Psychology - A Study Of Mental Life
by Robert S. Woodworth
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

A point of experimental technique: in mixing colored lights for the purpose of studying the resulting sensations, we do not mix painter's pigments, since the physical {215} conditions then would be far from simple, but we mix the lights themselves by throwing them together either into the eye, or upon a white screen. We can also, on account of a certain lag or hang-over in the response of the retina, mix lights by rapidly alternating them, and get the same effect as if we had made them strike the retina simultaneously.

By mixing a red light with a yellow, in varying proportions, all the color-tones between red and yellow can be got—reddish orange, orange and yellowish orange. By mixing yellow and green lights, we get all the greenish yellow and yellowish green color-tones; and by mixing green and blue lights we get the bluish greens and greenish blues. Finally, by mixing blue and red lights, in varying proportions, we get violet, purple and purplish red. Purple has no place in the spectrum, since it is a sensation which cannot be aroused by the action of any single wave-length, but only by the mixture of long and short waves.

To get all the color-tones, then, we need not employ all the wave-lengths, but can get along with only four. In fact, we can get along with three. Red, green and blue will do the trick. Red and green lights, combined, would give the yellows; green and blue would give the greenish blues; and red and blue would give purple and violet.

The sensation of white results—to go back to Newton—from the combined action of all the wave-lengths. But the stimulus need not contain all the wave-lengths. Four are enough; the three just mentioned would be enough. More surprising still, two are enough, if chosen just right. Mix a pure yellow light with a pure blue, and you will find that you get the sensation of white—or gray, if the lights used are not strong.

[Footnote: When you mix blue and yellow pigments, each absorbs part of the wave-lengths of white light, and what is left after this double absorption may be predominantly green. This is absolutely different from the addition of blue to yellow light; addition gives white, not green.]


Lights, or wave-lengths, which when acting together on the retina give the sensation of white or gray, are said to be complementary. Speaking somewhat loosely, we sometimes say that two colors are complementary when they mix to produce white. Strictly, the colors—or at least the color sensations—are not mixed; for when yellow and blue lights are mixed, the resulting sensation is by no means a mixture of blue and yellow sensations, but the sensation of white in which there is no trace of either blue or yellow. Mixing the stimuli which, acting separately, give two complementary colors, arouses the colorless sensation of white.

Blue and yellow, then, are complementary. Suppose we set out to find the complementary of red. Mixing red and yellow lights gives the color-tones intermediate between these two; mixing red and green still gives the intermediate color-tones, but the orange and yellow and yellowish green so got lack saturation, being whitish or grayish. Now mix red with bluish green, and this grayishness is accentuated, and if just the right wave-length of bluish green is used, no trace of orange or yellow or grass green is obtained, but white or gray. Red and bluish green are thus complementary. The complement of orange light is a greenish blue, and that of greenish yellow is violet. The typical green (grass green) has no single wave-length complementary to it, but it does give white when mixed with a compound of long and short waves, which compound by itself gives the sensation of purple; so that we may speak of green and purple as complementary.

What Are the Elementary Visual Sensations?

Returning now to the question of elementary sensations, which we laid aside till we had examined the relationship of the sensations to the stimulus, we need to be on our guard against physics, or at least against being so much impressed with the physics of light as to forget that we are concerned with the response of the organism to physical light—a matter on which physics cannot speak the final word.


Fig. 36.—(After Koenig.) The color triangle, a map of the laws of color mixture. The spectral colors are arranged in order along the heavy solid line, and the purples along the heavy dotted line. The numbers give the wave-lengths of different parts of the spectrum. Inside the heavy line are located the pale tints of each color, merging from every side into white, which is located at the point W.

Suppose equal amounts of two spectral colors are mixed: to find from the diagram the color of the mixture. Locate the two colors on the heavy line, draw a straight line between these two points, and the middle of this line gives the color-tone and saturation of the mixture. For example, mix red and yellow: then the resulting color is a saturated reddish yellow. Mix red (760) and green (505): the resulting yellow is non-saturated, since the straight line between these two points lies inside the figure. If the straight line joining two points passes through W, the colors located at the two points are complementary.

Spectral colors are themselves not completely saturated. The way to get color sensations of maximum saturation is first to stare at one color, so as to fatigue or adapt the eye for that color, and then to turn the eye upon the complementary color, which, under these conditions, appears fuller and richer than anything otherwise obtainable. The corners, R, G, and B, denote colors of maximum saturation, and the whole of the triangle outside of the heavy line is reserved for super-saturated color sensations.

{end 217; text continues from 216} {218}

Physics tells us of the stimulus, but we are concerned with the response. The facts of color-blindness and color mixing show very clearly that the response does not tally in all respects with the stimulus. Physics, then, is apt to confuse the student at this point and lead him astray. Much impressed with the physical discovery that white light is a mixture of all wave-lengths, he is ready to believe the sensation of white a mixed sensation. He says, "White is the sum of all the colors", meaning that the sensation of white is compounded of the sensations of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet—which is simply not true. No one can pretend to get the sensations of red or blue in the sensation of white, and the fact of complementary colors shows that you cannot tell, from the sensation of white, whether the stimulus consists of yellow and blue, or red and bluish green, or red, green and blue, or all the wave-lengths, the response being the same to all these various combinations. Total color-blindness showed us, when we were discussing this matter before, that white was an elementary sensation, and nothing that has been said since changes that conclusion.

Consider black, too. Physics says, black is the absence of light; but this must not be twisted to mean that black is the absence of all visual sensation. Absence of visual sensation is simply nothing, and black is far from that. It is a sensation, as positive as any, and undoubtedly elementary.

From the point of view of physics, there is no reason for considering any one color more elementary than any other. Every wave-length is elementary; and if sensation tallied precisely with the stimulus, every spectral color-tone would be an element. But there are obvious objections to such a view, such as: (1) there are not nearly as many {219} distinguishable color-tones as there are wave-lengths; (2) orange, having a single wave-length, certainly appears to be a blend as truly as purple, which has no single wave-length; and (3) we cannot get away from the fact of red-green blindness, in which there are only two color-tones, yellow and blue. In this form of color vision (which, we must remember, is normal in the intermediate zone of the retina), there are certainly not as many elementary responses as there are wave-lengths, but only one response to all the longer waves (the sensation of yellow), one response to all the shorter waves (the sensation of blue), one response to the combination of long and short waves (the sensation of white), and one response to the cessation of light (the sensation of black). These four are certainly elementary sensations, and there are probably only a few more.

