Thursday, December 19, 2013

Paying Attention to William James

I wrote earlier this fall about my diminishing powers of attention I feel the stress of this change fairly deeply. As much trouble as I have with attention to begin with, I’ve always had the characteristic, and yet I’ve always found a way to pursue my love of books in spite of it. But now I’ve set myself on a ten-year journey to read a long list of particular books, many of them difficult reads, and I find it harder and harder this fall to focus, making me start to wonder if I’ll be able to finish the race, not to mention starting on the third decade that I already have laid out starting in 2017.

Then I come to the last assignment of this year, turn to page 260 of William James’s Principles of Psychology, and discover that I set myself the task seven years ago of reading a chapter entitled “Attention.” My focus is suddenly laser sharp. The material in the chapter richly rewards my rapt attention, but I have to lay some general groundwork before discussing the particulars. Here and elsewhere, James argues that our mental life consists of a series of thoughts experienced one at a time. Against atomist psychologists, who teach that my thought about the plant sitting on my desk is actually a complex of simultaneous thoughts about elemental ideas of green, leaves, stalk, shape, number, etc., James sides more with what a little later will be called Gestalt psychology, claiming that I can have one thought about the whole complex object. I can then focus my attention on the color, or count the leaves and think about the total: attention, he says, is “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.” But the process starts with a single thought about a complex object. In this chapter, the author says that maturity and experience are processes of focusing and learning to focus on certain details of the complex presented to our senses and to our minds.

William James has an eerie way of describing me to myself, especially regarding aspects of my thinking that I didn’t think anyone else could know about. It’s as if he has powers to look behind my mental curtains and expose my secrets. I guess his ability simply shows his success as a psychologist. But this chapter especially seemed all about me. The first passage that felt like a mirror actually had to do with distraction and lack of focus. He describes a state I’ve experienced many times, when my eyes go out of focus and “the sounds of the world melt into confused unity.” Memories of these kaleidoscopic experiences convince me of the idea that we have one thought at a time: my single thought at those moments is completely sensory and involves the whole chaotic manifold of sights and sounds. No train of ideas comes up, nothing urges me to move, because the single thought is of a disorganized field of things too random to mean anything. James notes that small children are especially subject to immediate sensorial stimuli; granting that each species has a natural tendency to focus on some things, he nevertheless theorizes that infants spend more time in the distracted state than adults and, without developed ideas to guide their focus, gravitate toward whatever is louder, brighter, etc. In the second passage seemingly written with me in mind, he posits, “This reflex and passive character of the attention . . . never is overcome in some people, whose work, to the end of life, gets done in the interstices of their mind-wandering.” “The interstices of my mind-wandering” is now a phrase I’ll use often to describe myself, which I’ll do now and then in the interstices of my mind-wandering.

James’s familiarity with my peculiar mind gets really uncanny when he describes an experiment done by Wilhelm Wundt. To show how difficult it is to pay attention to two things at once, Wundt constructed a device with a sweeping hand that spun on a dial about once a second, and then asked subjects to identify the exact location of the hand when a bell was struck. I wasn’t surprised at all to learn how inaccurate people’s answers were, because I’ve done a similar thing many times in trying to locate a skip on an LP and found the exercise extremely difficult. As a teenager, I used to try to find skips and fix them by adjusting a tiny bit of the plastic wall of the groove with a needle, or by deepening the groove itself. It worked often enough that I kept doing it. But most skips are irreparable. Still, in recent years, as I have been recording my LP collection to mp3, I’ve tried to fix some of the worst skips by dropping the needle in the one round of the spiral groove that gets missed and then cutting and pasting in a sound editor. The first step in this process requires locating the skip by watching the spinning label while listening to the record and trying to determine which part of the label aligns with the skip. Now you might ask why I don’t just spend a buck and buy the separate track online. For one thing, I’d be out a buck. For another, I wouldn’t have this story to tell. And James already makes me feel bad enough by saying that my attention problem comes from a lack of maturity. So let’s just let me have my habit of finding skips.

Actually, William James doesn’t make me feel all that bad in this chapter. He does admit that mind-wandering usually increases with age, which at least makes me think that I don’t have something abnormally wrong with me. And in fact, he highly praises my intelligence in another passage that he writes directly to me. People who deal with the-not-totally-accurately-named ADD or with children who have the trait know that attention “deficit” often results in very long commitments of attention to what seems personally interesting or stimulating. In explaining the phenomenon, James talks about geniuses like Archimedes incessantly working without any awareness of the war going on outside his window. In the same way, he says, people of great intelligence find their minds wandering while reading because the topic of the book raises up personally interesting associations that the thought then pursues. The eyes continue moving out of habit, and the words on the page actually even enter consciousness one-by-one momentarily but aren’t stored in memory. Suddenly a reader can finish a paragraph and realize he can’t remember anything he just read. And that is me and the problem I’ve had reading this fall. But is it a problem? After all, James doesn’t label me with a disorder. (Why do the acronyms of all my psychological traits have to end in D?) Instead, he puts me in a camp with Archimedes, Newton, and Pascal. Pretty good company.

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