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From: How to Use Your Mind

As already intimated, this book adopts the view that education is a
process of forming habits in the brain. In the formation of habits
there are several principles that must be observed. Accordingly we
shall devote a chapter to the consideration of habits in general before
discussing the specific habits involved in various kinds of study.

Habit may be defined roughly as the tendency to act time after time in
the same way. Thus defined, you see that the force of habit extends
throughout the entire universe. It is a habit for the earth to revolve
on its axis once every twenty-four hours and to encircle the sun once
every year. When a pencil falls from your hand it has a habit of
dropping to the floor. A piece of paper once folded tends to crease in
the same place. These are examples of the force of habit in nonliving
matter. Living matter shows its power even more clearly. If you assume
a petulant expression for some time, it gets fixed and the expression
becomes habitual. The hair may be trained to lie this way or that.
These are examples of habit in living tissue. But there is one
particular form of living tissue which is most susceptible to habit;
that is nerve tissue. Let us review briefly the facts which underlie
this characteristic. In nerve tissue, impressibility, conductivity and
modifiability are developed to a marked degree. The nerve-cells in the
sense organs are impressed by stimulations from the outside world. The
nervous current thus generated is conducted over long nerve fibers,
through the spinal cord to the brain where it is received and we
experience a sensation. Thence it pushes on, over association neurones
in the brain to motor neurones, over which it passes down the spinal
cord again to muscles, and ends in some movement. In the pathway which
it traverses it leaves its impression, and, thereafter, when the first
neurone is excited, the nervous current tends to take the same pathway
and to end in the same movement.

It should be emphasized that the nervous current, once started, always
tends to seek outlet in movement. This is an extremely important
feature of neural action, and, as will be shown in another chapter, is
a vital factor in study. Movement may be started by the stimulation of
a sense organ or by an idea. In the latter case it starts from regions
in the brain without the immediately preceding stimulation of a sense
organ. Howsoever it starts you may be sure that it seeks a way out, and
prefers pathways already traversed. Hence you see you are bound to have
habits. They will develop whether you wish them or not. Already you are
"a bundle of habits"; they manifest themselves in two ways--as habits
of action and habits of thought. You illustrate the first every time
you tie your shoes or sign your name. To illustrate the second, I need
only ask you to supply the end of this sentence: Columbus discovered
America in----. Speech reveals many of these habits of thought. Certain
phrases persist in the mind as habits so that when the phrase is once
begun, you proceed habitually with the rest of it. When some one starts
"in spite," your mind goes on to think "of"; "more or" calls up "less."
When I ask you what word is called up by "black," you reply "white"
according to the principles of mental habit. Your mind is arranged in
such habitual patterns, and from these examples you readily see that a
large part of what you do and think during the course of twenty-four
hours is habitual. Twenty years hence you will be even more bound by
this overpowering despot.

Our acts our angels are, or good, or ill,
Our constant shadows that walk with us still.

Since you cannot avoid forming habits, how important it is that you
seek to form those that are useful and desirable. In acquiring them,
there are several general principles deducible from the facts of
nervous action. The first is: Guard the pathways leading to the brain.
Nerve tissue is impressible and everything that touches it leaves an
ineradicable trace. You can control your habits to some extent, then,
by observing caution in permitting things to impress you. Many
unfortunate habits of study arise from neglect of this. The habit of
using a "pony," for example, arises when one permits oneself to depend
upon a group of English words in translating from a foreign language.

Nerve pathways should then be guarded with respect to _what_ enters.
They should also be guarded with respect to the _way_ things enter.
Remember, as the first pathway is cut, subsequent nervous currents will
be directed. Consequently if you make a wrong pathway, you will have
trouble undoing it.

