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From: How to Use Your Mind

Nearly everyone has difficulty in the concentration of attention. Brain
workers in business and industry, students in high school and college,
and even professors in universities, complain of the same difficulty.
Attention seems in some way to be at the very core of mental activity,
for no matter from what aspect we view the mind, its excellence seems
to depend upon the power to concentrate attention. When we examine a
growing infant, one of the first signs by which we judge the awakening
of intelligence is the power to pay attention or to "notice things."
When we examine the intellectual ability of normal adults we do so by
means of tests that require close concentration of attention. In
judging the intelligence of people with whom we associate every day, we
regard one who is able to maintain close attention for long periods of
time as a person of strong mind. We rate Thomas Edison as a powerful
thinker when we read that he becomes so absorbed in work that he
neither eats nor sleeps. Finally, when we examine the insane and the
feeble-minded, we find that one form which their derangements take is
an inability to control the attention. This evidence, added to our own
experience, shows us the importance of concentration of attention in
study and we become even more desirous of investigating attention to
see how we may develop it.

We shall be better able to discuss attention if we select for analysis
a concrete situation when the mind is in a state of concentrated
attention. Concentrate for a moment upon the letter O. Although you are
ostensibly focussing all your powers of attention upon the letter,
nevertheless you are really aware of a number of things besides: of
other words on the page; of other objects in the field of vision; of
sounds in the room and on the street; of sensations from your clothing;
and of sensations from your bodily organs, such as the heart and lungs.
In addition to these sensations, you will find, if you introspect
carefully enough, that your mind also contains a number of ideas and
imaginings; thoughts about the paragraph you just read or about one of
your lessons. Thus we see that at a time when we apparently focus our
attention upon but one thing, we really have a large number of things
in our mind, and they are of a great variety. The mental field might be
represented by a circle, at the centre of which is the object of
attention. It may be an object in the external world perceived through
one of the senses, or it may be an idea we are thinking about, such,
for example, as the idea of infinity. But whether the thing attended to
is a perception or an idea, we may properly speak of it as the object
of attention or the "focal" object. In addition to this, we must
recognize the presence of a large number of other objects, both sensory
and ideational. These are nearer the margin of the mental field, so we
call them "marginal."

The distinctive thing about a state of mind such as that just described
is that the focal object is much clearer than the marginal objects. For
example, when you fixated the letter O, it was only in the vaguest sort
of fashion that you were aware of the contact of your clothing or the
lurking ideas of other lessons. As we examine these marginal objects
further, we find that they are continually seeking to crowd into the
centre of attention and to become clear. You may be helped in forming a
vivid picture of conditions if you think of the mind as a stream ever
in motion, and as it flows on, the objects in it continually shift
their positions. A cross-section of the stream at any moment may show
the contents of the mind arranged in a particular pattern, but at the
very next moment they may be arranged in a different pattern, another
object occupying the focus, while the previous tenant is pushed to the
margin. Thus we see that it is a tendency of the mind to be forever
changing. If left to itself, it would be in ceaseless fluctuation, the
whim of every passing fancy. This tendency to fluctuate comes with more
or less regularity, some psychologists say every second or two. True,
we do not always yield to the fluctuating tendency, nevertheless we are
recurrently tempted, and we must exercise continuous effort to keep a
particular object at the focus. The power to exert effort and to
regulate the arrangement of our states of mind is the peculiar gift of
man, and is a prime function of education. Viewed in this light, then,
we see that the voluntary focusing of our attention consists in the
selecting of certain objects to be attended to, and the ignoring of
other objects which act as distractions. We may conveniently classify
the latter as external sensations, bodily sensations and irrelevant

