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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

f 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.