream of consciousness is moving too slowly. We do not gather up all our mental forces and mass them on the subject before us in a way that means victory. Our thoughts may be sufficiently focused, but they fail to "set fire." It is like focusing the sun's rays while an eclipse is on. They lack energy. They will not kindle the paper after they have passed through the lens. This kind of attention means mental dawdling. It means inefficiency. For the individual it means defeat in life's battles; for the nation it means mediocrity and stagnation.

A college professor said to his faithful but poorly prepared class, "Judging from your worn and tired appearance, young people, you are putting in twice too many hours on study." At this commendation the class brightened up visibly. "But," he continued, "judging from your preparation, you do not study quite half hard enough."

Happy is the student who, starting in on his lesson rested and fresh, can study with such concentration that an hour of steady application will leave him mentally exhausted and limp. That is one hour of triumph for him, no matter what else he may have accomplished or failed to accomplish during the time. He can afford an occasional pause for rest, for difficulties will melt rapidly away before him. He possesses one key to successful achievement.

Mental Wandering.Second, we may have good mental power and be able to think hard and efficiently on any one point, but lack the power to think in a straight line. Every stray thought that comes along is a "will-o'-the-wisp" to lead us away from the subject in hand and into lines of thought not relating to it. Who has not started in to think on some problem, and, after a few moments, been surprised to find himself miles away from the topic upon which he started! Or who has not read down a page and, turning to the next, found that he did not know a word on the preceding page, his thoughts having wandered away, his eyes only going through the process of reading! Instead of sticking to the a, b, c, d, etc., of our topic and relating them all up to A, thereby reaching a solution of the problem, we often jump at once to x, y, z, and find ourselves far afield with all possibility of a solution gone. We may have brilliant thoughts about x, y, z, but they are not related to anything in particular, and so they pass from us and are gone—lost in oblivion because they are not attached to something permanent.

Such a thinker is at the mercy of circumstances, following blindly the leadings of trains of thought which are his master instead of his servant, and which lead him anywhere or nowhere without let or hindrance from him. His consciousness moves rapidly enough and with enough force, but it is like a ship without a helm. Starting for the intellectual port A by way of a, b, c, d, he is mentally shipwrecked at last on the rocks x, y, z, and never reaches harbor. Fortunate is he who can shut out intruding thoughts and think in a straight line. Even with mediocre ability he may accomplish more by his thinking than the brilliant thinker who is constantly having his mental train wrecked by stray thoughts which slip in on his right of way.

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