William James on Attention: Some questions

William James, in The Principles of Psychology, on the development of attention:

"Sensitiveness to immediately exciting sensorial stimuli characterizes the attention of childhood and youth. In mature age we have generally selected those stimuli which are connected with one or more so-called permanent interests, and our attention has grown irresponsive to the rest. But childhood is characterized by great active energy, and has few organized interests by which to meet new impressions and decide whether they are worthy of notice or not, and the consequence is the extreme motility of the attention with which we are familiar in children, and which makes their first lessons such rough affairs. Any strong sensation whatever produces accommodation of the organs which perceive it, and absolute oblivion, for the time being, of the task in hand. This reflex and passive character of the attention which, as a French writer says, makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice, is the first thing which the teacher must overcome. It is never overcome in some people, whose work, to the end of life, gets done in the interstices of their mind-wandering."

Have the marketers, technology having wildly increased their capacity to create immediately exciting sensorial stimuli, created a culture in which we all belong less to ourselves than the objects which happen to catch our notice?

Is this regression to the child-mind the source of the temper-tantrums that characterize the style of contemporary politics--unable to focus our attention long enough to maturely address problems, we lose ourselves in anger (the most intensely sensorial of emotions)?

If these are real problems, then should we be careful not to let intense sensorial stimuli into our classrooms in order to combat these cultural forces? Does the school have anywhere near enough power to combat the war on attention being waged by branding or marketing?

Or, am I being an old fogey: should we see this quickness with which our attention shifts as the appearance of simply another form of intelligence, not its dissolution?

(By the way, isn't this another argument for more attention being paid to physical education in schools: sports being a way to channel the intensity of sensorial perception into organized social life.)


  1. bah-hah-hah! see what i did there? funny, funny.

    okay, so seriously now, you think anger is more intensely sensorial than love?

  2. Nice.

    Good question. I think that for me, yes. My anger is intense and short-lasting--and for that reason stupid and ineffective. I am much better at love because it's not so crazy intense and longer burning.

    But when I think of my wife's anger, it's got different qualities (she's better at being angry than I am.) So yeah probably a hasty generalization there.

  3. Well, either I'm getting older or my students are getting younger. Ha. Most of the young people that I teach are willing to defend the new mind as more intelligent. Having experienced the old mental organization and the new one too, I'm less than convinced.

  4. Firstly, I have to wonder if this post was inspired by something from another site.

    Second, as someone who has had a lifelong struggle with attention, I have to say that on some level, I have a cruel sense of pleasure about the situation; it equals everyone out to my level.

    In all seriousness though, I think that the over-stimulation that people experience nowadays is stressful. Not so much that you can put a finger on it, but enough that it has long-term deleterious effects, mentally, physically, and culturally. I believe people have become less.... aware of their surroundings, and even less aware of their own selves. Escape is easy to find; hell, it's practically shoved in your face. I don't believe that we have become less active or lazy; I believe that we have been so pounded into submission by all the stimuli around us that we turn to the food and images on tv as a way to escape from the real problems in our lives.


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