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A Focused Mind

Don't be boxed in by inattention!

Dr. Kacir's ADHD Blog


The source of attention

Posted on December 13, 2011 at 5:29 PM
In a review of a new book about the neuroscience of attention, I read a terrific definition of what attention actually is.  The review began as follows:
"William James once wrote: 'Everyone knows what attention is. It 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.'
I was very impressed and wracked my memory to figure out who William James was.  The father of modern medicine?  No, that was William Osler.  A great writer with psychological insight into the human condition.  No, that was Henry James.  So I did what my high school age kids do -- I went to Wikipedia.  Wow!  William James was identified as an attorney and naval historian from 1813-1827.  What a great cross-field reference.  To think that an analysis of military actions could produce a cogent definition of a psychological term!
Then I realized that I had skipped a step in my "research," so I googled William James.  Darnitall.  It is far more likely that the reviewer was quoting "a pioneering psychologist and philosopher who was trained as a physician."  To soothe my ego a bit, however, it turns out that Henry James was his brother.  Reading his Wikipedia entry does reveal quite a bit of additional cross-field pollination.  Ralph Waldo Emerson was his godfather and he interacted with Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud.  While he was a professor at Harvard, Gertrude Stein and Theodore Roosevelt were both his students. 
To bring it all back to the subject of attention, Gertrude Stein actually did some research in the field under James' supervision.  Thus from this blog entry, you can see the anatomy of distraction.  My original intent was to include a brief paragraph about a non-scientific reflection on attention's nature and it has turned into a treatise with elements of literature, art, history, philosophy and politics.

Categories: The nature of attention

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