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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