Another maxim which will obviously prevent undesirable pathways is, go
slowly at first. This is an important principle in all learning. If,
when trying to learn the date 1453, you carelessly impress it first as
1435, you are likely to have trouble ever after in remembering which is
right, 1453 or 1435. As you value your intellectual salvation, then, go
slowly in making the first impression and be sure it is right. The next
rule is: Guard the exits of the nervous currents. That is, watch the
movements you make in response to impressions and ideas. This is
necessary because the nervous current pushes on past obstructions,
through areas in the brain, until it ends in some form of movement, and
in finding the way out, it seeks those pathways that have been most
frequently travelled. In study, it usually takes the form of movements
of speech or writing. You will need to guard this part of the process
just as you did the incoming pathway You must see that the movement is
made which you wish to build into a habit. In learning the
pronunciation of a foreign word, for example, see that your first
pronunciation of it is absolutely right. When learning to typewrite
see that you always hit the right key during the early trials. The
point of exit of a nervous current is the point also where precautions
are to be taken in developing good form. The path should be the
shortest possible, involving only those muscles that are absolutely
necessary. This makes for economy of effort.

The third general principle to be kept in mind is that habits are most
easily formed in youth, for this is the period when nerve tissue is
most easily impressed and modified. With respect to habit formation,
then, you see that youth is the time when emphasis should be laid upon
the formation of as many useful habits as possible. The world
recognizes this to some extent and society is so organized that the
youth of the race are given leisure and protection so that they may
form useful habits. The world asks nothing of you during the next four
years except that you develop yourself and form useful habits which
will enable you in later life to take your place as a useful and stable
member of society.

In addition to the principles just discussed, there are a number of
other maxims which have been laid down as guides in the formation of
new habits. The first is, _make an assertion of will_. Vow to yourself
that you will form the habit, and keep that resolve ever before you.

The second maxim is, _make an emphatic start._ Surround yourself with
every aid possible. Make it easy at first to perform the act and
difficult not to perform it. For example, if you desire to form the
habit of arising at six every morning, surround yourself with a number
of aids. Buy an alarm clock, and tell some one of your decision. Such
efforts at the start "will give your new beginning such a momentum that
the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise
might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the
chances of its not occurring at all." Man has discovered the value of
such devices during the course of his long history, and has evolved
customs accordingly. When men decide to swear off smoking, they choose
the opening of a new year when many other new things are being started;
they make solemn promises to themselves, to each other, and finally to
their friends. Such customs are precautions which help to bolster up
the determination at the time when extraordinary effort and
determination are required. In forming the habits incidental to college
life, take pains from the start to surround yourself with as many aids
as possible. This will not constitute a confession of weakness. It is
only a wise and natural precaution which the whole experience of the
race has justified. The third maxim is, _never permit an exception to
occur_. Suppose you have a habit of saying "aint" which you wish to
replace with a habit of saying "isn't." If the habit is deeply rooted,
you have worn a pathway in the brain to a considerable depth,
represented in the accompanying diagram by the line _A X B_.


/ \

Let us suppose that you have already started the new habit, and have said
the correct word ten times. That means you have worn another pathway
_A X C_ to a considerable depth. During all this time, however, the old
pathway is still open and at the slightest provocation will attract the
nervous current. Your task is to deepen the new path so that the nervous
current will flow into it instead of the old. Now suppose you make an
exception on some occasion and allow the nervous current to travel over
the old path. This unfortunate exception breaks down the bridge which
you had constructed at _X_ from _A_ to _C_. But this is not the only
result. The nervous current, as it revisits the old path, deepens it
more than it was before, so the next time a similar situation arises,
the current seeks the old path with much greater readiness than before,
and vastly more effort is required to overcome it. Some one has likened
the effect of these exceptions to that produced when one drops a ball
of string that is partially wound. By a single slip, more is undone
than can be accomplished in a dozen windings.

The fourth maxim is, _seize every opportunity to act upon your
resolution_. The reason for this will be understood better if you keep
in mind the fact, stated before, that nervous currents once started,
whether from a sense-organ or from a brain-center, always tend to seek
egress in movement. These outgoing nervous currents leave an imprint
upon the modifiable nerve tissues as inevitably as do incoming
impressions. Therefore, if you wish your resolves to be firmly fixed,
you should act upon them speedily and often. "It is not in the moment
of their forming, but in the moment of their producing _motor effects_,
that resolves and aspirations communicate the new 'set' to the brain."
"No matter how full a reservoir of _maxims_ one may possess, and no
matter how good one's _sentiments_ may be, if one has not taken
advantage of every concrete opportunity to _act_, one's character may
remain entirely unaffected for the better." Particularly at time of
emotional excitement one makes resolves that are very good, and a glow
of fine feeling is present. Beware that these resolves do not evaporate
in mere feeling. They should be crystallized in some form of action as
soon as possible. "Let the expression be the least thing in the
world--speaking genially to one's grandmother, or giving up one's seat
in a ... car, if nothing more heroic offers--but let it not fail to take
place." Strictly speaking you have not really completed a resolve until
you have acted upon it. You may determine to go without lunch, but you
have not consummated that resolve until you have permitted it to
express itself by carrying you past the door of the dining-room. That
is the crucial test which determines the strength of your resolve. Many
repetitions will be required before a pathway is worn deep enough to be
settled. Seize the very earliest opportunity to begin grooving it out,
and seize every other opportunity for deepening it.

