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 focusing 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 ideas.
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 practicing 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; 68Â° 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 study.
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 realize 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 processes.