Attention and Interest

Via Calzaioli

 "To the fairies, Determination and Good-Will, all things are possible."
--The Man of the Family, by C. REID.

 It happened recently to me, as I write, to see one afternoon lying on the side walk in the Via Calzaioli in Florence what I thought was a common iron screw, about three inches in length, which looked as if it had been dropped by some workman. And recalling the superstition that it is lucky to find such an object, or a nail, I picked it up, when to my astonishment I found that it was a silver pencil case, but made to exactly resemble a screw. Hundreds of people had, perhaps, seen it, thought they knew all about it, or what it was, and then passed it by, little suspecting its real value.

There is an exact spiritual parallel for this incident or parable of the screw-pencil in innumerable ideas, at which well-nigh everybody in the hurrying stream of life has glanced, yet no one has ever examined, until someone with a poetic spirit of curiosity, or inspired by quaint superstition, pauses, picks one up, looks into it, and finds that It has ingenious use, and is far more than it appeared to be. Thus, if I declare that by special attention to a subject, earnestly turning it over and thinking deeply into it, very remarkable results may be produced, as regards result in knowledge, every human being will assent to it as the veriest truism ever uttered; in the fullest belief that he or she assuredly knows all that.

Yet it was not until within a very few years that I discovered that this idea, which seemed so commonplace, had within it mysteries and meanings which were stupendously original or remarkable. I found that there was a certain intensity or power of attention, far surpassing ordinary observation, which we may, if we will, summon up and force on ourselves, just as we can by special effort see or hear far better at times than usually. The Romans show by such a phrase as animum adjicere, and numerous proverbs and synonyms, that they had learned to bend their attention energetically. They were good listeners, therefore keen observers.

Learning to control or strengthen the Will is closely allied to developing Attention and Interest, and for reasons which will soon be apparent, I will first consider the latter, since they constitute a preparation or basis for the former. And as preliminary, I will consider the popular or common error to the effect that everyone has allotted to him or to her just so much of the faculty of attention or interest as it has pleased Nature to give the same being true as regards Memory, Will, the Constructive or Artistic abilities, and so on when in very truth and on the warrant of Experience all may be increased ad infinitum. Therefore, we find ignorant men complacently explaining their indifference to art and literature or culture on the ground that they take no interest in such subjects, as if interest were a special heaven-sent gift. Who has not heard the remark, "He or she takes such an interest in so many things I wish that I could." Or, as I heard it very recently expressed, "It must be delightful to be able to interest one's self in something at any time." Which was much the same as the expression of the Pennsylvania German girl, "Ach Gott! I wisht I hat genius und could make a pudden!"

No one can be expected to take an interest at once and by mere will in any subject, but where an earnest and serious Attention has been directed to it, Interest soon follows. Hence it comes that those who deliberately train themselves in Society after the precept enforced by all great writers of social maxims to listen politely and patiently, are invariably rewarded by acquiring at last shrewd intelligence, as is well known to diplomatists. That mere stolid patience subdues impatience sounds like a dull common-place saying, but it is a silver pencil disguised as an iron screw; there is a deep subtlety hidden in it, if it be allowed with a little intelligence, forethought, and determination towards a purpose. Let us now consider the mechanical and easy processes by which attention may be awakened.

According to ED. VON HARTMANN, Attention is either spontaneous or reflex. The voluntary fixing our mind upon, or choosing an idea, image, or subject, is spontaneous attention, but when the idea for some reason impresses itself upon us then we have enforced, or reflex attention. That is simply to say, there is active or passive observation the things which we seek or which come to us unsought. And the "seeking for," or spontaneous action can be materially aided and made persevering, if before we begin the search or set about devoting Attention to anything, we pause, as it were, to determine or resolve that we will be thorough, and not leave off until we shall have mastered it. For strange as it may seem, the doing this actually has in most cases a positive, and very often a remarkable result, as the reader may very easily verify for himself. This Forethought is far more easily awakened, or exerted, than Attention itself, but it prepares it, just as Attention prepares Interest.

Attention is closely allied to Memory; when we would give attention to a subject for continued consideration, we must "memorize" it, or it will vanish. Involuntary memory excited by different causes often compels us to attend to many subjects whether we will or not. Everyone has been haunted with images or ideas even unto being tormented by them; there are many instances in which the Imagination has given them objective form, and they have appeared visibly to the patient. These haunting ideas, disagreeable repetitions or obstinate continuances, assume an incredible variety of forms, and enter in many strange ways into life. Monomania or the being possessed with one idea to the exclusion of others, is a form of overstrained attention, sustained by memory. It is enforced.

