Edward Bradford Titchener.

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activity from the facts of mental constitution, points to the ex-
perience of effort as a confirmation of his inference, is this. Effort
is always involved, to some extent, in our experience of bodily
exertion, continued bodily movement. Now the causes of bodily
movement are not seldom beyond the reach of introspection :
while in many cases we can trace, by careful introspection, the
reason for a movement, there are many other cases in which we
cannot. We should ourselves explain the facts by saying that
many of the unconscious bodily tendencies are tendencies to
movement, and that therefore the reasons for certain move-
ments must be asked from biology and not from psychology.
Our imagined psychologist has just the same facts before him
that we have, and is just as little able as we are to explain
them by appeal to introspection. But he refuses to ask biology
to assist him in the solution of a psychological problem ; and there-
fore sees in movement, not a change in the organism due to physi-
cal causes, but an expression of spontaneous activity ; and in the
conscious experience of effort which accompanies movement, not
a complex of sensations and affection, but a specific mental process,
the quality of which corresponds to that spontaneous activity.

Or we may put the reason in another way. We speak not of
the movements of our fellow-men, but of their ' actions.' Men-
tal ' activity * is regarded as precisely like the * activity ' which the
living human organism shows in its actions. Hence it is natural
that the experience which accompanies action should be the first
experience examined by those who expect to find evidence of
mental activity in some definite conscious process.

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122 Conation and Attention

The experience of effort occurs in many different con-
nections. It always accompanies violent or long-continued
bodily movement, the movements, e.g.y of fencing or of
dumb-bell exercises. It is contained in the experience
of resistance, as when we hold a door against some one
who is trying to force his way into the room, or *bear
up' against some 'pressing' care. It appears also in the
states of mind (the 'consciousnesses') which we call im-
pulse, wish, desire, longing, aspiration ; and in the experi-
ences of * trying to remember,' * trying to make up one's
mind,' etc. All these cases, then, must be introspectively

The first thing which introspection reveals is that effort
is, like idea, a compound conscious process. Whether it
contains a specific quality — a new conscious element — or
not, it certainly comprises sensations and affection. The
affection may be pleasantness or unpleasantness, accord-
ing to the degree or amount of effort involved in the
particular experience. The sensations are sensations of
strain (tendinous), and the sensations which accompany
movement (sensations of cutaneous and articular pressure,
and of muscular contraction).

No one will doubt that these sensations are present in the first
three instances given of effort : fencing, dumb-bell exercise, hold-
ing a door. Their presence in the other experiences mentioned
may seem to be less clear.

We must remember, however, that sensations may be aroused
centrally (remembered or imagined) as well as peripherally (by
the action of stimulus) ; and that they are just as much sensations
in the former case as in the latter (§ 7). If, then, an actual
movement and actual strain sensations can make up the experi-
ence of effort, so can also remembered or imagined movement
and remembered or imagined strain sensations. Let the reader

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§ 37- Conation 123

his consciousness when next he thinks : " I do wish it was-
dinner-time ! " He will find that it contains a pleasantness, con-
nected with the idea of dinner, and various ideas of himself going
to his dinner, /.<?., making some bodily exertion. If the wish is
very strong, however, he will find more than this : there will be
real beginnings of movement in his body, a real beginning of ris-
ing from the chair, or a turn to the wash-stand, or a passing of
the hand over the hair, — the imagined movements and imagined
sensations will be mixed with actual movements and actual sensa-
tions aroused by them. Or again : suppose that one were paint-
ing a picture to illustrate the phrase : " I do long to go to Italy ! "
One would paint a figure seated in a chair, leaning forward with
clasped hands, the eyes eagerly and intently fixed. That is, one
would paint with the assurance that the speaker would be seeing
Italy ' in the inind's eye,* picturing the journey, and — more than
that —actually starting to go, /.^., actually beginning the neces-
sary movements. Here, too, we have imagined movement, cen-
tral sensations of strain and pressure, mixed with actual sensations
from muscle and tendon and joint. The forward inclination of
the body and the eagerness of the eyes show that the ideas of the
moment are pleasant. Once more : let the reader introspect
when next he says : " If I only could remember that name ! "
He will find that his whole body has been braced, during the
attempt to remember ; that he has been frowning or wrinkling the
forehead; that his eyes have wandered all round the room; per-
liaps, that he has from time to time held his breath and closed his
eyes, to avoid any disturbance from outside. Along with all this
has gone the unpleasant affection which comes with the feeling
that he is baffled.