After this view of the place in your life occupied by habit, you
readily see its far-reaching possibilities for welfare of body and
mind. Its most obvious, because most annoying, effects are on the side
of its disadvantages. Bad habits secure a grip upon us that we are
sometimes powerless to shake off. True, this ineradicableness need have
no terrors if we have formed good habits. Indeed, as will be pointed
out in the next paragraph, habit may be a great asset. Nevertheless, it
may work positive harm, or at best, may lead to stagnation. The
fixedness of habit tends to make us move in ruts unless we exert
continuous effort to learn new things. If we permit ourselves to move
in old grooves we cease to progress and become "old fogy."

But the advantages of habit far outweigh its disadvantages. Habit helps
the individual to be consistent and helps people to know what to expect
from one. It helps society to be stable, to incorporate within itself
modes of action conducive to the common good. For example, the respect
which we all have for the property of others is a habit, and is so
firmly intrenched that we should find ourselves unable to steal if we
wished to. Habit is thus a very desirable asset and is truly called the
"enormous fly-wheel of society."

A second advantage of habit is that it makes for accuracy. Acts that
have become habitualized are performed more accurately than those not
habitualized. Movements such as those made in typewriting and
piano-playing, when measured in the psychological laboratory, are found
to copy each other with extreme fidelity. The human body is a machine
which may be adjusted to a high degree of nicety, and habit is the
mechanism by which this adjustment is made.

A third advantage is that a stock of habits makes life easier. "There
is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual
but indecision, for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of
every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day and the
beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional
deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding or
regretting of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as
practically not to exist for his consciousness at all." Have you ever
reflected how miserable you would be and what a task living would be if
you had to learn to write anew every morning when you go to class; or
if you had to relearn how to tie your necktie every day? The burden of
living would be intolerable.

The last advantage to be discerned in habit is economy. Habitual acts
do not have to be actively directed by consciousness. While they are
being performed, consciousness may be otherwise engaged. "The more of
the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless
custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set
free for their own proper work." While you are brushing your hair or
tying your shoes, your mind may be engaged in memorizing poetry or
calculating arithmetical problems. Habit is thus a great economizer.

The ethical consequences of habit are so striking that before leaving
the subject we must give them acknowledgment. We can do no better than
to turn to the statement by Professor James, whose wise remarks upon
the subject have not been improved upon:

"The physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful
ally of hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which
theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this
world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could
the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of
habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic
state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be
undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its
never-so-little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson's play,
excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, 'I won't count
this time!' Well! he may not count it and a kind heaven may not count
it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells
and fibers the molecules are counting it, registering it, and storing
it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we
ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out. Of course this
has its good side as well as its bad one. As we become permanent
drunkards by so many drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and
authorities and experts in the practical and scientific, spheres, by so
many separate acts and hours of work. But let no youth have any anxiety
about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If
he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely
leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count
on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent
ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he has singled out.
Silently, between all the details of his business, the _power of
judging_ in all that class of matter will have built itself up within
him as a possession that will never pass away. Young people should know
the truth of this in advance. The ignorance of it has probably
engendered more discouragement and faintheartedness in youths embarking
on arduous careers than all other causes put together."


Exercise 1. Point out an undesirable habit that you are determined to
eradicate. Describe the desirable habit which you will adopt in its
place. Give the concrete steps you will take in forming the new habit.
How long a time do you estimate will be required for the formation of
the new habit? Mark down the date and refer back to it when you have
formed the habit, to see how accurately you estimated.



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