IN the consideration of consciousness, a difference was found in its general aspect according as a number of presentations were loosely scattered about its field or as some one held the mind directed to itself. Consciousness is thus passive or active. Active consciousness is in general attention. It is the act of holding a presentation before the mind. It is in all cases a conscious act. What goes on in the relating of this presentation to others, in their combination, dissolution, arrangement, is clue to the activity of apperception, which is, in a large measure, mechanical and subconscious : but the attention which makes the activity of apperception possible is known at once.

Attention as Mental Energy. The most essential peculiarity of attention s the feeling of expenditure which its exercise occasions in the mental life. Mental exhaustion and fatigue invariably follow a more or less prolonged stretch of the attention. Mental states may play for an indefinite period in consciousness without impairing our mental freshness and vigor, provided the attention is not directed to them. Further, it may be said, indulgence in air-castles, day-dreaming, and rambling meditation, is a means of recovering intellectual freshness after a strong effort of attentive thought. This results from the diffusing of the attention over a very wide field and relaxing control of the flow of ideas.

( 70) This fact in its bearings upon the mental life, as they shall appear in the course of our exposition, leads us to see in attention the only exhibition of mental energy as distinguished from mental states: and in the consciousness of this abiding energy we find the ground of mental unity and personality.

 Reflex or Involuntary Attention. Upon observation of ourselves we find that attention may be stimulated either from some foreign and unexpected source or from the will. A loud noise, a violent contact, a disagreeable odor, at once attract the attention without our volition or even against it. This is reflex or involuntary attention. In the normal state of the consciousness, attention is constantly open to appeals of this kind. Minds with little power of will live under control of such external excitation. The attention is drawn hither and thither in rapid transition with no fixed concentration upon any sensation or idea. In such minds, as we shall see later, the functions of apperception are disturbed, and its products unstable. This state of inability to hold the attention against other solicitations is called distraction : the attention is, as it were, drawn apart in its efforts at adaptation to different conditions.

Another form of involuntary attention is found in cases of insistent ideas.[1] It very frequently occurs in normal life that a single idea, either by reason of a strong association or of a feeling, or because of previous attention, or even in consequence of the very effort of the will to banish it from consciousness, remains before the mind and holds the attention. This is called an insistent or, in its more intense forms, fixed idea. It is generally removed by a change of scene, companions,

( 71) and surroundings, the old association being broken or new ideas claiming the attention. As an idea becomes fixed or imperative, it gathers round it other ideas in growing associations and connections, which soon give a morbid tone to the entire mental life. This is the be-ginning frequently of monomanias and permanent delusions,[2] which become chronic in insanity. Frequently also, it is supposed, the primary tendency to some form of nerve disturbance or brain disease, due to heredity, gives occasion and strength to such derangement.

The mechanical nature of involuntary attention and its intimate relation to all physical and mental states is seen in the acts of a patient in a state of hypnotic hallucination. Here it seems that the element of will is entirely eliminated. The patient has absolutely no control over either body or mind, and any suggestion either physical or mental from the hypnotizer is immediately realized in action. It seems only necessary that the attention should be secured, to start the entire train of apperceptive processes with the physical changes which are associated with them: or a physical attitude or movement may be forced upon the patient, only to be followed by all the emotional and intellectual states it suggests. In these states, the intellectual life seems quite normal and the emotions are very excitable and facile in their play ; but all inner control is lost. Action results with complete necessity. The important fact in this form of hypnotism then seems to be the fixing of an idea till it becomes imperative, with the general subjective state unchanged by the substitution of ideas which it brings about.

Voluntary Attention. In strong opposition to this is voluntary attention or attention proper. It may be defined as a state of active consciousness due to voluntary

( 72) mental exertion or effort. Here a distinctly new element enters into consciousness, mental effort. In voluntary attention we find the first exhibition of will. It is the beginning of all control over the mental life. A thousand things may appeal to me for consideration and I may refuse them my attention. I may give myself to a train of thought and be substantially unconscious of sounds, sights, contacts which would ordinarily excite my attention. It is thus in the familiar condition of abstraction or absent-mindedness. This peculiar outgoing of the self is the something we call consent, in the mental life. From it we first arrive at consciousness of self, by a reference of what we do, to ourselves as doing it. It makes possible, as will appear later, the fixing and connection of ideas in the higher forms of thought.