In every instance, then, we find in effort an affective quality .
and a complex of organic sensations, — largely, sensations of ten-
dinous strain.

But, further, introspective analysis stops short at the
discovery of these ingredients of effort. When we have
taken the sensations and affection from the complex
experience, there is nothing left : these are the only pro-

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124 Conation and Attention

cesses which introspection can find in it. And if we test
analysis by synthesis, and try to reconstruct effort from
organic sensations and affection, we are led to the same
result; these components are enough to give us the
effort experience. Hence we have no alternative but to
conclude that effort furnishes no evidence of a third
conscious element, the supposed elementary process of

It cannot be too strongly urged that our introspection must be
absolutely impartial, and extremely careful. Since the supposed
activity-process is, by hypothesis, neither sensation nor affection,
and since the rules which we possess for the use of introspection '
apply only to the examination of those two processes, we must
employ the method in both of its possible forms : it may be that
the activity-process would more nearly resemble sensation, or it
may be that it would be more like an affection. When we inves-
tigate effort as if it were sensation (§ 9), we come upon the com-
plex of organic sensations referred to in the text; when we
investigate it as if it were affection (§ 33), we come upon the
affective quality which accompanies those sensations. Introspec-
tion gives no hint of any further process.

Introspection must decide the matter : it is the final court of
appeal. But it is reassuring to find that the result of introspec-
tion is supported by outside evidence. This is of two kinds,
(i) Those who believe in the existence of a specific activity-pro-
cess often allude to it as a * sensation of effort' or 'feeling of
activity.' The expressions show that, even in their opinion, the
experience of effort is a process which resembles the processes of
sensation and affection. Why should it not be made up of these
processes? (2) Intense effort is unpleasant, moderate effort
pleasant, and minimal effort indifferent. This is just what we
should expect if effort were composed of sensations : intense
strain-sensations arise from excessive stimulation, and that is
unpleasant ; moderately strong sensations from moderate stimula-
tion, which is exhilarating and pleasant, etc. (§ 34). Here is

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§ 38. The Nature and Forms of Attention 125

evidence, from the general behaviour of sensations and affection,
that effort is made up of those two processes.

§ 38. The Nature and Forms of Attention. — Effort is,
however, not the only fact of mental experience which
has been brought forward in support of the view that we
have a specific conscious process corresponding to mental
activity and spontaneity. This specific activity-process,
which we have failed to discover in conation, is said to be
present in attention, to be a constituent of the attentive
consciousness. And at first sight the statement seems
to be well founded. If ever we act spontaneously, it isj
surely when we lay down a novel to turn our attention
to work; if ever we select for ourselves, it is when we
ignore the whole crowd of impressions which our sense-
organs are receiving, to attend to some one idea. In both
these cases the activity-process must be present, if it exist
at all. We must therefore examine attention, if possible,
even more carefully than we have examined conation.
If we cannot discover the activity experience here, we
shall not discover it anywhere : attention is the only
remaining fact to which the champions of activity can
appeal, and it is a fact which, on the face of it, appears to
furnish a strong confirmation of their view.

We have more than once had occasion to remark that the idea
to which we attend is made clearer, and lasts longer than other
ideas. It is difficult to imagine how life could go on, if there
were no such thing as attention. We should be at the mercy
of every stimulus, internal or external, which was strong enough
to arouse a conscious process ; sustained thought and continued
occupation would be impossible ; consciousness would be a mixed
medley of sensations and affections, strung together as the acci-
dents of stimulation determined. The reality is very different.