There must be at least two more, because of the fact that two of the sure elements, yellow and blue, are complementary. For suppose we try to get along with one more, as red. Then red, blended with yellow, would give the intervening color-tones, namely, orange with reddish and yellowish orange; and red blended with blue would give violet and purple; but yellow and blue would only give white or gray, and there would be no way of getting green. We must admit green as another element. The particular red selected would be that of the red end of the spectrum, if we follow the general vote; and the green would probably be something very near grass green. We thus arrive at the conclusion that there are six elementary visual responses or sensations: white and black, yellow and blue, red and green.

It is a curious fact that some of these elementary sensations blend with each other, while some refuse to blend. White and black blend to gray, and either white or black or both together will blend with any of the four elementary colors or with any possible blend of these four. Brown, for {220} example, is a grayish orange, that is, a blend of white, black, red and yellow. Red blends with yellow, yellow with green, green with blue, and blue with red. But we cannot get yellow and blue to blend, nor red and green. When we try to get yellow and blue to blend, by combining their appropriate stimuli, both colors disappear, and we get simply the colorless sensation of white or gray. When we try to get red and green to blend, both of them disappear and we get the sensation of yellow.

Theories of Color Vision

Of the most celebrated theories of color vision, the oldest, propounded by the physicists Young and Helmholtz, recognized only three elements, red, green and blue. Yellow they regarded as a blend of red and green, and white as a blend of all three elements. The unsatisfactory nature of this theory is obvious. White as a sensation is certainly not a blend of these three color sensations, but is, precisely, colorless; and no more is the yellow sensation a blend of red and green. Moreover, the theory cannot do justice either to total color-blindness, with its white and black but no colors, or to red-green blindness, with its yellow but no red or green.

The next prominent theory was that of the physiologist Hering. He did justice to white and black by accepting them as elements; and to yellow and blue likewise. The fact that yellow and blue would not blend he accounted for by supposing them to be antagonistic responses of the retina; when, therefore, the stimuli for both acted together on the retina, neither of the two antagonistic responses could occur, and what did occur was simply the more generic response of white. Proceeding along this line, he concluded that red and green were also antagonistic responses; but just here {221} he committed a wholly unnecessary error, in assuming that if red and green were antagonistic responses, the combination of their stimuli must give white, just as with yellow and blue. Accordingly, he was forced to select as his red and green elementary color-tones two that would be complementary; and this meant a purplish (i.e., bluish) red, and a bluish green, with the result that his "elementary" red and green appear to nearly every one as compounds and not elements. It would really have been just as easy for Hering to suppose that the red and green responses, antagonizing each other, left the sensation yellow; and then he could have selected that red and green which we have concluded above to have the best claim.

A third theory, propounded by the psychologist, Dr. Christine Ladd-Franklin, is based on keen criticism of the previous two, and seems to be harmonious with all the facts. She supposes that the color sense is now in the third stage of its evolution. In the first stage the only elements were white and black; the second stage added yellow and blue; and the third stage red and green. The outer zone of the retina is still in the first stage, and the intermediate zone in the second, only the central area having reached the third. In red-green blind individuals, the central area remains in the second stage, and in the totally color-blind the whole retina is still in the first stage.

In the first stage, one response, white, was made to light of whatever wave-length. In the second stage, this single response divided into two, one aroused by the long waves and the other by the short. The response to the long waves was the sensation of yellow, and that to the short waves the sensation of blue. In the third stage, the yellow response divided into one for the longest waves, corresponding to the red, and one for somewhat shorter waves, corresponding to the green. Now, when we try to get a blend of red and green {222} by combining red and green lights, we fail because the two responses simply unite and revert to the more primitive yellow response; and similarly when we try to get the yellow and blue responses together, they revert to the more primitive white response out of which they developed.

But, since no one can pretend to see yellow as a reddish green, nor white as a bluish yellow, it is clear that the just-spoken-of union of the red and green responses, and of the yellow and blue responses, must take place below the level of conscious sensation. These unions probably take place within the retina itself. Probably they are purely chemical unions.

The very first response of a rod or cone to light is probably a purely chemical reaction. Dr. Ladd-Franklin, carrying out her theory, supposes that a light-sensitive "mother substance" in the rods and cones is decomposed by the action of light, and gives off cleavage products which arouse the vital activity of the rods and cones, and thus start nerve currents coursing towards the brain.

In the "first stage", she supposes, a single big cleavage product, which we may call W, is split off by the action of {223} light upon the mother substance, and the vital response to W is the sensation of white.

In the second stage, the mother substance is capable of giving off two smaller cleavage products, Y and B. Y is split off by the long waves of light, and B by the short waves, and the vital response to Y is the sensation of yellow, that to B the sensation of blue. But suppose that, chemically, Y + B = W: then, if Y and B are both split off at the same time in the same cone, they immediately unite into W, and the resulting sensation is white, and neither yellow nor blue.

Similarly, in the third stage, the mother substance is capable of giving off three cleavage products, R, G and B; and there are three corresponding vital responses, the sensations of red, green and blue. But, chemically, R + G = Y; and therefore, if R and G are split off at the same time, they unite chemically into Y and give the sensation of yellow. If R, G and B are all split off at the same time, they unite chemically as follows: R + G = Y, and Y + B = W; and therefore the resulting sensation is that of white.

This theory of cleavage products is in good general agreement with chemical principles, and it does justice to all the facts of color vision, as detailed in the preceding pages. It should be added that "for black, the theory supposes that, {224} in the interest of a continuous field of view, objects which reflect no light at all upon the retina have correlated with them a definite non-light sensation—that of black." [Footnote: Quotation from Dr. Ladd-Franklin.]


