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From A Cyclopedia of Education, edited by Paul Monroe, Ph.D. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911, vol. I, pp. 295-8).
- James R. Angell (A.M., Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago)
The Conscious Activity of the Mind. Attention is the great gateway of the mind. Through it must pass every sensation and every idea which would gain access to the field of consciousness. This fact is sometimes expressed by saying that the mind always has a focus point, that thoughts momentarily in this focus are more intense, or at least clearer and more distinct, than those outside. Only such thoughts as gain entrance to this focus really come to full and complete consciousness. Many others succeed in forcing their way into the margins of the focus, but further than that they do not get. This selective property of mental activity, this fact of concentration it is to which the term " attention" is applied. Evidently it is one of the most fundamental attributes of the mind and one which must condition every stage of mental development and education. We may well ask first what influences are responsible for the success or failure of particular items to secure a place in this focal region of the mind.
Primarily, no doubt, one's inherited nervous organization is the most important element. A child may be relatively more sensitive to sound than to light. In this case his primitive consciousness will tend to be dominated by auditory experiences rather than by those of a visual kind. In later life this bias toward one sensory realm may lead to the formation of a serious interest, which will control his entire career. He may thus be led to become a musician. Certain sorts of stimulation appeal strongly to all of us by virtue of our common human ancestry and without regard to the peculiar personal organization which we may chance to have acquired in the vicissitudes of inheritance. All intense stimuli thus tend to arouse attention. All emotional objects, such, for example, as * those which occasion fear, anger, love, and all the stronger feelings, tend similarly to transfix our attention at the expense of less exciting competitors. On the other hand, attention is often drawn through the influences of experience to objects which inherently possessed no attraction. In this way one may be led into some form of employment with no other interest than the securing of a livelihood, but in the progress of time the duties therewith connected may take on an interest which renders them most alluring to attention.
Psychologists have been in the habit of using several classifications of the various ways in which we exercise our attention. They speak of sensory or ideational attention, depending on the particular nature of the conscious fact to which we attend. If some object present to the physical senses is the focus of attention, we have the first variety; if the object is a thought in the mind of something not present to the senses, we have the second form. Again they speak of immediate or derived attention, depending on whether the thought is one possessing inherent interest or one gaining its power over the mind by virtue of some relation to another object itself having such attractiveness. The interest of the youth in the maiden is direct. His interest in his profession may be only indirect or mediate, brought about by the possibility that it may afford means to care for the maiden. Both these divisions seem to be based on circumstances more or less extrinsic to the act of attention itself. A more genuinely intrinsic division is that into spontaneous, involuntary, and voluntary attention.
Spontaneous attention is sufficiently explained, perhaps, by the very title. Whenever we attend willingly and without effort, we have in some measure spontaneous attention. In the life of the child such attention is manifested by the response to almost every form of sensory stimulation. It is manifested by everybody through the interest in objects which appeal to our feelings strongly, especially those which please or excite us powerfully. Involuntary attention is represented by such experiences as those in which we are assailed by some extremely intense stimulation, like a violent noise, to which we are obliged to attend, momentarily at least, whether we so desire or not. Morbid ideas sometimes exercise a similar coercive influence over attention. The mind cannot leave them alone, no matter how great the effort. Voluntary attention is exercised whenever we attend as a result of a definite purpose and effort so to do. The student applying himself to his task in the face of distraction represents this form of mental activity.
Different as these three kinds of attention at first sight appear, there is reason to think that they are in reality derivatives of a common primitive type, i.e. spontaneous attention. As the mind gains in maturity, its ideas become systematized and arranged with reference to definite desires and purposes. The need of food and warmth may be taken as illustrations of influences which from the very beginning exercise pressure on the mind, and thereby little by little force attention to display preference for such objects and ideas as are pleasurably related to these items, with a corresponding neglect of all other competing items. This organization of a set of relatively permanent interests is the beginning of voluntary attention, which thus grows out of the spontaneous type of attentive process. Involuntary attention in the case of ideas is essentially pathological. In the case of sense stimuli occasioning this form of attentive response, it is simply an expression of the evolutionary value of giving heed to strong stimuli so many of which are dangerous for the organism. If violent stimulations did not contain menace for the welfare of the individual, most of the instances of involuntary attention would never occur. Until voluntary purposes are formed involuntary attention is indistinguishable from spontaneous attention. When these purposes are matured, involuntary attention remains as a safeguard against too great absorption in purely intellectual forms of interest with forgetfulness of the possible dangers and demands of physical nature.
One of the interesting problems connected with attention is that of the number of objects to which we can attend simultaneously. A great many striking experiments have been performed, showing that in a practical way the number of elements which may enter into the focus of attention varies widely under different circumstances. For example, if 3 letters be exposed to the eye for a fraction of a second, it may be impossible to read more than one of them with certainty. But if they spell a word, they can be readily recognized, and under such conditions even more letters may be correctly read in the same period of time. However many elements may thus enter into an object of attention, they are combined by the mind into essentially one "thing," so that psychologically speaking it may be said that we attend to but one object at a time. The problem as to how many movements we can perform at once must be sharply separated from the problem just stated. We can do an indefinite number of things at one time, the only limitation being native skill and practice. But such achievements do not involve attending to each part of the activity. Indeed, it is only as we learn to get along without attending to the details that our skill rises toward perfection.