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126 Conation and Attention

As I lean back in my chair to think out a psychological problem,
I am subject to all sorts of sensory stimuli : the temperature of
the room, the pressure of my clothes, the sight of various pieces
of furniture, sounds from house and street, scents coming from
carpet and wood-work, or borne in through the open window, etc.
I could easily lapse into a reminiscent mood, letting these impres-
sions suggest to me scenes from my past life. I could easily give
the rein to my imagination, thinking of the further business of the
day, anticipating some event which is to happen in the near future,
etc. But I am perfectly well able to neglect all these distractions,
and to devote myself entirely to the one centrally aroused idea, —
the idea of the problem which awaits solution.

Attention has two forms. It may be what is called
' passive ' or * involuntary * attention, or it may be ' active *
and ' voluntary ' attention. We cannot understand its real
nature until we understand how these two forms differ,
and what are the reasons for their occurrence.

(i) Passive Attention, — There are many occasions
when we 'cannot help* attending to an impression, —
when a stimulus takes the attention by storm. A very
loud sound will, almost infallibly, . attract the attention,
however absorbing the occupation of the time. So with
movement : the animal or bird that crosses the landscape,
the melody that rises and falls to a steady, uniform accom-
paniment (/.^., that moves, while its accompaniment is
stationary), the insect that crawls over our hand as we lie
upon the grass, — all these constrain us to attend to them.
Interesting things catch the attention, whether their
interest come from their pleasantness or unpleasant-
ness: a beautiful face arrests our eyes, as a matter of
course, and the newspaper accounts of fires and murders
have a * morbid fascination ' for us. Things which fit in
with our present train of thought hold the attention : if

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§ 38. The Nature and Forms of Attention 127

we are feeling ourselves ill used, we notice a thousand
little annoyances that we should otherwise have let pass
unnoticed, — if we are trying to prove a scientific theory,
facts offer themselves to our attention whose significance
we should otherwise have missed. Contrast, like move-,
raent, draws the attention : the one tree on a level plain,
the one civilian's dress among a mass of military uniforms.
So with strange things in familiar settings, and familiar
things in strange settings : a new picture upon our study
wall obtrudes itself upon us, and a few words of English,
heard amid a crowd of holiday-making Germans, force
our attention irresistibly upon the speaker.

Any one of these conditions — contrast or movement; a
high intensity, novel quality, etc., of sensation ; the * in-
terest' attaching to an impression; a close relation of
the idea aroused by the impression to the ideas forming
the consciousness of the moment — is able to give a defi-
nite direction to the attention ; an object which fulfils any
one of them has the power of attracting the attention to
itself. The attention is passive : we have to attend, what-
ever grounds we may have for attending to something

(2) Active Attention, — ^ There are, however, many occa-
sions when, so far from the idea's drawing and riveting
our attention, it seems that we are holding our attention
by main force upon the idea. A problem in geometry
does not appeal to us as a thunder-clap does. The
thunder-clap takes unquestioned possession of conscious-
ness. The problem has only a divided claim upon the
attention : there is a constant temptation to wander away
from it and attend to something else. Only gradually, as
we grow interested and * absorbed,' — as the active atten-

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128 Conation and Attention

tion becomes passive, — does it gain that forcible hold
over us which the thunder-clap has from the moment of
its appearance in consciousness. In many of the psy-
chological experiments which we have described, the
object of attention is something which of itself, so far
from attracting notice, would be eminently fitted to
escape it: an obscure organic sensation, a minute quali-
tative difference, etc. Attention to such an object is
active attention.

