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How We Attend

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

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.

Next: Points Of Failure In Attention

Previous: The Effects Of Attention

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