Sensory adaptation is a change that occurs in other senses also, but it is so much more important in the sense of sight than elsewhere that it may best be considered here. The stimulus continues, the sensation ceases or diminishes—that is the most striking form of sensory adaptation. Continued action of the same stimulus puts the sense into such a condition that it responds differently from at first, and usually more weakly. It is much like fatigue, but it often is more positive and beneficial than fatigue.

The sense of smell is very subject to adaptation. On first entering a room you clearly sense an odor that you can no longer get after staying there for some time. This adaptation to one odor does not prevent your sensing quite different odors. Taste shows less adaptation than smell, but all are familiar with the decline in sweet sensation that comes with continued eating of sweets.

All of the cutaneous senses except that for pain are much subject to adaptation. Continued steady pressure gives a sensation that declines rapidly and after a time ceases altogether. The temperature sense is usually adapted to the temperature of the skin, which therefore feels neither warm nor cool. If the temperature of the skin is raised from its usual level of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 or 86, this temperature at first gives the sensation of warmth, but after a time it gives no temperature sensation at all; the warmth sense has become adapted to the temperature of 80 degrees; and now a temperature of 70 will give the sensation of cool. {225} Hold one hand in water at 80 and the other in water at 66, and when both have become adapted to these respective temperatures, plunge them together into water at 70; and you will find this last to feel cool to the warm-adapted hand and warm to the cool-adapted. There are limits to this power of adaptation.

The muscle sense seems to become adapted to any fixed position of a limb, so that, after the limb has remained motionless for some time, you cannot tell in what position it is; to find out, you have only to move it the least bit, which will excite both the muscle sense and the cutaneous pressure sense. The sense of head rotation is adaptable, in that a rotation which is keenly sensed at the start ceases to be felt as it continues; but here it is not the sense cells that become adapted, but the back flow that ceases, as will soon be explained.

To come now to the sense of sight, we have light adaptation, dark adaptation, and color adaptation. Go into a dark room, and at first all seems black, but by degrees—provided there is a little light filtering into the room—you begin to see, for your retina is becoming dark-adapted. Now go out into a bright place, and at first you are "blinded", but you quickly "get used" to the bright illumination and see objects much more distinctly than at first; for your eye has now become light-adapted. Remain for some time in a room illuminated by a colored light (as the yellowish light of most artificial illuminants), and by degrees the color sensation bleaches out so that the light appears nearly white.

Dark adaptation is equivalent to sensitizing the retina for faint light. Photographic plates can be made of more or less sensitiveness for use with different illuminations; but the retina automatically alters its sensitivity to fit the illumination to which it is exposed.


Rod and Cone Vision

You will notice, in the dark room, that while you see light and shade and the forms of objects, you do not see colors. The same is true out of doors at night. In other words, the kind of vision that we have when the eye is dark-adapted is totally color-blind. Another significant fact is that the fovea is of little use in very dim light. These facts are taken to mean that dim-light vision, or twilight vision as it is sometimes called, is rod vision and not cone vision; or, in other words, that the rods and not the cones have the great sensitiveness to faint light in the dark-adapted eye. The cones perhaps become somewhat dark-adapted, but the rods far outstrip them in this direction. The fovea has no rods and hence is of little use in very faint light. The rods have no differential responsiveness to different wave-lengths, remaining still in the "first stage" in the development of color vision, and consequently no colors are seen in faint light.

Rod vision differs then from cone vision in having only one response to every wave-length, and in adapting itself to much fainter light. No doubt, also, it is the rods that give to peripheral vision its great sensitivity to moving objects.


After-images, which might better be called after-sensations, occur in other senses than sight, but nowhere else with such definiteness. The main fact here is that the response outlasts the stimulus. This is true of a muscle, and it is true of a sense organ. It takes a little time to get the muscle, or the sense organ, started, and, once it is in action, it takes a little time for it to stop. If you direct your eyes towards the lamp, holding your hand or a book in front of them as a screen, remove the screen for an {227} instant and then replace it, you will continue for a short time to see the light after the external stimulus has been cut off. This "positive after-image" is like the main sensation, only weaker. There is also a "negative after-image", best got by looking steadily at a black-and-white or colored figure for as long as fifteen or twenty seconds, and then directing the eyes upon a medium gray background. After a moment a sensation develops in which black takes the place of white and white of black, while for each color in the original sensation the complementary color now appears.

This phenomenon of the negative after-image is the same as that of color adaptation. Exposing the retina for some time to light of a certain color adapts the retina to that color, bleaches that color sensation, and, as it were, subtracts that color (or some of it) from the gray at which the eyes are then directed; and gray (or white) minus a color gives the complementary color.


Contrast is still another effect that occurs in other senses, but most strikingly in vision. There is considerable in common between the negative after-image and contrast; indeed, {228} the negative after-image effect is also called "successive contrast". After looking at a bright surface, one of medium brightness appears dark, while this same medium brightness would seem bright after looking at a dark surface. This is evidently adaptation again, and is exactly parallel to what was found in regard to the temperature sense. After looking at any color steadily, the complementary color appears more saturated than usual; in fact, this is the way to secure the maximum of saturation in color sensation. These are examples of "successive contrast".

"Simultaneous contrast" is something new, not covered by adaptation, but gives the same effects as successive contrast. If you take two pieces of the same gray paper, and place one on a black background and the other on white, you will find the piece on the black ground to look much brighter than the piece on the white ground. Spots of gray on colored backgrounds are tinged with the complementary colors. The contrast effect is most marked at the margin adjoining the background, and grows less away from this margin. Any two adjacent surfaces produce contrast effects in each other, though we usually do not notice them any more than we usually notice the after-images that occur many times in the course of the day.

The Sense of Hearing

Sound, like light, is physically a wave motion, though the sound vibrations are very different from those of light. They travel 1,100 feet a second, instead of 186,000 miles a second. Their wave-length is measured in feet instead of in millionths of a millimeter, and their vibration frequencies are counted in tens, hundreds and thousands per second, instead of in millions of millions. But sound waves vary among themselves in the same three ways that we {229} noticed in light waves: in amplitude, in wave-length (or vibration rate), and in degree of mixture of different wave-lengths.

