There are two general kinds of Attention. The first is the Attention directed within the mind upon mental objects and concepts. The other is the Attention directed outward upon objects external to ourselves. The same general rules and laws apply to both equally.
Likewise there may be drawn another distinction and division of attention into two classes, viz., Attenion attracted by some impression coming into consciousness without any conscious effort of the Will–this is called Involuntary Attention, for the Attention and Interest is caught by the attractiveness or novelty of the object. Attention directed to some object by an effort of the Will, is called Voluntary Attention. Involuntary Attention is quite common, and requires no special training. In fact, the lower animals, and young children seem to have a greater share of it than do adult men.
A great percentage of men and women never get beyond this stage to any marked degree. On the other hand, Voluntary Attention requires effort, will, and determination–a certain mental training, that is beyond the majority of people, for they will not “take the trouble” to direct their attention in this way. Voluntary Attention is the mark of the student and other thoughtful men. They focus their minds on objects that do not yield immediate interest or pleasure, in order that they may learn and accomplish. The careless person will not thus fasten his Attention, at least not more than a moment or so, for his Involuntary Attention is soon attracted by some passing object of no matter how trifling a nature, and the Voluntary Attention disappears and is forgotten. Voluntary Attention is developed by practice and perseverance, and is well worth the trouble, for nothing in the mental world is accomplished without its use.
The Attention does not readily fasten itself to uninteresting objects, and, unless interest can be created it requires a considerable degree of Voluntary Attention in order that the mind may be fastened upon such an object. And, more than this, even if the ordinary attention is attracted it will soon waver, unless there is some interesting change in the aspect of the object, that will give the attention a fresh hold of interest, or unless some new quality, characteristic or property manifests itself in the object. This fact occurs because the mind mechanism has not been trained to bear prolonged Voluntary Attention, and, in fact, the physical brain is not accustomed to the task, although it may be so trained by patient practice.
It has been noticed by investigators that the Attention may be rested and freshened, either by withdrawing the Voluntary Attention from the object, and allowing the Attention to manifest along Involuntary lines toward passing objects, etc.; or, on the other hand, by directing the Voluntary Attention into a new field of observation–toward some new object. Sometimes one plan will seem to give the best results, and again the other will seem preferable.
We have called your attention to the fact that Interest develops Attention, and holds it fixed, while an uninteresting object or subject requires a much greater effort and application. This fact is apparent to anyone. A common illustration may be found in the matter of reading a book. Nearly everyone will give his undivided attention to some bright, thrilling story, while but few are able to use sufficient Voluntary Attention to master the pages of some scientific work. But, right here, we wish to call your attention to the other side of the case, which is another example of the fact that Truth is composed of paradoxes.
Just as Interest develops Attention, so it is a truth that Attention develops Interest. If one will take the trouble to give a little Voluntary Attention to an object, he will soon find that a little perseverance will bring to light points of Interest in the object. Things before unseen and unsuspected, are quickly brought to light. And many new phases, and aspects of the subject or object are seen, each one of which, in turn, becomes an object of Interest. This is a fact not so generally known, and one that it will be well for you to remember, and to use in practice. Look for the interesting features of an uninteresting thing, and they will appear to your view, and before long the uninteresting object will have changed into a thing having many-sided interests.
Voluntary Attention is one of the signs of a developed Will. That is, of a mind that has been well trained by the Will, for the Will is always strong, and it is the mind that has to be trained, not the Will. And on the other hand, one of the best ways to train the mind by the Will, is by practice in Voluntary Attention. So you see how the rule works both ways. Some Western psychologists have even advanced theories that the Voluntary Attention is the only power of the Will, and that that power is sufficient, for if the Attention be firmly fixed, and held upon an object the mind will “do the rest.” We do not agree with this school of philosophers, but merely mention the fact as an illustration of the importance attributed by psychologists to this matter of Voluntary Attention.
A man of a strongly developed Attention often accomplishes far more than some much brighter man who lacks it. Voluntary Attention and Application is a very good substitute for Genius, and often accomplishes far more in the long run.
Voluntary Attention is the fixing of the mind earnestly and intently upon some particular object, at the same time shutting out from consciousness other objects pressing for entrance. Hamilton has defined it as “consciousness voluntarily applied under its law of limitations to some determinate object.” The same writer goes on to state that “the greater the number of objects to which our consciousness is simultaneously extended, the smaller is the intensity with which it is able to consider each, and consequently the less vivid and distinct will be the information it contains of the several objects. When our interest in any particular object is excited, and when we wish to obtain all the knowledge concerning it in our power, it behooves us to limit our consideration to that object to the exclusion of others.”
The human mind has the power of attending to only one object at a time, although it is able to pass from one object to another with a marvelous degree of speed, so rapidly, in fact, that some have held that it could grasp several things at once. But the best authorities, Eastern and Western, hold to the “single idea” theory as being correct. On this point we may quote a few authorities.
Jouffroy says that “It is established by experience that we cannot give our attention to two different objects at the same time.” And Holland states that “Two thoughts, however closely related to one another, cannot be presumed to exist at the same time.” And Lewes has told us that “The nature of our organism prevents our having more than one aspect of an object at each instant presented to consciousness.” Whateley says: “The best philosophers are agreed that the mind cannot actually attend to more than one thing at a time, but, when it appears to be doing so it is really shifting with prodigious rapidity backward and forward from one to the other.”