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Types Of Attention

THE THREE TYPES OF ATTENTION.--Attention may be secured in three ways:
(1) It is demanded by some sudden or intense sensory stimulus or
insistent idea, or (2) it follows interest, or (3) it is compelled by
the will. If it comes in the first way, as from a thunderclap or a flash
of light, or from the persistent attempt of some unsought idea to secure
entrance into the mind, it is called involuntary attention. This form
of attention is of so little importance, comparatively, in our mental
life that we shall not discuss it further.

If attention comes in the second way, following interest, it is called
nonvoluntary or spontaneous attention; if in the third, compelled by
the will, voluntary or active attention. Nonvoluntary attention has
its motive in some object external to consciousness, or else follows a
more or less uncontrolled current of thought which interests us;
voluntary attention is controlled from within--we decide what we shall
attend to instead of letting interesting objects of thought determine it
for us.

INTEREST AND NONVOLUNTARY ATTENTION.--In nonvoluntary attention the
environment largely determines what we shall attend to. All that we have
to do with directing this kind of attention is in developing certain
lines of interest, and then the interesting things attract attention.
The things we see and hear and touch and taste and smell, the things we
like, the things we do and hope to do--these are the determining factors
in our mental life so long as we are giving nonvoluntary attention. Our
attention follows the beckoning of these things as the needle the
magnet. It is no effort to attend to them, but rather the effort would
be to keep from attending to them. Who does not remember reading a
story, perhaps a forbidden one, so interesting that when mother called
up the stairs for us to come down to attend to some duty, we replied,
Yes, in a minute, and then went on reading! We simply could not stop
at that place. The minute lengthens into ten, and another call startles
us. Yes, I'm coming; we turn just one more leaf, and are lost again.
At last comes a third call in tones so imperative that it cannot be
longer ignored, and we lay the book down, but open to the place where we
left off, and where we hope soon to begin further to unravel the
delightful mystery. Was it an effort to attend to the reading? Ah, no!
it took the combined force of our will and of mother's authority to
drag the attention away. This is nonvoluntary attention.

Left to itself, then, attention simply obeys natural laws and follows
the line of least resistance. By far the larger portion of our attention
is of this type. Thought often runs on hour after hour when we are not
conscious of effort or struggle to compel us to cease thinking about
this thing and begin thinking about that. Indeed, it may be doubted
whether this is not the case with some persons for days at a time,
instead of hours. The things that present themselves to the mind are the
things which occupy it; the character of the thought is determined by
the character of our interests. It is this fact which makes it vitally
necessary that our interests shall be broad and pure if our thoughts are
to be of this type. It is not enough that we have the strength to drive
from our minds a wrong or impure thought which seeks entrance. To stand
guard as a policeman over our thoughts to see that no unworthy one
enters, requires too much time and energy. Our interests must be of such
a nature as to lead us away from the field of unworthy thoughts if we
are to be free from their tyranny.

THE WILL AND VOLUNTARY ATTENTION.--In voluntary attention there is a
conflict either between the will and interest or between the will and
the mental inertia or laziness, which has to be overcome before we can
think with any degree of concentration. Interest says, Follow this
line, which is easy and attractive, or which requires but little
effort--follow the line of least resistance. Will says, Quit that line
of dalliance and ease, and take this harder way which I direct--cease
the line of least resistance and take the one of greatest resistance.
When day dreams and castles in Spain attempt to lure you from your
lessons, refuse to follow; shut out these vagabond thoughts and stick to
your task. When intellectual inertia deadens your thought and clogs your
mental stream, throw it off and court forceful effort. If wrong or
impure thoughts seek entrance to your mind, close and lock your mental
doors to them. If thoughts of desire try to drive out thoughts of duty,
be heroic and insist that thoughts of duty shall have right of way. In
short, see that you are the master of your thinking, and do not let it
always be directed without your consent by influences outside of

It is just at this point that the strong will wins victory and the weak
will breaks down. Between the ability to control one's thoughts and the
inability to control them lies all the difference between right actions
and wrong actions; between withstanding temptation and yielding to it;
between an inefficient purposeless life and a life of purpose and
endeavor; between success and failure. For we act in accordance with
those things which our thought rests upon. Suppose two lines of thought
represented by A and B, respectively, lie before you; that A leads
to a course of action difficult or unpleasant, but necessary to success
or duty, and that B leads to a course of action easy or pleasant, but
fatal to success or duty. Which course will you follow--the rugged path
of duty or the easier one of pleasure? The answer depends almost wholly,
if not entirely, on your power of attention. If your will is strong
enough to pull your thoughts away from the fatal but attractive B and
hold them resolutely on the less attractive A, then A will dictate
your course of action, and you will respond to the call for endeavor,
self-denial, and duty; but if your thoughts break away from the
domination of your will and allow the beckoning of your interests
alone, then B will dictate your course of action, and you will follow
the leading of ease and pleasure. For our actions are finally and
irrevocably dictated by the things we think about.

however, from what has been said, that there are really different
kinds of attention. All attention denotes an active or dynamic phase of
consciousness. The difference is rather in the way we secure
attention; whether it is demanded by sudden stimulus, coaxed from us by
interesting objects of thought without effort on our part, or compelled
by force of will to desert the more interesting and take the direction
which we dictate.

Next: Improving The Power Of Attention

Previous: Points Of Failure In Attention

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