Thought-Culture or Practical Mental Training

VI. The degree of attention possessed by an individual is an indication of his power of using his intellect. Many authorities have held that, in cases of genius, the power of concentrated attention is usually greatly developed. Brooks says: “Attention is one of the principal elements of genius.” Hamilton says: “Genius is a higher capacity of attention.” Helvetius says: “Genius is nothing but protracted attention.” Chesterfield says: “The power of applying our attention, steady and undissipated, to a single object is a sure mark of superior genius.”

The attention may be cultivated, just as may be the various faculties of the mind, by the two-fold method of Exercise and Nourishment; that is, by using and employing it actively and by furnishing it with the proper materials with which to feed its strength. The way to exercise the attention is _to use it frequently_ in every-day life. If you are listening to a man speaking, endeavor to give to him your undivided attention, and, at the same time, to shut out from your consciousness every other object. In working, we should endeavor to use the attention by concentrating our interest upon the particular task before us to the exclusion of all else. In reading, we should endeavor to hold our minds closely to the text instead of hastily glancing over the page as so many do.

Those who wish to cultivate their attention should take up some line of study in which it is necessary to fasten the attention firmly for a time. A half-hour’s study in this way is worth more than hours of careless reading so far as the cultivation of the attention is concerned. Mathematics is most valuable in the direction of developing the power of attention. Gibbon says: “After a rapid glance on the subject and distribution of a new book, I suspend the reading of it which I only resume after having myself examined the subject in all its relations.”

Some writers have held that the attention may be developed by the practice of selecting the voice of one person speaking among a crowd of speakers, and deliberately shutting out the other sounds, giving the whole attention to the particular speaker; or, in the same manner, selecting one singer in a church choir or band of singers; or one musical instrument in an orchestra; or one piece of machinery making sounds in a room filled with various machines, etc. The practice of so doing is held to strengthen one’s powers of concentration and attention.

Draper says: “Although many images may be simultaneously existing upon the retina, the mind possesses the power of singling out any one of them and fastening attention upon it, just as among a number of musical instruments simultaneously played, one, and that perhaps the feeblest, may be selected and its notes exclusively followed.” And as Taylor says: “In a concert of several voices, the voices being of nearly equal intensity, regarded merely as organic impressions on the auditory nerve, we select one, and at will we lift out and disjoin it from the general volume of sound; we shut off the other voices–five, ten and more–and follow this one alone. When we have done so for a time, we freely cast it off and take up another.” Carpenter says: “The more completely the mental energy can be brought into one focus and all distracting objects excluded, the more powerful will be the volitional effort.”

Many authorities hold that the attention may be best applied and exercised by analyzing an object mentally, and then considering its parts one by one by a process of abstraction. Thus, as Kays says: “An apple presents to us form, color, taste, smell, etc., and if we would obtain a clear idea of any one of these, we must contemplate it by itself and compare it with other impressions of the same kind we have previously experienced. So in viewing a landscape, it is not enough to regard it merely as a whole, but we must regard each of its different parts individually by itself if we would obtain a clear idea of it. We can only obtain a full and complete knowledge of an object _by analyzing it and concentrating the attention upon its different parts, one by one_.” Reid says: “It is not by the senses immediately, but rather by the power of _analyzing and abstraction_, that we get the most simple and the most distinct notions of objects of sense.” And, as Brown says: “It is scarcely possible to advance even a single step in intellectual physics without the necessity of performing _some sort of analysis_.” In all processes requiring analysis and examination of parts, properties or qualities, the attention is actively employed. Accordingly, it follows that such exercises are best adapted to the work of developing and cultivating the attention itself. Therefore, as a parting word we may say: _To develop and cultivate the power of attention and concentration, (1) Analyze; (2) Analyze; and (3) Analyze. Analyze everything and everybody with which or whom you come in contact._ There is no better or shorter rule.

The student will also find that the various directions and the advice which we shall give in the succeeding chapters, regarding the cultivation of the various faculties, are also adapted to the development of the attention, for the latter is brought into active play in them. And, likewise, by developing the attention, one may practice the future exercises with greater effect.