Let us take an actual situation that may arise in study and see how
this applies. Suppose you are in your room studying about Charlemagne,
a page of your history text occupying the centre of your attention. The
marginal distractions in such a case would consist, first, in external
sensations, such as the glare from your study-lamp, the hissing of the
radiator, the practising of a neighboring vocalist, the rattle of
passing street-cars. The bodily distractions might consist of
sensations of weariness referred to the back, the arms and the eyes,
and fainter sensations from the digestive organs, heart and lungs. The
irrelevant ideas might consist of thoughts about a German lesson which
you are going to study, visions of a face, or thoughts about some
social engagement. These marginal objects are in the mind even when you
conscientiously focus your mind upon the history lesson, and, though
vague, they try to force their way into the focus and become clear. The
task of paying attention, then, consists in maintaining the desired
object at the centre of the mental field and keeping the distractions
away. With this definition of attention, we see that in order to
increase the effectiveness of attention during study, we must devise
means for overcoming the distractions peculiar to study. Obviously the
first thing is to eliminate every distraction possible. Such a plan of
elimination may require a radical rearrangement of study conditions,
for students often fail to realize how wretched their conditions of
study are from a psychological standpoint. They attempt to study in
rooms with two or three others who talk and move about continually;
they drop down in any spot in the library and expose themselves
needlessly to a great number of distractions. If you wish to become a
good student, you must prepare conditions as favorable as possible for
study. Choose a quiet room to live in, free from distracting sounds and
sights. Have your room at a temperature neither too hot nor too cold;
68 deg. F. is usually considered favorable for study. When reading in the
library, sit down in a quiet spot, with your back to the door, so you
will not be tempted to look up as people enter the room. Do not sit
near a group of gossipers or near a creaking door. Having made the
external conditions favorable for study, you should next address
yourself to the task of eliminating bodily distractions. The most
disturbing of these in study are sensations of fatigue, for, contrary
to the opinion of many people, study is very fatiguing work and
involves continual strain upon the muscles in holding the body still,
particularly those of the back, neck, arms, hands and, above all, the
eyes. How many movements are made by your eyes in the course of an
hour's study! They sweep back and forth across the page incessantly,
being moved by six muscles which are bound to become fatigued. Still
more fatigue comes from the contractions of delicate muscles within the
eyeball, where adjustments are made for far and near vision and for
varying amounts of light. The eyes, then, give rise to much fatigue,
and, altogether, are the source of a great many bodily distractions in

Other distractions may consist of sensations from the clothing. We are
always vaguely aware of pressure of our clothing. Usually it is not
sufficiently noticeable to cause much annoyance, but occasionally it
is, as is demonstrated at night when we take off a shoe with such a
sigh of relief that we realize in retrospect it had been vaguely
troubling us all day.

In trying to create conditions for efficient study, many bodily
distractions can be eliminated. The study chair should be easy to sit
in so as to reduce fatigue of the muscles supporting the body; the
book-rest should be arranged so as to require little effort to hold the
book; the light should come over the left shoulder. This is especially
necessary in writing, so that the writing hand will not cast a shadow
upon the work. The muscles of the eyes will be rested and fatigue will
be retarded if you close the eyes occasionally. Then in order to lessen
the general fatigue of the body, you may find it advantageous to rise
and walk about occasionally. Lastly, the clothing should be loose and
unconfining; especially should there be plenty of room for circulation.

In the overcoming of distractions, we have seen that much may be done
by way of eliminating distractions, and we have pointed out the way to
accomplish this to a certain extent. But in spite of our most careful
provisions, there will still be distractions that cannot be eliminated.
You cannot, for example, chloroform the vocalist in the neighboring
apartment, nor stop the street-cars while you study; you cannot rule
out fatigue sensations entirely, and you cannot build a fence around
the focus of your mind so as to keep out unwelcome and irrelevant
ideas. The only thing to do then is to accept as inevitable the
presence of some distractions, and to realise that to pay attention, it
is necessary to habituate yourself to the ignoring of distractions.

In the accomplishment of this end it will be necessary to apply the
principles of habit formation already described. Start out by making a
strong determination to ignore all distractions. Practise ignoring
them, and do not let a slip occur. Try to develop interest in the
object of attention, because we pay attention to those things in which
we are most interested. A final point that may help you is to use the
first lapse of attention as a reminder of the object you desire to
fixate upon. This may be illustrated by the following example: Suppose,
in studying a history lesson, you come upon a reference to the royal
apparel of Charlemagne. The word "royal" might call up purple, a
Northwestern University pennant, the person who gave it to you, and
before you know it you are off in a long day-dream leading far from the
history lesson. Such migrations as these are very likely to occur in
study, and constitute one of the most treacherous pitfalls of student
life. In trying to avoid them, you must form habits of disregarding
irrelevant ideas when they try to obtrude themselves. And the way to do
this is to school yourself so that the first lapse of attention will
remind you of the lesson in hand. It can be done if you keep yourself
sensitive to wanderings of attention, and let the first slip from the
topic with which you are engaged remind you to pull yourself back. Do
this before you have taken the step that will carry you far away, for
with each step in the series of associations it becomes harder to draw
yourself back into the correct channel.