The frequent or prolonged exercise of attention to the same presentation or idea tends to bring it involuntarily before the mind. Its repetition in varied circumstances establishes various associations by which it may be revived. Insistent and fixed ideas usually become so from voluntary thought upon them—from what we call " brooding " over a subject. Thus the line between reflex—and voluntary attention is changed and much that was before a matter of choice becomes automatic and necessary.


In its relation to the great classes of mental facts, the attention is of the first importance. In general it may be said that attention intensifies a mental state. It may be considered more particularly and in detail.

I. Relation of Attention to Sensation. There is a two-fold or reactive relation between attention and sensation. On the one hand, increased intensity of sensation draws the attention. The change in intensity of the sensation is

( 73) a direct stimulus to the attention, by forcing its appearance in consciousness : and the attention in this case is reflex. On the other hand, attention directed to a sensation increases its intensity. We have already seen that many sensations may he in consciousness almost unfelt, while the attention is otherwise occupied. It is only necessary to direct the attention to them to give them their full force. But more than this, the attention may give them increased and very acute intensity. By fixing the attention upon bruises and burns, we increase the pain they give us. Hence the efforts we make to divert a sick man's attention from the seat of his disease, by fixing his attention on some new artificial sensation, or by interesting him in another topic of conversation. Hot cloths relieve headache, by producing a counter-irritation. This effect of the attention is especially great in nervous diseases. Paralysis has been cured or driven from limb to limb in hypnotic patients by a mere suggestion, which so completely occupied the attention as to induce belief in the effect. So insomnia and some-times dyspepsia and other diseases may be cured.[3]

Attention has an influence also upon the time occupied by a sensation. Experiments show that a certain time is necessary for the feeling of an excitation from any of the sense organs and the reaction in the movement of the organ. This time is greatly reduced when the excitation is expected.[4] A certain time seems to be necessary for the adjustment of the attention to the nature and source of the stimulus, and this is reduced when the idea is present beforehand and the attention is already partially adjusted.

II. Relation of Attention to Movement. The movement of the members of the body is very closely connect-

( 74) -ed. with corresponding ideas. No voluntary movement takes place without its idea in the mind : and often the idea produces the movement without any voluntary impulse or even contrary to it.[5] The imitative faculty of children shows this tendency to carry out all movements thought of. We often find ourselves following the movements of the hands or lips of a speaker with slight movements of our own. It is probable that no word comes into the mind without its partial formation by the vocal chords, as is seen in the movements of the lips by many in reading to themselves and in our thinking aloud. No doubt the physical association involved plays a great rôle in all such cases. The thought of a movement has preceded and led to the movement so often, that there is a positive tendency, at the nervous centres, to the discharge of the energy necessary to the accomplishment of the act, along the proper courses. The act of will, then, seems to be selective and directive of this energy of nervous discharge.

This tendency to movement is greatly increased by the exercise of attention. The attention tends to bring the idea more distinctly before the mind and thus removes all competing ideas which should incite to different movements. This is especially the case when the attention dwells upon the organ or on the thought of movement. There is then a twofold effect due to the attention. It tends to develop latent sensations, as we saw above, in the organ, and these sensations lead to movement for their relief or continuance ; or it produces movement by the distinct purpose to perform an act tin night of. For example, if the picture is vividly presented of a workman who has his thumb crushed by a hammer, we make instinctive movements to protect the thumbs, by folding them in the hands.

