Intimately connected with the object of consciousness is that process of the mind which we call “attention.” Attention is generally defined as “the application of the mind to a mental state.” It is often referred to as “concentrated consciousness,” but others have ventured the somewhat daring conjecture that consciousness itself is rather the result of attention, instead of the latter being an incident of consciousness. We shall not attempt to discuss this question here, except to state that consciousness depends very materially upon the degree of attention bestowed upon its object. The authorities place great importance upon the intelligent direction of the attention, and hold that without this the higher forms of knowledge are impossible.
It is the common belief that we feel, see, hear, taste, or smell whenever objects affecting those senses come in contact with the organs of sense governing them. But this is only a partial truth. The real truth is that we become conscious of the report of these senses only when the attention is directed toward the sensation, voluntarily or involuntarily. That is to say, that in many cases although the sense nerves and organs report a disturbance, the mind does not become consciously aware of the report unless the attention is directed toward it either by an act of will or else by reflex action. For instance, the clock may strike loudly, and yet we may not be conscious of the fact, for we are concentrating our attention upon a book; or we may eat the choicest food without tasting it, for we are listening intently to the conversation of our charming neighbor. We may fail to perceive some startling occurrence happening under our very eyes, for we are buried in deep thought concerning something far removed from the present scene. There are many cases on record showing that one may be so interested in speaking, thinking, or acting that he will not experience pain that would otherwise be intolerable. Writers have forgotten their pain in the concentrated interest bestowed upon their work; mothers have failed to feel pain when their infants required urgent attention; orators have been so carried away by their own eloquence that they have failed to feel the pricking of the pin by means of which their friends have sought to attract their attention. Not only perception and feeling depend largely upon attention, but the processes of reasoning, memory, and even of will, depend upon attention for much of their manifestation.
Psychologists divide attention into two general classes, viz.: (1) voluntary attention and (2) involuntary attention.
Voluntary attention is attention directed by the will to some object of our own more or less deliberate selection. It requires a distinct effort of the will in order to focus the attention in this way, and many persons are scarcely aware of its existence, so seldom do they manifest it. Voluntary attention is the result of training and practice, and marks the man of strong will, concentration, and character. Some authorities go so far as to say that much of that which is commonly called “will power” is really but a developed form of voluntary attention, the man of “strong will” holding before him the one idea which he wishes to realize.
Involuntary attention, often called “reflex attention,” is attention called forth by a nervous response to some sense stimulus. This is the common form of attention, and is but the same form which is so strongly manifested by children whose attention is caught by every new object, but which cannot be held for any length of time by a familiar or uninteresting one.
It is of the utmost importance that one should cultivate his power of voluntary attention. Not only is the will power strengthened and developed in this way, but every mental faculty is developed by reason thereof. The training of the voluntary attention is the first step in mental development.
TRAINING THE ATTENTION.
That the voluntary attention may be deliberately trained and developed is a fact which many of the world’s greatest men have proved for themselves. There is only one way to train and develop any mental power of faculty–and that is _by practice and use_. By practice, interest may be given to objects previously uninteresting, and thus the use of the attention develops the interest which further holds it. Interest is the natural road over which attention travels easily, but interest itself may be induced by concentrated attention. By studying and examining an object, the attention brings to light many new and novel features regarding the thing, and these produce a new interest which in turn attracts further and continued attention.
There is no royal road to the development of voluntary attention. The only true method is _work_, _practice_, _and use_. You must practice on uninteresting things, the primary interest being your desire to develop the power of voluntary attention. But as you begin to attend to the uninteresting thing you will become interested in the task for its own sake. Take some object and “place your mind upon it.” Think of its nature, where it came from, its use, its associations, its probable future, of things related to it, etc., etc. Keep the attention firmly upon it, and shut out all outside ideas. Then, after a little practice of this kind, lay aside the object for the time being, and take it up again the next day, endeavoring to discover new points of interest in it. The main thing to be sought is _to hold the thing in your mind_, and this can be done only by _discovering features of interest in it_. The interest-loving attention may rebel at this task at first, and will seek to wander from the path into the green pastures which are found on each side thereof. But you must bring the mind back to the task, again and again.
After a time the mind will become accustomed to the drill, and will even begin to enjoy it. Give it some variety by occasionally changing the objects of examination. The object need not always be something to be looked at. Instead, select some subject in history or literature, and “run it down,” endeavoring to bring to light all the facts relating to it that are possible to you. _Anything_ may be used as the subject or object of your inquiry; but what is chosen must be held in the field of conscious attention firmly and fixedly. The habit once acquired, you will find the practice most fascinating. You will invent new subjects or objects of inquiry, investigation, and thought, which in themselves will well repay you for your work and time. But never lose sight of the main point–the development of the power of voluntary attention.
In studying the methods of developing and training the voluntary attention, the student should remember that _any_ exercise which develops the will, will result in developing the attention; and, likewise, any exercise which develops the voluntary attention will tend to strengthen the will. The will and attention are so closely bound together that what affects one also influences the other. This fact should be borne in mind, and the exercises and practices based upon it.
In practicing concentration of voluntary attention, it should be remembered that concentrating consists not only of _focusing_ the attention upon a given object or subject, but also of the _shutting out_ of impressions from other objects or subjects. Some authorities advise that the student endeavor to listen to one voice among many, or one instrument among the many of a band or orchestra. Others advise the practice of concentrating on the reading of a book in a room filled by persons engaged in conversation, and similar exercises. Whatever aids in _narrowing the circle_ of attention at a given moment tends to develop the power of voluntary attention.
The study of mathematics and logic is also held to be an excellent practice in concentration of voluntary attention, inasmuch as these studies require close concentration and attention. Attention is also developed by any study or practice which demands _analysis_ of a whole into its parts, and then the _synthesis_ or building up of a whole from its scattered parts. Each of the senses should play a part in the exercises, and in addition to this the mind should be trained to concentrate upon some one idea held within itself–some mental image or abstract idea existing independently of any object of immediate sense report.