Difference of amplitude (or energy) of sound waves produces difference of loudness in auditory sensation, which thus corresponds to brightness in visual sensation. Sounds can be arranged in order of loudness, as visual sensations can be arranged in order of brightness, both being examples of intensity series such as can be arranged in any kind of sensation.

Difference of wave-length of sound waves produces difference in the pitch of auditory sensation, which thus corresponds to color in visual sensation. Pitch ranges from the lowest notes, produced by the longest audible waves, to the highest, produced by the shortest audible waves. It is customary, in the case of sound waves, to speak of vibration rate instead of wave-length, the two quantities being inversely proportional to each other (in the same conducting medium). The lowest audible sound is one of about sixteen vibrations per second, and the highest one of about 30,000 per second, while the waves to which the ear is most sensitive have a vibration rate of about 1,000 to 4,000 per second. The ear begins to lose sensitiveness as early as the age of thirty, and this loss is most noticeable at the upper limit, which declines slowly from this age on.

Middle C of the piano (or any instrument) has a vibration rate of about 260. Go up an octave from this and you double the number of vibrations per second; go down an octave and you halve the number of vibrations. Of any two notes that are an octave apart, the upper has twice the vibration rate of the lower. The whole range of audible notes, from 16 to 30,000 vibrations, thus amounts to about eleven octaves, of which music employs about eight octaves, finding little use for the upper and lower extremes of the {230} pitch series. The smallest step on the piano, called the "semitone", is one-twelfth of an octave; but it must not be supposed that this is the smallest difference that can be perceived. A large proportion of people can observe a difference of four vibrations, and keen ears a difference of less than one vibration; whereas the semitone, at middle C, is a step of about sixteen vibrations.

Mixture of different wave-lengths, which in light causes difference of saturation, may be said in sound to cause difference of purity. A "pure tone" is the sensation aroused by a stimulus consisting wholly of waves of the same length. Such a stimulus is almost unobtainable, because every sounding body gives off, along with its fundamental waves, other waves shorter than the fundamental and arousing tone sensations of higher pitch, called "overtones". A piano string which, vibrating as a whole, gives 260 vibrations per second (middle C), also vibrates at the same time in halves, thus giving 520 vibrations per second; in thirds, giving 780 per second; and in other smaller segments. The whole stimulus given off by middle C of the piano is thus a compound of fundamental and overtones; and the sensation aroused by this complex stimulus is not a "pure tone" but a blend of fundamental tone and overtones. By careful attention and training, we can "hear out" the separate overtones from the total blend; but ordinarily we take the blend as a unit (just as we take the taste of lemonade as a unit), and hear it simply as middle C of a particular quality, namely the piano quality. Another instrument will give a somewhat different combination of overtones in the stimulus, and that means a different quality of tone in our sensation. We do not ordinarily analyze these complex blends, but we distinguish one from another perfectly well, and thus can tell whether a piano or a cornet is playing. The difference between different instruments, which we have spoken of as a {231} difference in quality or purity of tone, is technically known as timbre; and the timbre of an instrument depends on the admixture of shorter waves with the fundamental vibration which gives the main pitch of a note.

Akin to the timbre of an instrument is the vowel produced by the human mouth in any particular position. Each vowel appears to consist, physically, of certain high notes produced by the resonance of the mouth cavity. In the position for "ah", the cavity gives a certain tone; in the position for "ee" it gives a higher tone. Meanwhile, the pitch of the voice, determined by the vibration of the vocal cords, may remain the same or vary in any way. The vowel tones differ from overtones in remaining the same without regard to the pitch of the fundamental tone that is being sung or spoken, whereas overtones move up or down along with their fundamental. The vowels, as auditory sensations, are excellent examples of blends, in that, though compounds, they usually remain unanalyzed and are taken simply as units. What has been said of the vowels applies also to the semi-vowels and continuing consonants, such as l, m, n, r, f, th, s and sh.

Other consonants are to be classed with the noises. Like a vowel, and like the timbre of an instrument, a noise is a blend of simple tones; but the fundamental tone in a noise-blend is not so preponderant as to give a clear pitch to the total sound, while the other tones present are often too brief or too unsteady to give a tonal effect.

Comparison of Sight and Hearing

The two senses of sight and hearing have many curious differences, and one of the most curious appears in mixing different wave-lengths. Compare the effect of throwing two colored lights together into the eye with the effect of {232} throwing two notes together into the ear. Two notes sounded together may give either a harmonious blend or a discord; now the discord is peculiar to the auditory realm; mixed colors never clash, though colors seen side by side may do so to a certain extent. A discord of tones is characterized by imperfect blending (something unknown in color mixing), and by roughness due to the presence of "beats" (another thing unknown in the sense of sight). Beats are caused by the interference between sound waves of slightly different vibration rate. If you tune two whistles one vibration apart and sound them together, you get a tone that swells once a second; tune them ten vibrations apart and you get ten swellings or beats per second, and the effect is rough and disagreeable.

Aside from discord, a tone blend is really not such a different sort of thing from a color blend. A chord, in which the component notes blend while they can still, by attention and training, be "heard out of the chord", is quite analogous with such color blends as orange, purple or bluish green. At the same time, there is a curious difference here. By analogy with color mixing, you would expect two notes, as C and E, when combined, to give the same sensation as the single intermediate note D. Nothing of the kind! Were it so, music would be very different from what it is, if indeed it were possible at all. But the real difference between the two senses at this point is better expressed by saying that D does not give the effect of a combination of C and E, or, in general, that no one note ever gives the effect of a combination or blend of notes higher and lower than itself. Homogeneous orange light gives the sensation of a blend of red and yellow; but there is nothing like this in the auditory sphere. In light, some wave-lengths give the effect of simple colors, as red and yellow; and other wave-lengths the effect of blends, as greenish yellow or bluish {233} green; but in sound, every wave-length gives a tone which seems just as elementary as any other.

