Thought-Culture or Practical Mental Training

The majority of persons are very careless observers. They will _see_ things without _perceiving_ the qualities, properties, characteristics, or parts which together make up those things. Two persons, possessed of equal degrees of eyesight, will walk through a forest. Both of them will _see_ trees. To one of them there will be but trees perceived; while to the other there will be a perception of the different species of trees, with their varying bark, leaves, shape, etc. One perceives simply a “pile of stone,” which to the perception of another will be recognized as granite, marble, etc. Brooks says: “Very few persons can tell the difference between the number of legs of a fly and of a spider; and I have known farmers’ boys and girls who could not tell whether the ears of a cow are in front of her horns, above her horns, below her horns, or behind her horns.” Halleck says of a test in a schoolroom: “Fifteen pupils were sure that they had seen cats climb trees and descend them. There was a unanimity of opinion that the cats went up head first. When asked whether the cats came down head or tail first, the majority were sure that the cats descended as they were never known to do. Anyone who had ever noticed the shape of the claws of any beast of prey could have answered that question without seeing an actual descent. Farmers’ boys, who have often seen cows and horses lie down and rise, are seldom sure whether the animals rise with their fore or hind feet first, or whether the habit of the horse agrees with that of the cow in this respect.”

Brooks well says: “Modern education tends to the neglect of the culture of the perceptive powers. In ancient times people studied nature much more than at present. Being without books, they were compelled to depend upon their eyes and ears for knowledge; and this made their senses active, searching and exact. At the present day, we study books for a knowledge of external things; and we study them too much or too exclusively, and thus neglect the cultivation of the senses. We get our knowledge of the material world second-hand, instead of fresh from the open pages of the book of nature. Is it not a great mistake to spend so much time in school and yet not know the difference between the leaf of a beech and of an oak; or not be able to distinguish between specimens of marble, quartz, and granite? The neglect of the culture of the perceptive powers is shown by the scholars of the present time. Very few educated men are good observers; indeed, the most of them are sadly deficient in this respect…. They were taught to think and remember; but were not taught to use their eyes and ears. In modern education, books are used too much like spectacles, and the result is the blunting of the natural powers of perception.”

The first principle in the Cultivation of Perception is the correct use of the Attention. The intelligent control of voluntary attention is a prerequisite to clear and distinct perception. We have called your attention to this matter in the preceding chapter. Halleck says: “A body may be imaged on the retina without insuring perception. There must be an effort to concentrate the attention upon the many things which the world presents to our senses…. Perception, to achieve satisfactory results, must summon the will to its aid to concentrate the attention. Only the smallest part of what falls upon our senses at any time is actually perceived.”

The sense of sight is perhaps the one of the greatest importance to us, and accordingly the cultivation of Perception with regard to impressions received through the eye is the most important for the ordinary individual. As Kay says: “To see clearly is a valuable aid even to thinking clearly. In all our mental operations we owe much to sight. To recollect, to think, to imagine, is to see internally,–to call up more or less visual images of things before the mind. In order to understand a thing it is generally necessary to see it, and what a man has not seen he cannot properly realize or image distinctly to his mind…. It is by the habitual direction of our attention to the effects produced upon our consciousness by the impressions made upon the eye and transmitted to the sensorium that our sight, like our other senses, is trained.” Bain says: “Cohering trains and aggregates of the sensations of sight make more than any other thing, perhaps more than all other things put together, the material of thought, memory and imagination.” Vinet says: “The child, and perhaps the man as well, only knows well what is shown him, and the image of things is the true medium between their abstract idea and his personal experience.” This being the case, advice concerning the Cultivation of Perception must needs be directed mainly to the cultivation of the perception of sight-impressions.

Brooks says: “We should acquire the habit of observing with attention. Many persons look at objects with a careless, inattentive eye. We should guard against the habit of careless looking. We should fix the mind upon the object before us; we should concentrate the attention upon that upon which we are looking. Attention, in respect to Perception, has been compared to a burning glass; hold the sun-glass between the sun and a board and the concentrated rays will burn a hole through the latter. So attention concentrates the rays of perceptive power and enables the mind to penetrate below the surface of things.”