Let us see, now, how the psychologist who finds in
attention the specific activity-process, the experience of
mental spontaneity, regards these two forms of the atten-
tive consciousness. "Both kinds of attention are alike,**
he will tell us, ** in the fact that they involve a change in
our ideas. The idea attended to becomes the clearest,
strongest and most permanent idea in consciousness. But
the two kinds differ in this : that the change in ideas is
brought about in the one case (passive attention) by the
nature of the stimulus, while in the other case (active
attention) it is the result of the mind's own activity, —
the mind is moulding its ideas for its own purposes.
There is clear evidence of the difference in the two ex-
periences; in passive attention we have the action of
stimulus and the resulting change of ideas, — and noth-
ing more ; in active attention the mind*s activity shows it-
self in a definite mental process, an active process, which
accompanies the change of ideas. Every one who has
ever been actively attentive must be aware that he has
experienced this definite process, of active quality."

Here, then, are two facts for us to examine : the change
of ideas, and the alleged activity-process. We will take
the latter first.

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§ 38. The Nature and Forms of Attention 129

(i) The Alleged Experience of Activity^ in Active Atten-
tion. — If we try to ascertain, by the aid of introspection,
the processes of which the attentive consciousness is com-
posed, we come at once upon a mass of organic sensa-
tions combined with affection into a total which very
nearly resembles the conation of the previous section.
There is a brace of the whole body; the muscles are
tense, ready for movement. More especially is there
muscular tension in and about the head. If the object
of attention is visual, the eyes are fixed steadily upon it,
the eyebrows lowered, the scalp muscles tightened, the
head settled squarely back upon the shoulders. If its
object is auditory, the head is turned toward one side
and thrust forward, the muscles which move the drum of
the ear drawn taut, etc. In both instances the breath
will be held, from time to time. All this means a complex
of sensations from skin, muscle, sinew and joint, and an
accompanying affection. It means an experience of
effort; and the only difference between this effort and
the effort of the last Section is that this is, as a gen-
eral rule, a more localised effort, whose components are
not spread over the whole body in equal degree, but are
centred round some particular sense-organ, eye or ear, etc.
It is an effort which involves, not so much an adjustment
of the whole muscular system, for locomotion, as an adjust-
ment of a special organ for the best reception of stimulus.
But it is none the less a form of conation, and may rightly
be termed effort.

And, again, introspection stops short at this point.
When we have taken the sensations and affections from
the * activity experience,' there is nothing left. There is
no evidence of the third conscious process, however


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130 Conation and Attention

often we may analyse and reconstruct in our search
for it

More than this : introspection does not show any radical
difference between active and passive attention. In pas-
sive attention, too, we find muscular adjustment ; the turn
of the head, the brace of the body, the fixing of the gaze,
etc. True, the effort is not so great as it is in active
attention; but effort is undoubtedly present. It is less,
because there is only one idea to be attended to, whereas
in active attention several ideas are claimants for the

To sum up : There is only one attention, not two. The differ-
ences between passive and active attention are differences of
' degree * {number of ideas, amount of effort), not of * kind.* The
terms ' passive * and ' active ' are misnomers. In passive attention,
one idea takes unresisted possession of consciousness ; in active
attention, there is a conflict of ideas for the favours of the atten-
tion. In the latter case, the experience of effort is pronounced
and well marked; in the former it is present, but less strong.
These are the only differences between the two forms of attention.

(i) Passive Attention, — The reasons why certain things or
attributes .of things compel the attention, while others are left un-
noticed, are, in the last resort, biological reasons. Some of them
are of a general nature, applying to all living organisms alike. The
animal which is to survive must attend to movement, contrast,
very intensive impressions, etc. Hence we all attend to these ;
attention to them is ingrained in our nervous constitution. It is a
more special reason, of course, which accounts for the entomolo-
gist's attention to the beetle. Here we have a particular animal
with particular tendencies ; tendencies in the first place natural,
and now confirmed by education and habit.