There is nothing in auditory sensation to correspond to white, no simple sensation resulting from the combined action of all wave-lengths. Such a combination gives noise, but nothing that seems particularly simple. There is nothing auditory to correspond with black, for silence seems to be a genuine absence of sensation. There are no complementary tones like the complementary colors, no tones that destroy each other instead of blending. In a word, auditory sensation tallies with its stimulus much more closely than visual sensation does with its; and the main secret of this advantage of the sense of hearing is that it has a much larger number of elementary responses. Against the six elementary visual sensations are to be set auditory elements to the number of hundreds or thousands. From the fact that every distinguishable pitch gives a tone which seems as simple and unblended as any other, the conclusion would seem to be that each was an element; and this would mean thousands of elements. On the other hand, the fact that tones close together in pitch sound almost alike may mean that they have elements in common and are thus themselves compounds; but still there would undoubtedly be hundreds of elements.

Both sight and hearing are served by great armies of sense cells, but the two armies are organized on very different principles. In the retina, the sense cells are spread out in such a way that each is affected by light from one particular direction; and thus the retina gives excellent space information. But each retinal cell is affected by any light that happens to come from its particular direction. Every cone, in the central area of the retina, makes all the elementary visual responses and gives all the possible color sensations; so it is not strange that the number of visual {234} elements is small. On the other hand, the ear, having no sound lens, has no way of keeping separate the sounds from different directions (and accordingly gives only meager indications of the direction of sound); but its sense cells are so spread out as to be affected, some by sound of one wavelength, others by other wave-lengths. The different tones do not all come from the same sense cells. Some of the auditory cells give the low tones, others the medium tones, still others the high tones; and since there are thousands of cells, there may be thousands of elementary responses.

Theory of Hearing

The most famous theory of the action of the inner ear is the "piano theory" of Helmholtz. The foundation of the theory is the fact that the sense cells of the cochlea stand on the "basilar membrane", a long, narrow membrane, stretched between bony attachments at either side, and composed partly of fibers running crosswise, very much as the strings of a piano or harp are stretched between two side bars. If you imagine the strings of a piano to be the warp of a fabric and interwoven with crossing fibers, you have a fair idea of the structure of the basilar membrane, except for the fact that the "strings" of the basilar membrane do not differ in length anywhere like as much as the strings of the piano must differ in order to produce the whole range of notes. Now, a piano string can be thrown into "sympathetic vibration", as when you put on the "loud pedal" (remove the dampers from the strings) and then sing a note into the piano. You will find that the string of the pitch sung has been thrown into vibration by the action of the sound waves sung against it.

Now suppose the strings of the basilar membrane to be tuned to notes of all different pitches, within the range of {235} audible vibrations: then each string would be thrown into sympathetic vibration whenever waves of its own vibration rate reached it by way of the outer and middle ear; and the sense cells standing over the vibrating fibers would be shaken and excited. The theory is very attractive because it would account so nicely for the great number of elementary tone sensations (there are over 20,000 fibers or strings in the basilar membrane), as well as for various other facts of hearing—if we could only believe that the basilar membrane did vibrate in this simple manner, fiber by fiber. But (1) the fabric into which the strings of the membrane are woven would prevent their vibrating as freely and independently as the theory requires; (2) the strings do not differ in length a hundredth part of what they would need to differ in order to be tuned to all notes from the lowest to the highest, and there is no sign of differences in stretch or in loading of the strings to make up for their lack of difference in length; and (3) a little model of the basilar membrane, exposed to sound waves, is seen to be thrown into vibration, indeed, and into different forms of vibration for waves of different length, but not by any means into the simple sort of vibration demanded by the piano theory. This theory is accordingly too simple, but it probably points the way towards some truer, more complex, conception.

The fact that there are many elementary sensations of hearing is the chief reason why the art of tones is so much more elaborate than the art of color; for while painting might dispute with music as to which were the more highly developed art, painting depends on form as well as color, and there is no art of pure color at all comparable with music, which makes use simply of tones (and noises) with their combinations and sequences.


Senses of Bodily Movement

It is a remarkable fact that some parts of the inner ear are not connected with hearing at all, but with quite another sense, the existence of which was formerly unsuspected. The two groups of sense cells in the vestibule—the otolith organs—were formerly supposed to be the sense organ for noise; but noise now appears to be a compound of tones, and its organ, therefore, the cochlea. The semicircular canals, from their arrangement in three planes at right angles to each other, were once supposed to analyze the sound according to the direction from which it came; but no one could give anything but the vaguest idea of how they might do this, and besides the ear is now known to give practically no information regarding the direction of sound, except the one fact whether it comes from the right or left, which is given by the difference in the stimulation received by the two ears, and not by anything that exists in either ear taken alone.

The semicircular canals have been much studied by the physiologists. They found that injury to these structures brought lack of equilibrium and inability to walk, swim or fly in a straight course. If, for example, the horizontal canal in the left ear is destroyed, the animal continually deviates to the left as he advances, and so is forced into a "circus movement". They found that the compensatory movements normally made in reaction to a movement impressed on the animal from without were no longer made when the canals were destroyed. They found that something very much like these compensatory movements could be elicited by direct stimulation of the end-organs in the canals or of the sensory nerves leading from them. And they found that little currents of the liquid filling the canals acted as a stimulus to these end-organs and so aroused the {237} compensatory movements. They were thus led to accept a view that was originally suggested by the position of the canals in space.

Each "semicircular" canal, itself considerably more than a semicircular tube, opens into the vestibule at each end and thus amounts to a complete circle. Therefore rotating the head must, by inertia, produce a back flow of the fluid contents of the canal, and this current, by bending the hairs of the sense cells in the canal, would stimulate them and give a sensation of rotation, or at least a sensory nerve impulse excited by the head rotation.

