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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

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.