In reading, one frequent cause for lapses of attention and for the
intrusion of unwelcome ideas is obscurity in the material being read.
If you trace back your lapses of attention, you will often find that
they first occur when the thought becomes difficult to follow, the
sentence ambiguous, or a single word unusual. As a result, the meaning
grows hazy in your mind and you fail to comprehend it. Naturally, then,
you drift into a channel of thought that is easier to follow. This
happens because the mental stream tends to seek channels of least
resistance. If you introspect carefully, you will undoubtedly discover
that many of your annoying lapses of attention can be traced to such
conditions. The obvious remedy is to make sure that you understand
everything as you read. As soon as you feel the thought growing
difficult to follow, begin to exert more effort; consult the dictionary
for the meanings of words you do not understand. Probably the ordinary
freshman in college ought to look up the meaning of as many as twenty
words daily.

Again, the thought may be difficult to follow because your previous
knowledge is deficient; perhaps the discussion involves some fact which
you never did comprehend clearly, and you will naturally fail to
understand something built upon it. If deficiency of knowledge is the
cause of your lapses of attention, the obvious remedy is to turn back
and study the fundamental facts; to lay a firm foundation in your
subjects of study.

This discussion shows that the conditions at time of concentrated
attention are very complex; that the mind is full of a number of
things; that your object as a student is to keep some one thing at the
focus of your mind, and that in doing so you must continuously ignore
other mental contents. In our psychological descriptions we have
implied that the mind stands still at times, permitting us to take a
cross-section and examine it minutely. As a matter of fact, the mind
never stands still. It continually moves along, and at no two moments
is it exactly the same. This results in a condition whereby an idea
which is at one moment at the centre cannot remain there unless it
takes on a slightly different appearance from moment to moment. When
you attempted to fix your attention upon the letter O, you found a
constant tendency to shift the attention, perhaps to a variation in the
intensity of the type or to a flaw in the type or in the paper. In view
of the inevitable nature of these changes, you see that in spite of
your best efforts you cannot expect to maintain any object of study
inflexibly at the centre of attention. The way to do is to manipulate
the object so that it will appear from moment to moment in a slightly
different light. If, for example, you are trying to concentrate upon a
rule of English grammar long enough to memorize it, do not read it over
and over again, depending solely upon repetition. A better way, after
thoroughly comprehending it, is to think about it in several relations;
compare it with other rules, noting points of likeness and difference;
apply it to the construction of a sentence. The essential thing is to
do something with it. Only thus can you keep it in the focus of
attention. This is equivalent to the restatement of another fact
stressed in a previous chapter, namely, that the mind is not a passive
thing that stands still, but an active thing. When you give attention,
you actively select from a number of possible objects one to be clearer
than the rest. This selection requires effort under most conditions of
study, but you may be cheered by the thought that as you develop
interest in the fields of study, and as you develop habits of ignoring
distractions, you will be able to fixate your attention with less and
less effort. A further important fact is that as you develop power to
select objects for the consideration of attention, you develop
simultaneously other mental processes--the ability to memorize, to
economize time and effort and to control future thoughts and actions.
In short, power to concentrate attention means power in all the mental


Exercise I. "Watch a small dot so far away that it can just be seen.
Can you see it all the time? How many times a minute does it come and
go?" Make what inference you can from this regarding the fluctuation of
attention during study.

Exercise 2. What concrete steps will you take in order to accommodate
your study to the fluctuations of attention?

Exercise 3. The next time you have a lapse of attention during study,
retrace your steps of thought, write down the ideas from the last one
in your mind to the one which started the digression. Represent the
digression graphically if you can.

Exercise 4. Make a list of the things that most persistently distract
your attention during study. What specific steps will you take to
eliminate them; to ignore the unavoidable ones?



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