When a human subject is placed, blindfolded, in a chair that can be rotated without sound or jar, it is found that he can easily tell whenever you start to turn him in either direction. If you keep on turning him at a constant speed, he soon ceases to sense the movement, but if then you stop him, he says you are starting to turn him in the opposite {238} direction. He senses the beginning of the rotary movement because this causes the back flow through his canals; he ceases to sense the uniform movement because friction of the liquid in the slender canal soon abolishes the back flow by causing the liquid to move with the canal; and he senses the stopping of this movement because the liquid, again by inertia, continues to move in the direction it had been moving just before when it was keeping pace with the canal. Thus we see that there are conscious sensations of rotation from the canals, and that these give information of the starting or stopping of a rotation, though not of its steady continuance. Excessive stimulation of the canals gives the sensation of dizziness.

The otolith organs in the vestibule are probably excited, not by rotary movements, but by sudden startings and stoppings of rectilinear motion, as in an elevator; and also by the pull of gravity when the head is held in any position. They give information regarding the position and rectilinear movements of the head, as the canals do of rotary head movements. Both are important in maintaining equilibrium and motor efficiency.

The muscle sense is another sense of bodily movement; it was the "sixth sense", so bitterly fought in the middle of the last century by those who maintained that the five senses that were enough for our fathers ought to be enough for us, too. The question was whether the sense of touch did not account for all sensations of bodily movement. It was shown that there must be something besides the skin sense, because weights were better distinguished when "hefted" in the hand than when simply laid in the motionless palm; and it was shown that loss of skin sensation in an arm or leg interfered much less with the cooerdinated movements of the limb than did the loss of all the sensory nerves to the limb.

Later, the crucial fact was established {239} that sense organs (the "muscle spindles") existed in the muscles and were connected with sensory nerve fibers; and that other sense organs existed in the tendons and about {240} the joints. This sense accordingly might better be called the "muscle, tendon and joint sense", but the shorter term, "muscle sense", bids fair to stick. The Greek derivative, "kinesthesis", meaning "sense of movement", is sometimes used as an equivalent; and the corresponding adjective, "kinesthetic", is common.

The muscle sense informs us of movements of the joints and of positions of the limbs, as well as of resistance encountered by any movement. Muscular fatigue and soreness are sensed through the same general system of sense organs. This sense is very important in the control of movement, both reflex and voluntary movement. Without it, a person lacks information of where a limb is to start with, and naturally cannot know what movement to make; or, if a movement is in process of being executed, he has no information as to how far the movement has progressed and cannot tell when to stop it. Thus it is less strange than it first appears to learn that "locomotor ataxia", a disease which shows itself in poor control of movement, is primarily a disease affecting not the motor nerves but the sensory nerves that take care of the muscle sense.



1. Outline the chapter, rearranging the material somewhat, so as to state, under each sense, (a) what sense cells, if any, are present in the sense organ, (b) what accessory apparatus is present in the sense organ, (c) what stimuli arouse the sense, (d) what are the elementary responses of the sense, (e) peculiar blends occurring within the sense or between this sense and another, (f) what can be said regarding adaptation of the sense, and (g) what can be said regarding after-images of the sense.

2. Classify the senses according as they respond to stimuli (a) internal to the body, (b) directly affecting the surface of the body, (c) coming from a distance.

3. What distinctive uses are made of each sense?

4. Explore a small portion of the skin, as on the back of the hand, for cold spots, and for pain spots.

5. Try to analyze the smooth sensation obtained by laying the finger tip on a sheet of paper, and the rough sensation obtained by laying the finger tip on the surface of a brush, and to describe the difference in terms of the elementary skin sensations.

6. Is the pain sense a highly developed sense, to judge from its sense organ? Is it highly specialized? highly sensitive? How does its peculiarity in these respects fit it for its use?

7. Separation of taste and smell. Compare the taste of foods when the nostrils are held closed with the taste of the same food when the nostrils are opened.

8. Make a complete analysis of the sensations obtained from chocolate ice cream in the mouth.

9. Peripheral vision. (a) Color sense. While your eyes are looking rigidly straight ahead, take a bit of color in the hand and bring it slowly in from the side, noticing what color sensation you get from it when it can first be seen at all, and what changes in color appear as it moves from the extreme periphery to the center of the field of view, (b) Form sense. Use printed letters in the same way, noticing how far out they can be read, (c) Sense of motion. Notice how far out a little movement of the finger can be seen. Sum up what you have learned of the differences between central and peripheral vision. What is the use of peripheral vision?

10. Light and dark adaptation. Go from a dimly lighted place into bright sunlight, and immediately try for an instant to read with the sun shining directly upon the page. Remaining in the sunlight, {242} repeat the attempt every 10 seconds, and notice how long it takes for the eye to become adapted to the bright light. Having become light-adapted, go back into a dimly lighted room, and see whether dark-adaptation takes more or less time than light-adaptation.

11. Color adaptation. Look steadily at a colored surface, and notice whether the color fades as the exposure continues. Try looking at the color with one eye only, and after a minute look at the color with each eye separately, and notice whether the saturation appears the same to the eye that has been exposed to the color, and to the eye that has been shielded.

12. Negative after-images. Look steadily for half a minute at a black cross upon a white surface, and then turn the eyes upon a plain gray surface, and describe what you see. (b) Look steadily for half a minute at a colored spot upon a white or gray background, and then turn the eyes upon a gray background, and note the color of the after-image of the spot. Repeat with a different color, and try to reach a general statement as to the color of the negative after-image.

13. Positive visual after-images. Look in the direction of a bright light, such as an electric light, holding the hand as a screen before the eyes, so that you do not see the light. Withdraw the hand for a second, exposing the eyes to the light, and immediately screen the eyes again, and notice whether the sensation of the light outlasts the stimulus.

14. Tactile after-images. Touch the skin lightly for an instant, and notice whether the sensation ends as soon as the stimulus is removed. If there is any after-image, is it positive or negative?

15. Tactile adaptation. Support two fingers on the edge of a table, and lay on them a match or some other light object. Let this stimulus remain there, motionless, and notice whether the tactile sensation remains steady or dies out. What is the effect of making slight movements of the fingers, and so causing the stimulus to affect fresh parts of the skin?

16. Temperature sense adaptation. Have three bowls of water, one quite warm, one cold, one medium. After holding one hand in the warm water and the other in the cold, transfer both simultaneously to the medium water and compare the temperature sensations got by each hand from this water. State the result in terms of adaptation.

