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?