Let Me Have Your Attention

“My mind to me a kingdom is,/Such present joys therein I find/That it excels all other bliss/That earth affords or grows by kind. . . .” Sir Edward Dyer (1550? – 1607).

In April, 1931, George Orwell wrote a short piece entitled “The Spike” for a magazine called Adelphi. In it he describes time he spent as a tramp. He was a tramp, a homeless person, partly of necessity and partly because he wished to understand the particular forms of suffering that tramps go through. One virulent irritation was boredom. Orwell came to think that boredom was the worst of a tramp’s evils, worse than hunger and worse than the feeling of social disgrace. “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel,” he said. “Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.”

Today, Orwell would be accused of elitism and would be made to tweet an apology to all his followers. But Orwell was nothing if not honest, and having lived the life on the street could speak with authority. One need only pass through any metropolitan area to see the homeless on benches, median strips, near metro stations, or on corners, many of them slumped against a wall, sleeping huddled against the cold or in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Their days unwind with agonizing slowness, each minute trudging after the next. In this essay, Orwell recounts how he was saved from the ten hours of daylight boredom in the spike (homeless shelter) by the blessed reprieve of working in the kitchen. Even so, one suspects that with his powers of observation and his interests in literature, politics, and history, Orwell would not likely suffocate in boredom.

There are two elements at work here: memory and attention. Memory, because we are hardly human without it, and attention because it is necessary to learning. William James devotes a chapter of his seminal work, Psychology, to attention, describing it of two kinds. There is the effortless, involuntary and passive kind, and there is the active and voluntary kind. Involuntary attention occurs when we follow a train of thought that is interesting as a means to an end or when the mere association with the thought burnishes us with a sense of satisfaction.

Active, voluntary attention is that which we make a determined effort to accomplish by bending our minds to it. James remarks that it is a feeling which everyone knows, but which is indescribable. We sense it when we try to discriminate between sensory experiences, or attend to one voice near us against a babble of other voices. It is an effort whose accomplishment slips through our fingers like water. James says, “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time (his emphasis).” James describes a process that sounds like the building, layer by layer, of a pearl around a grain of sand. The mind, finding something interesting, comes back to it, turns it over and over until the novelty wears off, then drifts away, only to return for the feeling of both familiarity and the stimulation of finding something new. And here is the sentence that lit up for me like a Jumbotron: “No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.”

So to focus the attention of students or audiences we must come back to an idea from as many angles as possible, first through a discussion, then perhaps a demonstration, now a clip from a film, and then the solving of a problem together with a partner. Those are techniques intended to play to our weaknesses, but what of the genius who can apparently sit alone for hours, deaf to the world and completely absorbed with the ideas streaming through her head? James says that its her genius that makes her attentive, not her attentiveness that makes her a genius. The difference between her and the rest of us is that she has a method of hooking one idea to another to make a train of thought, while we, poor, inchoate butterflies that we are, simply flit about from one delightful flower to the next. The good news is, however, that “whether the attention come by grace of genius or by dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has.”

The practical application of this is simple: find something familiar that the student knows and attach the new thing to it, and encourage the student to “re-echo” the words he is hearing. And this brings us back to Orwell and his terminally bored compatriots. An educated mind has something to play with, images, associations, ideas not yet fully formed, questions, hopes, memories. Waiting in a doctor’s office, loathe to thumb through a celebrity rag, we may yet travel through infinite and intimate spaces as we attend to our new and present sensations, relate them to the old and familiar, and say ‘What if?. . .’

Blake offered us “infinity in a grain of sand.” It’s there, if we but pay attention.

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