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of the will, founded on some feeling of desire or sentiment 1 of duty. It is the act of the will, prompted in general by the feeling of desire or interest, which keeps the mind intense and fixed in its position.
$ 89. Of different degrees of attention. In agreement with this view of the subject, we often speak of attention as great or small, as existing in a very high or a very slight degree. When the view of the mind is only momentary, and is unaccompanied, as it generally is at such times, with any force of emotion or energy of volitive action, then the attention is said to be slight. When, on the contrary, the mind directs itself to an object, or series of objects, with earnestness, and for a considerable length of time, and refuses to attend to anything else, then the attention is said to be intense.
We commonly judge at first of the degree of attention to a subject from the length of time during which the mind is occupied with it. But when we look a little further, it will be found that the time will generally depend upon the strength and permanency of the attendant emotion of interest. And hence, both the time and the degree of feeling are to be regarded in our estimate of the power of attention in any particular case; the former being the result, and, in some sense, a measure of the latter.
Of instances of people who are able to give but slight attention to any subject of thought, who cannot bring their minds to it with steadiness and power, we everywhere find multitudes, and there are some instances where this ability has been possessed in such a high degree as to be worthy of notice. There have been mathematicians who could investigate the most complicated problems amid every variety and character of disturbance. It was said of Julius Cæsar, that, while writing a despatch, he could at the same time dictate four others to his secretaries; and if he did not write himself, could dictate seven letters at once.
The same thing is asserted also of the Emperor Napoleon, who had a wonderful capability of directing his whole mental energy to whatever came before him.*
* Segur's History of the Expedition to Russia, bk. vii., ch. xiii.
$ 90. Dependence of memory on attention. There seems to be no doctrine in mental philosophy more clearly established than this, that memory depends on attention; that is, where attention is very slight, remembrance is weak, and where attention is intense, remembrance continues longer.—There are many facts which confirm this statement.
(1.) In the course of a single day, persons who are in the habit of winking will close their eyelids perhaps thousands of times, and, as often as they close them, will place themselves in utter darkness. Probably they are conscious at the time both of closing their eyelids and of being in the dark; but, as their attention is chiefly taken up with other things, they have entirely forgotten it(2.) Let a person be much engaged in conversation, or occupied with any very interesting speculation, and the clock will strike in the room where he is, apparently without his having any knowledge of it
. He hears the clock strike as much as at any other time, but, not attending to the perception of sound, and having his thoughts directed another way, he immediately forgets.(3.) In the occupations of the day, when a multitude of cares are pressing us on every side, a thousand things escape our notice; they appear to be neither seen nor heard, nor to affect us in any way whatever. But at the stillness of evening, when anxieties and toils are quieted, and there is a general pause in nature, we seem to be endued with a new sense, and the slightest sound attracts our attention. Shakspeare has marked even this.
“ The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark
When neither is attended ; and, I think,
No better a musician than the wren. It is on the same principle that people dwelling in the vicinity of waterfalls do not appear to notice the sound. The residents in the neighbourhood even of the great Cataract of Niagara are not seriously disturbed by it, although it is an unbroken, interminable thunder to all others. The reason in all these cases is the same, as has already been given. There is no attention and no remembrance, and, of course, virtually no perception.
(4.) Whenever we read a book, we do not observe
the words merely as a whole, but every letter of which they are made
up, and even the minute parts of these letters. But it is merely a glance; it does not for any length of time occupy our attention; we immediately forget, and with great difficulty persuade ourselves that we have truly perceived the letters of the word. The fact that every letter is in ordinary cases observed by us, may be proved by leaving out a letter of the word, or by substituting others of a similar form. We readily, in reading, detect such omissions or substitutions.
(5.) An expert accountant can sum up, almost with a single glance of the eye, a long column of figures. The operation is performed almost instantaneously, and yet he ascertains the sum of the whole with unerring certainty. It is impossible that he should learn the sum without noticing every figure in the whole column, and without allowing each its proper worth ; but the attention to them was so very slight, that he is unable to remember this distinct notice.
Many facts of this kind evidently show, as we think, that memory depends upon attention, or rather upon a continuance of attention, and varies with that continuance.
