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Preoccupation Of Mind





This is true, not only for ordinary sensations, but even for such as
would ordinarily be presumed to be so insistent in their call that
they could not be neglected. The concentration of mind necessary for
this is not common to all mankind; it is possessed only by a few
individuals whose intellect represents the larger portion of their
personality. Certain of the great investigating scientific geniuses
have had the faculty of so concentrating their attention upon the
questions with which their intellects were engaged, that even the call
of appetite did not make itself felt. Newton was one of these. Over
and over again, he was known to neglect to take his meals, even though
they were brought to him, and, occasionally, he would entirely forget
whether he had taken a meal or not. But Newton is not an extreme
exception. Most of the great mathematicians have had experiences of
this kind and, indeed, mathematics seems to be that special branch of
intellectual work which most readily brings about a preoccupation of
mind sufficient to completely shut out the outer world for the time
being. Archimedes, the great ancient mathematician, lost his life
because of preoccupation with mathematical problems that kept him from
telling the Roman soldiers, who had strict orders to spare him, who he
was.

Complete absorption of mind to the exclusion of all external
sensations is not, however, confined to the mathematicians. Mommsen,
the historian, was famous for his fits of mental abstraction. Once he
patted a school-boy on the head and asked whose boy he was, to be told
rather startlingly, "Yours." Lombroso, the criminal psychologist, was
subject to abstraction in almost as great a degree. Men have become so
preoccupied in study as not to appreciate the significance of
warnings, indicating that a serious accident was about to happen, such
as a fire or the fall of some object that they should have avoided, or
some other danger to themselves. The tendency to such abstraction is
responsible for many accidents on busy city streets. When so
preoccupied, painters walk off scaffolds, and such preoccupation of
mind is extremely dangerous, not only for the man himself, but for
those who are working with him.

Everyone knows that a slight headache frequently disappears in
pleasant company. There is sometimes the suspicion, though it is quite
unjustified, that because a person has a headache which can be cured
by engaging in a favorite occupation, the headache is more imaginary
than real. The common experience with toothache shows the falsity of
this opinion. There is no imagination in regard to toothache, yet it,
too, except in very severe cases, will be so modified as to be quite
negligible if the victim has some mental occupation that is very
absorbing. Pains of other kinds that are just as real, may be modified
in the same way. I have known a boy to suffer enough from the presence
of an unsuspected kidney stone to give up play and come into the
house, yet he could be made entirely to forget his discomfort by a
game of checkers. On account of the ease with which the pain was thus
dispelled, the suspicion was harbored that his ache was more imaginary
than real. The ache continued and at the end of about a year there was
an acute exacerbation which justified an operation, and the stone was
removed.

In all these instances there is evidently a question of the unmaking,
or at least imperfect making, of connections between the
peripheral and central neurons, because of the existence of
connections between different portions of the brain itself which take
up the attention. This attention to mental things may become
exaggerated, and must be guarded against, but it represents a valuable
psychotherapeutic remedy. Whenever the peripheral connections are
unmade, external sensation is unfelt. Even though the peripheral
neuron may be suffering to some extent, this is true. It is this law
of attention that must be taken advantage of for psychotherapeutics.
People who are liable to be too much concerned with their sensations,
must be taught to occupy themselves with interests that will absorb
the attention. Central neurons can, except under very serious
circumstances, be made to connect with one another so intimately as to
bring about the neglect of many bothersome external sensations.

On the other hand, when the connections with the periphery are well
made, external sensations flow in on us to the exclusion of thought
and then even simple sensations may be exaggerated so as to become
painful. Anything that attracts our attention so much that we cannot
think quietly about it, is likely to be a disturbance rather than a
pleasure. Music is distinctly pleasant, yet very loud music becomes
painful. The reason is that the peripheral neuron is so much disturbed
that these excessive vibrations are communicated to other neurons
connected with it and they are unable to occupy themselves with
anything except this over-strenuous sensation. A very bright light has
something of the same effect, and the same thing is true for all the
other senses. A pleasant odor, if over strong, becomes disgusting. A
very sweet taste is cloying. This over excitation of neurons may come
from without, or may come from within. If the central neuron is so
much occupied with itself, and the sensation that is flowing into it,
that it is prevented from making such connections as would communicate
and distribute the sensations properly, then the sensory phenomenon
becomes painful, though it may not be exaggerated in the peripheral
neuron.





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