Mere repetition of anything to almost anybody, will produce remarkable results; or a kind of Hypnotism Causing the patient to yield to what becomes an irresistible power. Thus it is said that perpetual dropping will wear away stones. Dr. JAMES R. COCKE in his "Hypnotism," in illustrating this, speaks of a man who did not want to sign a note, he knew that it was folly to do so, but yielded from having been "over persuaded." I have read a story in which a man was thus simply talked into sacrificing his property. The great power latent in this form of suggestiveness is well known to knaves in America where it is most employed. This is the whole secret of the value of advertising. People yield to the mere repetition in time. Attention and Interest may in this way be self-induced from repetition.

It is true that an image or idea may be often repeated to minds which do not think or reflect, without awakening attention; per contra, the least degree of thought in a vast majority of cases forms a nucleus, or beginning, which may easily be increased to an indefinite extent. A very little exercise of the Will suffices in most cases to fix the attention on a subject, and how this can be done will be shown in another chapter. But in many cases Attention is attracted with little or no voluntary effort. On this fact is based the truth that when or where it is desired, Attention and Interest may be awakened with great ease by a simple process.

It may be remarked on the subject of repetition of images or ideas, that a vast proportion of senseless superstitions, traditions or customs, which no one can explain, originate in this way, and that in fact what we call habit (which ranks as second nature) is only another form or result of involuntary attention and the unconsciously giving a place in the memory to what we have heard.

From the simple fact that even a man of plain common-sense and strong will may be driven to sleeplessness, or well nigh to madness, by the haunting presence of some wretched trifle, some mere jingle or rhyme, or idle memory, we may infer that we have here a great power which must in some way be capable of being led to great or useful results by some very easy process. I once wrote a sketch, never completed, in which I depicted a man of culture who, having lost an old manuscript book which he had regarded in a light, semi-incredulous manner as a fetish, or amulet, on which his luck depended, began to be seriously concerned, and awaking to the fact, deliberately cultivated his alarm as a psychological study, till he found himself, even with his eyes wide open as an observer in terrible fear, or a semi-monomaniac. The recovery of his lost charm at once relieved him. This was a diversion of Attention for a deliberate purpose, which might have been varied ad infinitum to procure very useful results. But I have myself known a man in the United States, who, having lost (he being an actor or performer) a certain article of theatrical properties on which he believed "luck" depended, lost all heart and hope, and fell into a decline, from which he never recovered. In this, as in all such cases, it was not so much conviction or reason which influenced the sufferer as the mere effect of Attention often awakened till it had become what is known as a fixed idea.

A deliberate reflection on what I have here advanced can hardly fail to make it clear to any reader that if he really desires to take an interest in any subject, it is possible to do so, because Nature has placed in every mind vast capacity for attention or fixing ideas, and where the Attention is fixed, Interest, by equally easy process, may always be induced to follow. And note that these preliminary preparations should invariably be as elementary and easy as possible, this being a condition which it is impossible to exaggerate. In a vast majority of cases people who would fain be known as taking an interest in Art begin at the wrong end, or in the most difficult manner possible, by running through galleries where they only acquire a superficial knowledge of results, and learn at best how to talk showily about what they have skimmed. Now to this end a good article in a cyclopædia, or a small treatise like that of TAINE'S "Esthetic" thoroughly read and re-read, till it be really mastered, and then verified by study of a very few good pictures in a single collection, will do more to awaken sincere interest than the loose ranging through all the exhibitions in the world. I have read in many novels thrilling descriptions of the effect and results when all the glories of the Louvre or Vatican first burst upon some impassioned and unsophisticated youth, who from that moment found himself an Artist but I still maintain that it would have been a hundred times better for him had his Attention and Interest been previously attracted to a few pictures, and his mind accustomed to reflect on them.

Be the subject in which we would take an interest artistic or scientific, literary or social, the best way to begin herewith is to carefully read the simplest and easiest account of it which we can obtain, in order that we may know just exactly what it is, or its definition. And this done, let the student at once, while the memory is fresh in mind, follow it up by other research or reading, observations or inquiries, on the same subject, for three books read together on anything will profit more than a hundred at long intervals. In fact, a great deal of broken, irregular or disjointed reading is often as much worse than none at all, as a little coherent study is advantageous.