(2) Active Attention. — The reasons for the phenomena of
active attention are also, in the last resort, biological. As soon as
an organism comes to have a system of sense-organs, each with its

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§ 38. The Nature and Forms of Attention 131

peculiar attachment to the central nervous system, there must
necessarily be times when its attention is called simultaneously by
two different stimuH, — say, by a visual movement in front of it,
and by a loud sound at its side. On the occurrence of this two-
fold stimulation, the attention will travel in quick succession from
source of movement to source of sound, and vice versa, (Whether
it go first to the one or the other will depend upon circumstances,
—upon the organism's previous experience, upon the intensity of
the affection attaching to the two stimuli, etc.) The effort must
plainly be greater than in the case of attention to either stimulus
alone ; there is more bodily movement, adjustment of organs, etc.,

The more complex the organism becomes, the more frequently
must it happen that stimuli are simultaneously presented, which
cannot be attended to in this see-saw way, though both have
strong claims upon the attention. Suppose, e.g., that I am sitting
in my room, preparing for to-morrow's examination, and that I
hear an alarm of fire in a neighbouring street. I cannot run from
work to window, and from window to work, in quick succession ;
if the work is to be done, the attention to it must be sustained.
In a case like this, one claimant must give way to the other ; there
is a real conflict. The cortex is ' set * in one part for work ; and
this setting is reinforced by a large number of excitations, — the
processes corresponding to ideas of my examination mark, the con-
sequences of failure, etc. The cortex is * set ' in another part for
looking at the fire ; and this setting is reinforced by other excita-
tions, — the processes corresponding to the ideas of a run in the
fresh air, an exciting scene, the meeting with friends, etc. Which
side wins depends upon the strength of the tendencies and of their
temporary auxiliaries. Again, the effort experience must plainly
be more distinct than in the case of attention to either stimulus

Additional ground for thinking that there is no radical differ-
ence between passive and active attention is to be found in the
fact that what begins as active attention may quite well end as
passive. If we once * settle down ' to our work, we may grow
so 'sunk' and 'absorbed' in it that the fire-bell passes unnoticed.

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132 Conation and Attention

This fact can hardly be explained by those who assume the pres-
ence of the activity-process in active attention ; for why should
that process disappear, as attention is continued ?

It may be remarked here that the reduction of active to passive
attention is the condition of all thorough intellectual work. The
passive attention of the animal or the child is the first stage of
attentional development. Then comes the active attention, dur-
ing which the mind is held by a certain stimulus, but held in face
of opposition from other stimuli. Finally, this stimulus gains an
unquestioned ascendency over its rivals, and the attention is once
more passive. The stage of active attention is itself a stage of
transition, of conflict, of waste of mental energy ; but it is the
necessary preliminary to a stage of achievement.

(2) The Change of Ideas in Attention, — Whenever we
attend to an idea, certain changes are brought about in
that idea and in the other ideas of the time. (^) The
idea attended to becomes clearer and more distinct. If I
am listening to a four-part chorus, and suddenly give my
full attention to the tenors, the tenor part stands out dis-
tinctly from the whole mass of sound. It does not become
stronger, louder ; but its tone qualities are detached from
the tone qualities of the other parts. (J) Sometimes, how-
ever, the idea attended to does increase in intensity. A
very faint light grows noticeably brighter, as we attend to
it ; a very faint sound, noticeably louder, {c) The other
ideas of which consciousness is composed are rendered
less distinct and, apparently, weaker than they previously
were. As we listen to the tenor part, the three other
parts blur, and fade out.

The activity-theory explained these three facts as the effects of
mental activity ; the mind, of its own accord, assisted some ideas
and repressed others. We have been unable to find an activity-
process, and have accounted for the manifestations of attention in

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§ 38. The Nature and Forms of Attention 133

general by emphasising the natural ' selectiveness * (§35) of the
nervous system, the presence of organic tendencies. We have
now to ask for the special physiological conditions of these three
manifestations of attention. They appear both in passive and
active attention.

Physiologists have discovered that one nerve-cell can influence
another in two different ways. It can inhibit or check the pro-
cesses going on in the other, or it can facilitate or reinforce them.
We do not know precisely how these influences are exerted ; but

Online LibraryEdward Bradford TitchenerAn outline of psychology → online text (page 11 of 30)