Ø 91. Of exercising attention in reading. If attention, as we have seen, be requisite to memory, then we are furnished with a practical rule of considerable importance. The rule is, Not to give a hasty and careless reading of authors, but read them with a suitable degree of deliberation and thought. If we are asked the reason of this direction, we find a good and satisfactory one in the fact referred to at the head of this section, that there cannot be
memory without attention, or, rather, that the power of memory will vary with the degree of attention. By yielding to the desire of becoming acquainted with a greater variety of departments of knowledge than the understanding is able to master, and, as a necessary consequence, by bestowing upon each of them only a very slight attention, we remain essentially ignorant of the whole. (1.) The
a course finds himself unable to recall what he has been over; he has a great many half-formed notions floating in his mind, but
these are so ill shaped and so little under his control as to be but little better than actual ignorance. This is one evil result of reading authors and of going over sciences in the careless way which has been specified, that the knowledge thus acquired, if it can be called knowledge, is of very little practical benefit, in consequence of being so poorly digested and so little under control.—(2.) But there is another, and perhaps more serious evil. This practice greatly disqualifies one for all intellectual pursuits. To store the mind with new ideas is only a part of education. It is, at least, a matter of equal importance, to impart to all the mental powers a suitable discipline, to exercise those that are strong, to strengthen those that are weak, and to maintain among all of them a suitable balance. An attentive and thorough examination of subjects is a training up of the mind in both these respects. It furnishes it with that species of knowledge which is most valuable, because it is not mixed up with errors; and, moreover, gives a strength and consistency to the whole structure of the intellect. Whereas, when the mind is long left at liberty to wander from object to object, without being called to account and subjected to the rules of salutary discipline, it entirely loses, at last, the ability to dwell upon the subjects of its thoughts, and examine them. And, when this power is once lost, there is but little ground to expect any solid attainments.
$ 92. Alleged inability to command the attention. We are aware that those who, in accordance with these directions, are required to make a close and thorough examination of subjects, will sometimes complain that they find a great obstacle in their inability to fix their attention. They are not wanting in ability to comprehend; but find it difficult to retain the mind in one position so long as to enable them to connect together all the parts of a subject, and duly estimate their various bearings. When this intellectual defect exists, it becomes a new reason for that thorough examination of subjects, which has been above recommended. It has probably been caused by a neglect of such strictness of examination, and by a too rapid and careless transition from one subject to another.
ATTENTION, it will be recollected, expresses the state of the mind when it is steadily directed for some time, whether longer or shorter, to some object of sense or intellect, exclusive of other objects. All other objects are shut out; and when this exclusion of everything else continues for some time, the attention is said to be intense.--Now it is well known that such an exclusive direction of the mind cannot exist for any long period without being accompanied with a feeling of desire or of duty. In the greatest intellectual exertions, not the mere powers of judging, of abstracting, and of reasoning are concerned; there will also be a greater or less movement of the feelings. And it will be found that no feeling will effectually confine the minds of men in scientific pursuits, but a love of the truth.
Mr. Locke thought that the person who should discover a remedy for wandering thoughts would do a great service to the studious and contemplative part of mankind. We know of no other effective remedy than the one just mentioned, A LOVE OF THE TRUTH, a desire to know the nature and relations of things, merely for the sake of knowledge. It is true, that a conviction of duty will do much; ambition and interest may possibly do more; but when the mind is led to deep investigations by these views merely, without finding something beautiful and attractive in the aspect of knowledge itself, it is likely to prove a tiresome process. The excellence of knowledge, therefore, considered merely in the light of its being suited to the intellectual nature of man, the appropriate incentive and reward of intellectual activity, ought to be frequently impressed.—“ I saw D’Alembert,” says a recent writer, “congratulate a young man very coldly who brought him a solution of a problem. The young
man said, I have done this in order to have a seat in the Academy.' “Sir,' answered D'Alembert, ' with such dispositions you never will earn one. Science must be loved for its own sake, and not for the advantage to be derived. No other principle will enable a man to make progress in the sciences ! *
* Memoirs of Montlosier, vol. i., page 58, as quoted in Mackintosh's Ethical Philosophy, sect. vii.