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The facts of hypnotic suggestion already spoken of show the automatic connection between an idea strongly attended to and its physical performance. The absence of will does not destroy the power to perform the action, but only the power to prevent or direct it. The consciousness is so contracted in this state that each idea in turn is held in the focus of attention.[6]

III. Relation of Attention to the Intellect. Attention, either voluntary or reflex, is directly involved in the operations of the intellectual functions. It is the merit of the French philosophers of the spiritualistic school to have brought out the fact that volition enters in the most primitive forms of intellectual synthesis.[7] In general, it may be said that attention increases the vividness of representative states and thus renders more definite and lasting the apperceptive activities of synthesis, analysis, relation, as seen in memory, association, judgment, and reasoning. It is necessary, first, to the retention of images. The capacity to retain mental pictures depends upon the intensity of the original presentation, and the clearness of its relations ; and this intensity and clearness are enhanced by the attention. The supply of materials which we have for use in the higher forms of thought depends at once upon our attentiveness to what passes before us in our every-day life. When we wish to retain any event, we press it upon the attention and note its surroundings. Second, attention increases the intensity of the reproduced image in the same way. If we recall the face of a friend, it is, at first, dim and indistinct, but by holding it closely before us and scrutinizing it, we can bring it clearly out in more detail. The attention shifts rapidly from point to point upon the

( 76) image. Third, the duration or time of all mental states, as of simple sensation, is made shorter by attention, as is seen in experiments on the association of ideas and estimation of differences.[8]

In the view of some, the higher processes of the intellect, depending as they do upon the active principle of attention, are forms of the activity of attention.[9] So Pref. Wundt in his doctrine of apperception as a relating activity, which is at once a form of will. It cannot be doubted that it is only in and through attention that mental synthesis and elaboration take place, yet it seems truer to the facts to separate voluntary attention from this process. Apperception can then be used for the generic activities of synthesis and relation, which take place through either reflex or voluntary attention. Wundt fails to discriminate sufficiently between reflex and voluntary attention in his doctrine of apperception.[10]

IV. Relation of Attention to Feeling.[11] Attention has the same intensifying influence upon the affective states in general as upon sensation. Emotion is heightened when the attention is directed to it. Hope, joy, fear, anger, grow very greatly in intensity when thought of, and as quickly die down when dismissed from the attention. With the higher emotions it is very difficult to control the attention, so thoroughly do they usurp the field of consciousness. So, also, pleasure and pain, called the tone of feeling, are increased by being attended to and diminished when the attention is withdrawn.

The especial relation existing between the attention and the feeling of interest has often been remarked by psychologists. This feeling of interest is often akin to that of personal advantage or individual preference, which we find playing an important part in the flow of our associated ideas. It gives a spontaneousness and

( 77) ease to the attention which renders the latter more effective and less wearisome to the inner life. Attention to that which interests us does not demand the outgo of mental effort.

V. Relation of Attention to the Bodily Functions. Attention long directed tends to derange the automatic functions of the body. The automatic functions are those which go on unconsciously to ourselves. The action of the heart is accelerated by being closely attended to. The digestive apparatus may be deranged by being watched, and so also may the breathing process. Attention is also accompanied by certain attitudes of the body, such as turning the ear or eye in a given direction, bending forward, frowning, and other muscular contractions. A feeling of tension also is felt in the end organ. This tends to show that it is the motor elements of the brain which are involved in attention, while the effect it works upon the sensation shows a sensory modification following upon the other.[12]


Training of the Attention. The considerations al-ready advanced tend to show the importance of the attention in education. The secret of the case rests upon making attention completely voluntary. Strength of thought depends very largely upon the voluntary control or concentration of attention, in such a way as to pre-vent distraction from accidental and unexpected influences. This training of the attention should begin at the earliest possible period. The child should be taught to observe continuously some thing that interests him,

( 78) and encouraged to ask questions about objects and their relations. In very early life these things should be left to his own selection, until the laws of apperceptive synthesis are developed, that is, until he learns somewhat to connect things and events and see their bearings. Otherwise the forcing of the will may interfere with the development of the emotions, which are then the control-ling factor. But as soon as practicable, the teacher should attract and hold the child's attention, at first to pleasant things and afterward to indifferent things. Great care should be exercised in the general surroundings. All distractions, such as open windows, pet animals, play-things, should be guarded against : they practically call upon the child to attend to several things at once. Care should be taken also not to fatigue the attention. The periods of study had better be too short than too long ; for if the child grows tired, the effort becomes painful and the subject distasteful. Frequent recesses should be given and recitations should not be longer than fifteen to twenty minutes, for children under twelve to four-teen years of age. The child's interest should never be allowed to flag.