17. Overtones. These can be quite easily heard in the sound of a large bell. What use does the sense of hearing make of overtones?

REFERENCES For a somewhat fuller discussion of the topic of sensation, see Warren's Human Psychology, 1919, pp. 151-214; and for a much fuller discussion, see Titchener's Textbook of Psychology, 1909, pp. 46-224.


For a really thorough consideration of the facts and theories of color vision, see J. Herbert Parsons, An Introduction to the Study of Colour Vision, 1915.

For a more complete statement of the Ladd-Franklin theory, see the article on "Vision", in Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, 1902.

For a recent study that has revolutionized the psychology of the sense of smell, see Der Geruch, by Hans Henning, 1916, or a review of the same by Professor Gamble in the American Journal of Psychology, 1921, Vol. 32, pp. 290-296.

For an extensive discussion of the "Psychology of Sound", sec the book with this title by Henry J. Watt, 1917.

For a full account of taste, see Hollingworth and Poffenberger's Sense of Taste, 1917.





"Attention!" shouts the officer as a preliminary to some more specific command, and the athletic starter calls out "Ready!" for the same purpose. Both commands are designed to put the hearer in an attitude of readiness for what is coming next. They put a stop to miscellaneous doings and clear the way for the specific reaction that is next to be called for. They nullify the effect of miscellaneous stimuli that are always competing for the hearer's attention, and make him responsive only to stimuli coming from the officer. They make the hearer clearly conscious of the officer. They arouse in the hearer a condition of keen alertness that cannot be maintained for more than a few seconds unless some further command comes from the officer. In all these ways "attention" in the military sense, or "readiness" in the athletic sense, affords a good picture of the psychology of attention. Attention is preparatory, selective, mobile, highly conscious. To attend to a thing is to be keenly conscious of that thing, it is to respond to that thing and disregard other things, and it is to expect something more from that thing.

Attention is, in a word, exploratory. To attend is to explore, or to start to explore. Primitive attention amounts to the same as the instinct of exploration. Its natural stimulus is anything novel or sudden, its "emotional state" is curiosity or expectancy, and its instinctive reaction consists {245} of exploratory movements. Its inherent impulse is to explore, examine, or await.

Attention belongs fundamentally among the native forms of behavior. The child does not have to learn to attend, though he must learn to attend to many things that do not naturally get his attention. Some stimuli naturally attract attention, and others attract attention only because of previous experience and training. In considering the whole subject of attention, then, we shall in part be dealing with native responses, and in part with responses that are acquired. But the great laws of attention, which will come to light in the course of the chapter, are at the same time general laws of reaction, and belong under the head of native characteristics.

The Stimulus, or What Attracts Attention

We can attend to anything whatever, but are more likely to attend to some things than to others. As stimuli for attention, some objects are much more effective than others, and the question is, in what way one object has the advantage over another. There are several ways, several "factors of advantage", we may call them.

Change is the greatest factor of advantage. A steady noise ceases after a while to be noticed, but let it change in any respect and immediately it arrests attention. The ticking of the clock is a good example: as long as it keeps uniformly on, it is unnoticed, but if it should suddenly beat faster or louder or in a different key, or even if it should stop altogether, it would "wake us up" with a start. The change in the stimulus must not be too gradual if it is to be effective, it must have a certain degree of suddenness. It may be a change in intensity, a becoming suddenly stronger or weaker; or it may be change in quality, as in tone, or {246} color, or odor; or it may be a change in position, a movement in space. When one who is holding our arm gives it a sudden squeeze to attract our attention, that is a change of intensity; when we step from the bank into the water, the sudden change from warmth to cold, that gets our attention without fail, is a change of quality; and something crawling on the skin attracts attention by virtue of its motion. Anything moving in the field of view is also an unfailing stimulus to attention.

Strength, or high intensity of a stimulus, is another important factor of advantage. Other things being equal, a strong stimulus will attract attention before a weak one. A loud noise has the advantage over a low murmur, and a bright flash of light over a faint twinkle.

In the case of visible objects, size has about the same effect as intensity. The large features of the landscape are noticed before the little details. The advertiser uses large type, and pays for big space in the newspaper, in the effort to attract the attention of the reader.

[Footnote: Often he pays more than the space is worth; at least doubling the size of his "ad" will not, on the whole, double the amount of attention he gets, or the number of readers whose attention he will catch. The "attention value" of an advertisement has been found by Strong to increase, not as fast as the increase in space, but about as the square root of the space occupied.]

Another similar factor is repetition. Cover a billboard with several copies of the same picture, and it attracts more attention than a single one of the pictures would. Repeat a "motive" in the decoration of a building, and it is more likely to be noticed. Repeat a cry or call several times, and after a while it may be noticed, though not at first. The "summation of stimuli" has much the same effect as increasing the intensity of a single stimulus.

If, however, a stimulus is repeated or continued for a long time, it will probably cease to hold attention, because of its {247} monotony, or, in other words, because it lacks the element of change.

Striking quality is an advantage, quite apart from the matter of intensity. Saturated colors, though no stronger in intensity of light than pale colors, are stronger stimuli for attention. High notes are more striking than low. Itch, tickle and pain get attention in preference to smooth touch. "Striking" cannot be defined in physical terms, but simply refers to the fact that some kinds of stimulus get attention better than others.

Definite form has the advantage over what is vague. A small, sharply defined object, that stands out from its background, attracts the eye more than a broad, indefinite expanse of light such as the sky. In the realm of sound, "form" is represented by rhythm or tune, and by other definite sequences of sound, such as occur in the jingles that catch the little child's ear.

The factors of advantage so far mentioned are native, and a stimulus possessing one or more of them is a natural attention-stimulus. But the individual also learns what is worth noticing, and what is not, and thus forms habits of attention, as well as habits of inattention. The automobile driver forms the habit of attending to the sound of his motor, the botanist forms the habit of noticing such inconspicuous objects as the lichens on the tree trunks. On the other hand, any one forms the habit of not noticing repeated stimuli that have no importance for him. Move into a house next the railroad, and at first you notice every train that passes; even at night you awake with a start, dreaming that some monster is pursuing you; but after a few days the trains disturb you very little, night or day. The general rule covering attention habits is this: anything that you have to work with, or like to play with, acquires the power to attract your attention, while anything that you do nothing {248} with loses whatever hold on your attention it may have possessed by virtue of its intensity, quality, etc.