Many people would very willingly take an interest in many subjects if they knew how. It is a melancholy thing to see a man retired from business with literally nothing to do but fritter away his time on nothings when he might be employed at something absorbing and useful. But they hesitate to act because, as is the rule in life, they see everything from its most difficult and repulsive side. There is no man who could not easily take an intelligent interest in Art in some form, but I venture to say that a majority of even educated people who had never taken up the subject would be appalled at it in their secret hearts, or distrust its "use" or their own capacity to master it. Or again, many put no faith in easy manuals to begin with, believing, in their ignorance, that a mere collection of rudiments cannot have much in it. We are all surrounded by thousands of subjects in which we might all take an interest, and do good work, if we would, selecting one, give it a little attention, and by easy process proceed to learn it. As it is, in general society the man or woman who has any special pursuit, accomplishment, or real interest for leisure hours, beyond idle gossip and empty time-killing, is a great exception. And yet I sincerely believe that in perhaps a majority of cases there is a sincere desire to do something, which is killed by simple ignorance of the fact that with a very little trouble indeed interest in something is within the easy reach of all.

I have dwelt on this subject that the reader may be induced to reflect on the fact, firstly, that if he wishes to learn how to develop his Will and strengthen it, it is absolutely necessary to take an interest in it. I beg him to consider how this art of acquiring attention and interest has been, or is, obscured in most minds, and the difficulties of acquiring it, exaggerated. Secondly, I would point out that the method of process for making a Will is so closely allied to that laid down for Attention that it will seem like a deduction from it, both being allied to what may claim to be an original Art of Memory, to which I shall devote a chapter in its due place.

For as I hope clearly to prove it is an easy matter to create a strong will, or strengthen that which we have, to a marvelous extent, yet he who would do this must first give his Attention firmly and fixedly to his intent or want, for which purpose it is absolutely necessary that he shall first know his own mind regarding what he means to do, and therefore meditate upon it, not dreamily, or vaguely, but earnestly. And this done he must assure himself that he takes a real interest in the subject, since if such be the case I may declare that his success is well nigh certain.

And here it may be observed that if beginners, before taking up any pursuit, would calmly and deliberately consider the virtues of Attention and Interest, and how to acquire them, or bring them to bear on the proposed study or work, we should hear much less of those who had "begun German" without learning it, or who failed in any other attempt. For there would in very truth be few failures in life if those who undertake anything first gave to it long and careful consideration by leading observation into every detail, and, in fact, becoming familiar with the idea, and not trusting to acquire interest and perseverance in the future. Nine-tenths of the difficulty and doubt or ill-at-easeness which beginners experience, giving them the frightened feeling of "a cat in a strange garret," and which often inspires them to retreat, is due entirely to not having begun by training the Attention or awakened an Interest in the subject.

It has often seemed to me that the reason for failure, or the ultimate failing to attain success, in a vast number of "Faith cures," is simply because the people who seek them, being generally of a gushing, imaginative nature, are lacking in deep reflection, application, or earnest attention. They are quick to take hold, and as quick to let go. Therefore, they are of all others the least likely to seriously reflect beforehand on the necessity of preparing the mind to patience and application. Now it seems a simple thing to say, and it is therefore all the harder to understand, that before going to work at anything which will require perseverance and repeated effort we can facilitate the result amazingly by thinking over and anticipating it, so that when the weariness comes it will not be as a discouraging novelty, but as something of course, even as a fisherman accepts his wet feet, or the mosquitoes. But how this disposition to grow weary of work or to become inattentive may be literally and very completely conjured away will be more fully explained in another chapter. For this let it suffice to say that earnest forethought, and the more of it the better, bestowed on aught which we intend to undertake, is a thing rarely attempted in the real sense in which I mean it, but which, when given, eases every burden and lightens every toil.

Mere forethought repeated is the easiest of mental efforts. Yet even a little of it asserted before undertaking a task will wonderfully facilitate the work.

"Hypnotism," says Dr. JAMES R. COCKE, "can be used to train the attention of persons habitually inattentive." But, in fact, forethinking in any way is the minor or initiatory stage of Suggestion. Both are gradual persuasion of the nervous system into habit.

And on this text a marvelous sermon could be preached, which, if understood, would sink deeply into every heart, inspiring some while alarming others, but greatly cheering the brave. And it is this. There are millions of people who suffer from irritability, want of self-control, loquacity, evil in many forms, or nerves, who would fain control themselves and stop it all. Moralists think that for this it is enough to convince their reason. But this rarely avails. A man may know that he is wrong, yet not be able to reform. Now, what he wants is to have his attention fixed long enough to form a new habit. Find out how this can be done, and it may in many cases be the simplest and most mechanical thing in the world to cure him. Men have been frightened by a scarecrow into thorough repentance. "A question of a few vibrations of ether, more or less, makes for us all the difference between perception and non-perception," or between sight and blindness. Accustom any such moral invalid to being Suggested or willed a few times into a calm, self-controlled state and the habit may be formed.

And to those who doubt, and perhaps would sneer, I have only to say try it. It will do them good.





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