In the previous post, I gave an account of William James’s description of my struggles with attention, especially attention while reading. (Yes, my struggles – he seemed to have no one else but me in mind.) This time, I want to report some of the solutions James offers in his chapter on attention in The Principles of Psychology.
His first but, in my view, least promising solution is simply effort. The will, according to James, is nothing but an effort made to pay attention to certain things and actions, and character, he says, is maturity of will. So, William James, I’ve been trying to be a man of character. Instead of letting the unread paragraphs go, I make a determined decision to read them again and a conscious effort to pay attention. I’m so determined, I’ve reread some paragraphs these last few months as many as four times. But I’m fifty-four, and the habit of mind-wandering is deeply ingrained. So while this line of attack sometimes finally gets a particular passage into my memory, I don’t know that it will ever make me generally more attentive.
James’s second solution involves association with other objects of interest. Schoolboys, he points out, don’t seem to listen to anything the teacher has to say until an anecdote begins, and then the unruly boys are all ears. Obviously they were listening at some level, or the first spoken words of the story wouldn’t have entered their heads enough to attract attention. But neither the words themselves nor the teacher are the objects of interest in this case; the boys like stories because they come with adventure, puzzles, laughter, or terror.The pleasure they’ve learned to associate with stories draws them in. This solution has only a little more promise than the first for me. The associations I make with classic literature – mental stimulation, historical interest, plot tension, satisfaction at achieving something long desired – have carried me through for fifty-three years, but not so much lately. Have my distractions simply begun to outweigh the positive associations I make with literature? Or do I need to invent new associations? Offer myself rewards for attention?
The first two solutions may not bring me much hope, but three other methods of heightening attention seem more likely to work for me. No one can spend a long time with an unchanging object, James says. Constant novelty makes a long attention span possible, and an intelligent person provides his own novelty by asking new questions and considering his object in new ways. I’ve found that stopping every sentence or two literally to ask a question about what I just read keeps my attention focused. In some reading, I’ve tried to keep a key phrase from a topic sentence in mind and then repeat it after a sentence from the middle of a paragraph, looking for connections.
Solution no. 4 is similar to the third. James also notes that attention is stronger and reaction time quicker when we anticipate what we experience. This pattern suggests that after asking myself about what I just read, I could also ask myself a question concerning what I’m about to read.
James’s final note about heightened attention explains a solution I found long ago. James theorizes that what goes in the mind must go out again, be “discharged” in one way or another. When he observes that some children can pay attention to their studies more successfully when fidgeting with a repetitive motion of the hand or foot, he explains the situation by saying that all the surrounding distractions flow out of the mind through the muscular movement. Because the motion is repetitive, it can proceed by habit, without entering conscious thought and providing yet one more distraction. I read this explanation and immediately thought of my walking. My attention span on the contents of a book increases dramatically when I walk as I read, which I try to do each morning. I’ve long realized that, although I’m aware of surrounding buildings and trees and the direction of the sidewalk as I read and walk, those things don’t distract me from the task at hand. I’ve felt that my awareness of the surroundings is directed and, yes, even discharged through the rhythmic motion of my legs.
Two or three days ago, a man walking his dog passed me on my morning constitutional and asked, as so many have before, “Isn’t it hard to read while you walk?” I answered simply, “Not so hard, really.” My complete thought was far too long to tell a stranger in passing: “On the contrary, each makes the other easier. Reading gets me through lengthy exercise each morning, and walking focuses my attention on the reading.”