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Abstraction Of Mind

Features of the mechanism of mental operations are brought out in
certain phenomena of abstraction of mind, which show how the attention
can be so short-circuited that sensations from the periphery utterly
fail to penetrate to the consciousness. Most men have had the
experience of taking out their watches, looking at them, and then
putting them back. Presently somebody asks what time it is. Unable to
recollect what it was that they saw, they have to look again. There is
no doubt that they meant to observe the time.

The same thing is true for practically all the senses. A pickpocket
takes advantage of our being occupied with many other feelings in the
midst of the jostling in a crowd on a car, or before a show window, or
he has a confederate add to the sensations already streaming up to us,
calling attention particularly to the other side of the body, and then
inserts his hand into our pocket and extracts what he finds. Sometimes
we have a faint memory of something having happened to that pocket,
but our attention was occupied elsewhere.

In hearing we have the same experience. When thoroughly occupied with
a book, a person may talk to us or ask us a question and we have no
idea of what was said, sometimes utterly failing to hear the voice;
sometimes we hear the sound of the voice, but do not comprehend the
meaning of the words.

When we are unprepared for a question we nearly always have to have it
repeated to us. Sitting in a railroad train, if the person behind us,
whom we did not expect to talk to us, asks a question, it is very
probable that on the first asking we shall not notice it at all,
considering that it is addressed to someone else. On its repetition,
it may appeal to us as addressed to ourselves, but even then we
readily lose its significance because our attention has not been
called to the wording of it soon enough to enable us to comprehend it
thoroughly. These experiences, so familiar that we have probably all
had them at some time or other, indicate how universal is the power of
the mind to concentrate itself upon itself to the extent of neglecting
sensations from the outer world, even though they may pass the
periphery of the organism and manifestly affect the first neuron of
the chain that leads up to our brain and consequently to
consciousness. They do not reach the center with sufficient intensity
to be understood, and a conscious act of attention must be made before
we comprehend their meaning.

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