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
as 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.