By giving a concentrated Voluntary Attention to an object, we not only are able to see and think about it with the greatest possible degree of clearness, but the mind has a tendency, under such circumstances, to bring into the field of consciousness all the different ideas associated in our memory with that object or subject, and to build around the object or subject a mass of associated facts and information. And at the same time the Attention given the subject makes more vivid and clear all that we learn about the thing at the time, and, in fact, all that we may afterwards learn about it. It seems to cut a channel, through which knowledge flows.
Attention magnifies and increases the powers of perception, and greatly aids the exercise of the perceptive faculties. By “paying attention” to something seen or heard, one is enabled to observe the details of the thing seen or heard, and where the inattentive mind acquires say three impressions the attentive mind absorbs three times three, or perhaps three times “three times three,” or twenty-seven. And, as we have just said, Attention brings into play the powers of association, and gives us the “loose end” of an almost infinite chain of associated facts, stored away in our memory, forming new combinations of facts which we had never grouped together before, and bring out into the field of consciousness all the many scraps of information regarding the thing to which we are giving attention. The proof of this is within the experience of everyone. Where is the one who does not remember sitting down to some writing, painting, reading, etc., with interest and attention, and finding, much to his surprise, what a flow of facts regarding the matter in hand was passing through his mind.
Attention seems to focus all the knowledge of a thing that you possess, and by bringing it to a point enables you to combine, associate, classify, etc., and thus create new knowledge. Gibbon tells us that after he gave a brief glance and consideration to a new subject, he suspended further work upon it, and allowed his mind (under concentrated attention) to bring forth all his associated knowledge regarding the subject, after which he renewed the task with increased power and efficiency.
The more one’s attention is fixed upon a subject under consideration, the deeper is the impression which the subject leaves upon the mind. And the easier will it be for him to afterwards pursue the same train of thought and work.
Attention is a prerequisite of good memory, and in fact there can be no memory at all unless some degree of attention is given. The degree of memory depends upon the degree of attention and interest. And when it is considered that the work of today is made efficient by the memory of things learned yesterday, the day before yesterday, and so on, it is seen that the degree of attention given today regulates the quality of the work of tomorrow.
Some authorities have described Genius as the result of great powers of attention, or, at least, that the two seem to run together. Some writer has said that “possibly the best definition of genius is the power of concentrating upon some one given subject until its possibilities are exhausted and absorbed.” Simpson has said that “The power and habit of thinking closely and continuously upon the subject at hand, to the exclusion, for the time, of all other subjects, is one of the principal, if, indeed, not the principal, means of success.” Sir Isaac Newton has told us his plan of absorbing information and knowledge. He has stated that he would keep the subject under consideration before him continually, and then would wait till the first dawning of perception gradually brightened into a clear light, little by little. A mental sunrise, in fact.
That sage observer, Dr. Abercrombie, has written that he considered that he knew of no more important rule for rising to eminence in any profession or occupation than the Ability to do one thing at a time, avoiding all distracting and diverting objects or subjects, and keeping the leading matter continually before the mind. And others have added that such a course will enable one to observe relations between the subject and other things that will not be apparent to the careless observer or student.
The degree of Attention cultivated by a man is the degree of his capacity for intellectual work. As we have said, the “great” men of all walks of life have developed this faculty to a wonderful degree, and many of them seem to get results “intuitively,” whereas, in truth, they obtain them by reason of their concentrated power of Attention, which enables them to see right into the center of a subject or proposition–and all around it, back and front, and all sides, in a space of time incredible to the man who has not cultivated this mighty power. Men who have devoted much attention to some special line of work or research, are able to act almost as if they possessed “second sight,” providing the subject is within their favorite field of endeavor. Attention quickens every one of the faculties–the reasoning faculties–the senses–the deriding qualities–the analytical faculties, and so on, each being given a “fine edge” by their use under a concentrated Attention.
And, on the other hand, there is no surer indication of a weak mind than the deficiency in Attention. This weakness may arise from illness or physical weakness reacting upon the brain, in which case the trouble is but temporary. Or it may arise from a lack of mental development. Imbeciles and idiots have little or no Attention. The great French psychologist, Luys, speaking of this fact, says “Imbeciles and idiots see badly, hear badly, feel badly, and their sensorium is, in consequence, in a similar condition of sensitive poverty. Its impressionability for the things of the external world is at a minimum, its sensibility weak, and consequently, it is difficult to provoke the physiological condition necessary for the absorption of the external impression.”
In old age the Attention is the first faculty to show signs of decay. Some authorities have held that the Memory was the first faculty to be affected by the approach of old age, but this is incorrect, for it is a matter of common experience that the aged manifest a wonderfully clear memory of events occurring in the far past. The reason that their memory of recent events is so poor is because their failing powers of Attention has prevented them from receiving strong, clear mental impressions, and as is the impression so is the memory. Their early impressions having been clear and strong, are easily recalled, while their later ones, being weak, are recalled with difficulty. If the Memory were at fault, it would be difficult for them to recall any impression, recent or far distant in time.