Another interesting feature of attention is the fluctuating or rhythmic character of it. The reasons for these fluctuations have been sought in various directions: they have been attributed to fatigue in the muscles involved in the retention of our bodily attitudes; they have been referred to fatigue in the cells of the cerebral cortex, etc. Indeed, some evidence has recently been brought forward to discredit the belief that the fluctuations are really attributable to attention at all. But in a practical way there can be no doubt that attention has periodic shifts. Certainly if we wish to continue our attending to a given subject of thought, we find it necessary to keep noting something new about it. Simply to fixate it in a blind sort of fashion results in our suddenly finding ourselves attending to something quite foreign to the topic with which we started. The length of these periods of fluctuation depends on many circumstances which forbid any general statement. But they may be said to be relatively brief, in many instances not more than 2 or 3 seconds, often much less.
Attention sustains certain important relations to other parts of mental life which deserve special mention. In the first place, attention is all-important for memory. A good memory depends on many factors, but on none more invariably than upon attention. Nine tenths of all the inability to remember which vexes the life of the ordinary person, and especially the ordinary school child, is due to inattention, i.e. attention to something other than the thing to be remembered. On the other hand, all persons who possess good memories are capable of concentrating their minds with firmness and at will upon the matter in hand. Five minutes of such concentrated attention is worth an hour of the diffused and wandering attention which is the best contribution that many students ever make to their intellectual development.
Attention is also related to habit, to will, and to motor activities in the most intimate manner. It is a commonly accepted doctrine among psychologists that attention is the cardinal fact in the exercise of the will. What we attend to is that which determines what we will. Indeed, to attend fixedly to an idea of action with complete disregard of all competing ideas is to will the act. Only by the power of inhibiting ideas is any idea ever prevented from immediately occasioning action. To attend unwaveringly to an idea is to forestall this inhibitive process and thus bring action to pass. The principles of attention are accordingly the principles of the will. Not only, however, are motor activities consequences of attention; they are also conditions of its occurrence. To give attention to an object of vision requires a certain accommodation of the muscles of the eye. The same thing is true of auditory attention, and even attention to ideas involves certain bodily attitudes which facilitate, if they do not render possible, the directing of attention to intellectual ends. In the last case these attitudes are generally such as tend to assure freedom from distraction and the securing of an easy bodily position from which fatigue will not speedily arise. It is furthermore a commonplace of modern psychology that habits are built up by a slow process in which we first give attention to the various steps in the coordination to be learned, whereupon little by little we find ourselves coming into possession of the power to execute the act, whatever it may be, without any thought and with an increasing speed and accuracy that is almost miraculous. Learning to master the typewriter or the piano will illustrate the point. Attention to motor activities is therefore the first step in that most significant of all the chapters of our life accomplishments, i.e. the process by means of which we come to command hundreds of automatic acts which take charge for us of the routine of everyday affairs. Walking, eating, dressing, — what is there which does not illustrate the matter?
The foregoing sketch contains certain obvious implications for educational procedure and theory. An attribute of the mind which is of fundamental consequence for memory, for will, and for the formation of habit must possess extreme importance for education. The significant educational problems which center about attention may be formulated as follows.
How can children be taught concentration of attention? Without such concentration memory can never be reliable, and efficiency of every kind will be on a low level. How can voluntary attention be superposed upon spontaneous and involuntary attention, or inattention, as the latter conditions are often called? No one has achieved any material mastery over himself who cannot at will control his attention even amid distractions.
On the whole, modern psychology agrees with pedagogical practice in the general character of the reply which it makes to these questions. Concentration can only be gained by successful appeal to interest. This interest may be of a highly vicarious type, as when, under the older regime, the birch was introduced to secure concentration of attention upon classical literature. Or it can be direct, as in the modern efforts so to arrange the curriculum as to meet the child's mind on the level of its native vital needs. In actual execution this latter method is often charged with sentimentalism and mushiness. It is not yet clear that consequences such as would justify this charge necessarily emanate from it. Voluntary attention is generally procured by the appeal to the indirect rewards, and naturally, for such attention is precisely that variety where in the nature of the case interest is not felt in the task itself. Here again, however, the actual practice differs widely; in some schools the incentive comes almost wholly from fear of punishment, in other schools it is connected with rewards of one sort or another. In whatever manner gained, nothing is clearer than the fact that in one way or another the capacity to stand being bored and uncomfortable is a sine qua non of any high mental efficiency.
Interest conceived in a broad and sane way is doubtless the clew to a deeper solution of the educational problems of attention than any other yet suggested. But it must be interest viewed from the standpoint of deep, persistent, socialized human needs, not from that of transient, ephemeral likes and dislikes, which would speedily reduce to chaos any educational system that undertook to recognize them. We always do appeal to interest of one kind or another, and always must so appeal in our efforts to train attention. The only problem which we have to face, therefore, is that of selecting the special type of interest upon which we shall place our reliance and seeing to it that we employ it in a way to encourage the qualities we desire to develop, rather than defeat the end for which we strive.
J. R. A.
See Discipline, formal.
- Bagley, W. C. The Educative Process, (New York, 1908.)
- Dewey, J. Interest as related to will. (Bloomington, Ill., 1896.)
- James, W. Talks to Teachers. (New York, 1899.)
- Pillsbury, W. B. Attention. (New York, 1908.)
- Thorndike, E. L. Principles of Teaching. (New York, 1906.)
Titchener, E. B. Psychology of Feeling and Attention. (New York, 1908.)