Formation of Study Habits
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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