Habits of Attention. In this way regular habits of attention may be formed very early, which have the same force in life as all other habits. Attention thus becomes application, which is voluntary and agreeable : and with this basis the student has no trouble in devoting himself to subjects of thought for longer periods.

A caution is perhaps in order, as to sameness in the kinds of instruction given in early life. It is well that the same general cast of thought should not engage too much of the early attention of the student. It gives a bent to all his subsequent development. John Stuart Mill is a good example of this. It is especially dangerous when it involves the emotional side of our nature.

( 79) Religious teachers use this fact not only properly to instruct in morality and religion, but also to excite early prejudices and repulsions which can never be shaken off. Nurses often give children associations of fear which persist through life. This is the origin, frequently, of the insistent ideas spoken of, which intrude themselves upon us and make many of us to a degree hobbyists and monomaniacs.

Attention Necessary to Apperception. As will appear later, it is only in and through the attention that the apperceptive function of mind comes into play. In its discriminating, selecting, and relating results, the concentration of attention is called apperception ; but the active forceful process which produces these results is the attention. Attention and apperception seem to be the subjective and presentational sides respectively of the same mental fact.

On the attention, consult : Wundt, Physiologische Psychologie, II. p. 205 ; Carpenter, Mental Physiology, eh. iii ; George, Psychologie, pp. 84 and 538—542 ; Waitz, Lehrbuch c. Psychologie, § 55 ; Hickok, Mental Science, pp. 66—72; Fortlage, System el. Psychologie, p. 100 and §§ 46—47 ; Ribot, Psychologie de l'Attention; Obersteiner, Brain, I. p. 439; Cappie, Brain, Ix. p. 196 ; Sully, Outlines of Psychology, ch. iv ; Dewey, Psychology, ch. Iv. § 5 and his references, pp. 154—5 ; Ladd, Phys. Psychology, pp. 538—42 ; Stewart, Philosophy of the Human Mind, pt. 1, ch. II ; Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind, 3d series, p. 184 ; Bradley, Mind, July, 1886.

On apperception : Waitz, Grundlegung d. Psych., p. 77 ; Wundt, loc. cit. ch. xvi, and Logik, I, pt. 1, ch. n ; Erdmann, Vierteljahrschrift far wissenschaftliche Philosophie, x. p. 320 ; Lange, Philosophische Studien, Iv. 3 ; Dewey, Psychology, pp. 85—90 ; Ribot, German Psychology, p. 220 ; Lotze, Metaphysic, bk. 3, ch. III ; Staude, Philosophische Studien, i. p. 149 ; Volkmann, Lehrbuch c. Psychologie, §§ 110—114.

Further Problems for Study :

Physical accompaniments of attention ;
Affective or emotional basis of attention ;
Accommodation of the attention to its object ;
Relation of voluntary attention to will.


  1. Called in German Zwangvorstellung : from Krafft-Ebing. See art. on Attention by Ribot, Revue Philosophique, Feb. '88. Cf. George, Lehrbuch d. Psychologie, p. 874 and fol.
  2. See case described by Cowles, Amer. Jour. of Psych., Feb. '88.
  3. See Albert, Beitrag zur therapeutischen Verwerthung des Hypnotismus, and Amer. Jour. of Psychol., II. 2, sect. on Hypnotism.
  4. For details, see section on Psychometry (Chap. VII, § 6).
  5. Féré claims that every sensory excitation at first induces an augmentation of motive force which is measurable on the dynamometer.
  6. On the motor accompaniments of attention, and its affective bases, see Ribot, Psychologie de l'Attention.
  7. Cf. Part IV, on the Will.
  8. See Chap. VII, § 6.
  9. See Lotze, Metaph., § 273.
  10. Cf. Volkmann, Psych., pp. 191-2.
  11. Attention as a form of will is treated under Will.
  12. Cf. Ladd, Phys. Psychology, pp. 538 and 542, and Wundt, Ibid., ii. p. 210.
  13. Cf. Sully, Outlines of Psychology, p. 103.

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