Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter VI


As we have seen in the preceding chapters, before one can expect to recall or remember a thing, that thing must have been impressed upon the records of his subconsciousness, distinctly and clearly. And the main factor of the recording of impressions is that quality of the mind that we call Attention. All the leading authorities on the subject of memory recognize and teach the value of attention in the cultivation and development of the memory. Tupper says: “Memory, the daughter of Attention, is the teeming mother of wisdom.” Lowell says: “Attention is the stuff that Memory is made of, and Memory is accumulated Genius.” Hall says: “In the power of fixing the attention lies the most precious of the intellectual habits.” Locke says: “When the ideas that offer themselves are taken notice of, and, as it were, registered in the memory, it is Attention.” Stewart says: “The permanence of the impression which anything leaves on the memory, is proportionate to the degree of attention which was originally given to it.” Thompson says: “The experiences most permanently impressed upon consciousness are those upon which the greatest amount of attention has been fixed.” Beattie says: “The force wherewith anything strikes the mind is generally in proportion to the degree of attention bestowed upon it. The great art of memory is attention…. Inattentive people have always bad memories.” Kay says: “It is generally held by philosophers that without some degree of attention no impression of any duration could be made on the mind, or laid up in the memory.” Hamilton says: “It is a law of the mind that the intensity of the present consciousness determines the vivacity of the future memory; memory and consciousness are thus in the direct ratio of each other. Vivid consciousness, long memory; faint consciousness, short memory; no consciousness, no memory…. An act of attention, that is an act of concentration, seems thus necessary to every exertion of consciousness, as a certain contraction of the pupil is requisite to every exertion of vision. Attention, then, is to consciousness what the contraction of the pupil is to sight, or to the eye of the mind what the microscope or telescope is to the bodily eye. It constitutes the better half of all intellectual power.”

We have quoted from the above authorities at considerable length, for the purpose of impressing upon your mind the importance of this subject of Attention. The subconscious regions of the mind are the great storehouses of the mental records of impressions from within and without. Its great systems of filing, recording and indexing these records constitute that which we call memory. But before any of this work is possible, impressions must first have been received. And, as you may see from the quotations just given, these impressions depend upon the power of attention given to the things making the impressions. If there has been given great attention, there will be clear and deep impressions; if there has been given but average attention, there will be but average impressions; if there has been given but faint attention, there will be but faint impressions; if there has been given no attention, there will be no records.

One of the most common causes of poor attention is to be found in the lack of interest. We are apt to remember the things in which we have been most interested, because in that outpouring of interest there has been a high degree of attention manifested. A man may have a very poor memory for many things, but when it comes to the things in which his interest is involved he often remembers the most minute details. What is called involuntary attention is that form of attention that follows upon interest, curiosity, or desire–no special effort of the will being required in it. What is called voluntary attention is that form of attention that is bestowed upon objects not necessarily interesting, curious, or attractive–this requires the application of the will, and is a mark of a developed character. Every person has more or less involuntary attention, while but few possess developed voluntary attention. The former is instinctive–the latter comes only by practice and training.

But there is this important point to be remembered, that _interest may be developed by voluntary attention_ bestowed and held upon an object. Things that are originally lacking in sufficient interest to attract the involuntary attention may develop a secondary interest if the voluntary attention be placed upon and held upon them. As Halleck says on this point: “When it is said that attention will not take a firm hold on an uninteresting thing, we must not forget that anyone not shallow and fickle can soon discover something interesting in most objects. Here cultivated minds show their especial superiority, for the attention which they are able to give generally ends in finding a pearl in the most uninteresting looking oyster. When an object necessarily loses interest from one point of view, such minds discover in it new attributes. The essence of genius is to present an old thing in new ways, whether it be some force in nature or some aspect of humanity.”

It is very difficult to teach another person how to cultivate the attention. This because the whole thing consists so largely in the use of the will, and by faithful practice and persistent application. The first requisite is _the determination to use the will_. You must argue it out with yourself, until you become convinced that it is necessary and desirable for you to acquire the art of voluntary attention–you must convince yourself beyond reasonable doubt. This is the first step and one more difficult than it would seem at first sight. The principal difficulty in it lies in the fact that to do the thing you must do some active earnest thinking, and the majority of people are too lazy to indulge in such mental effort. Having mastered this first step, you must induce a strong burning desire to acquire the art of voluntary attention–you must learn to want it hard. In this way you induce a condition of interest and attractiveness where it was previously lacking. Third and last, you must hold your will firmly and persistently to the task, and practice faithfully.

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