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ATTENTION (from Lat. ad-tendo, await, expect; the condition
of being “stretched” or “tense”), in psychology, the concentration
of consciousness upon a definite object or objects.
The result is brought about, not by effecting any change in the
perceptions themselves, but simply by isolating them from other
objects. Since all consciousness involves this isolation, attention
may be defined generally as the necessary condition of consciousness.
Such a definition, however, throws no light upon the nature
of the psychological process, which is partly explained by the
general law that the greater the number of objects on which
attention is concentrated the less will each receive (“pluribus
intentus, minor est ad singula sensus”), and conversely. There
are also special circumstances which determine the amount of
attention, e.g. influences not subject to the will, such as the
vividness of the impression (e.g. in the case of a shock), strong
change in pleasurable or painful sensations. Secondly, an exercise
of volition is employed in fixing the mind upon a definite
object. This is a purely voluntary act, which can be strengthened
by habit and is variable in different individuals; to it the name
“attention” is sometimes restricted. The distinction is expressed
by the words “reflex” or “passive,” and “volitional”
or “active.” It is important to notice that in every case of
attention to an object, there must be in consciousness an implicit
apprehension of surrounding objects from which the particular
object is isolated. These objects are known as the “psychic fringe,”
and are essential to the systematic unity of the attention-process.
Attempts have been made to examine the attention-process
from the physiological standpoint by investigating the
muscular and neural changes which accompany it, and even to
assign to it a specific local centre. It has, for example, been
remarked that uniformity of environment, resulting in practically
automatic activity, produces mental equilibrium and the
comparative disappearance of attention-processes; whereas the
necessity of adapting activity to abnormal conditions produces
a comparatively high degree of attention. In other words,
attention is absent where there is uniformity of activity in
accordance with uniform, or uniformly changing, environment.
In spite of the progress made in this branch of study, it has to
be remembered that all psycho-physical experiments are to some
extent vitiated by the fact that the phenomena can scarcely
remain normal under inspection.
See G.F. Stout, Analytic Psychology (London, 1896), especially
part ii. chap. 2; also Psychology, Brain, &c.
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