Besides these permanent habits of attention, there are temporary adjustments determined by the momentary interest or desire. Stimuli relevant to the momentary interest have an unwonted hold upon attention, while things out of line with this interest may escape attention altogether, even though the same things would ordinarily be noticed. What you shall notice in the store window is governed by what you are looking for as much as by the prominence of the object in the total display. When you are angry with a person, you notice bad points about him that you usually overlook, and any aroused desire adjusts or "sets" attention in a similar way. The desire or interest of the moment facilitates attention to certain stimuli and inhibits attention to others, and is thus an important factor of advantage.

The interest of the moment is often represented by a question. Ask yourself what spots of red there are in the field of view, and immediately various red spots jump out and strike the eye; ask yourself what pressure sensations you are getting from the skin, and immediately several obtrude themselves. A question sets attention towards whatever may furnish an answer.

To sum up, we may say that three general factors of advantage determine the power of any stimulus to attract attention. There is the native factor, consisting of change, intensity, striking quality, and definite form; there is the factor of habit, dependent on past experience; and there is the factor of present interest and desire.

The Motor Reaction in Attention

Attention is obviously a reaction of the individual to the stimulus that gets his attention; and it is in part a motor {249} reaction. The movements that occur in attending to an object are such as to afford a better view of it, or a better hearing of it, or, in general, such as to bring the sense organs to bear on it as efficiently as possible.

We may distinguish two sorts of motor reaction that occur in attention: the general attentive attitude, and the special adjustments of the sense organs. An audience absorbed in a speech or musical performance gives a good picture of the general attentive attitude. You notice that most people look fixedly towards the speaker, as if listening with their eyes, and that many of them lean forward as if it were important to get just as close as possible. All the little restless movements cease, so that you could "hear a pin drop", and at the tensest moments even the breath is checked. The attitude of attention is one of tense immobility, with the whole body oriented towards the object of attention. When the object of attention is something not present but thought of, a somewhat similar rigid attitude is assumed; the body is apt to lean forward, the neck to be held stiff, and the eyes to "stare at vacancy", i.e., to be fixed on some convenient object as a mere resting place, while attention is fixed outside the visual field altogether.

But we spoke of attention as mobile, and it would be strange if its mobility did not show itself in the motor reaction. It does in fact show itself in the sense organ adjustments which amount to exploratory reactions. Attention to an object in the hand is shown by "feeling of it", to a substance in the mouth by tasting movements, to an odor by sniffing movements, to a sound by cocking the head and turning the eyes towards the source of sound. The most instructive of this type of attention-reactions are those of the eyes. The eye is focused on the object that arouses attention, the lens being accommodated for its distance by the action of the little ciliary muscle inside the {250} eyeball; the two eyes are converged upon the object, so that the light from it strikes the fovea or best part of each retina; and the eyes are also turned up, down or sidewise, so as, again, to receive the light from the object upon the fovea.

This last class of eye movements is specially instructive and shows specially well the mobility of attention. Let a bright or moving object appear somewhere in the field of view—immediately the eyes turn towards it with a quick jump, fixate it for a few seconds and then jump elsewhere unless the object is found to be specially significant. Watch the eyes of one who is looking at a picture or scene of any sort, and you will see his eyes jumping hither and thither, as his attention shifts from one part of the scene to another. Ask him to abstain from this jumpy movement and let his eyes "sweep over" the scene, and he will confidently try to follow your instructions, but if you watch his eyes you will find them still jumping. In fact, "sweeping the glance" is a myth. It cannot be done. At least, there is only one case in which it can be done, and that is when there is a moving object to look at. Given an object moving at a moderate speed across the field of view, and the eyes can follow it and keep pace with it pretty accurately. But without the moving object as stimulus, the eyes can only execute the jump movement. There are thus two types of exploratory eye movement: the "jump" in passing from one object to another, and the "pursuit movement" in examining a moving object.

In reading, the eye moves by a series of short jumps from left to right along the first line of print, makes a long jump back to the beginning of the second line and another series of short jumps along that line, and so on. To appreciate the value of this jerky movement, we need to understand that each short jump occupies but a thirtieth to a fiftieth {251} of a second, while the "fixation pauses" between jumps last much longer, with the result that over ninety per cent. of the time spent on a line of print is fixation time, and less than ten per cent, is occupied in jumping from one fixation to the next. Now, it has been found that nothing of any consequence is seen during the eye jumps, and that the real seeing takes place only during the fixations. The jump movement, therefore, is simply a means of passing from one fixation to another with the least possible loss of time.

The eye sees an object distinctly only when at rest with respect to the object. If the object is still, the eye must be still to see it distinctly, and to see its different parts must fixate one after the other, jumping from one part to another. But if the object is in motion, the eye may still be able to see it distinctly by means of the pursuit movement, which is a sort of moving fixation.

The Shifting of Attention

Eye movement affords a good picture of the mobility of attention. Ordinarily the eye shifts frequently from one part of the field of view to another. When simply exploring a scene, it shifts about in what seems an indiscriminate way, though really following the principle of deserting each object as soon as it has been examined, and jumping to that other object which next has the advantage on account of movement, brightness, color, definite form, or habit of attention. In reading, however, the eye is governed by a definite interest, and moves consecutively along the series of words, instead of shifting irregularly about the page.

A moving object, or an object that is doing something, or even a complex object that presents a number of parts to be examined in turn, can hold the eye for some time. But it is almost impossible to hold the eye fixed for any length of time on a simple, motionless, unchanging object.


Attention is mobile because it is exploratory; it continually seeks something fresh for examination. In the presence of a complex of sights and sounds and touch stimuli, it tends to shift every second or two from one part of the situation to another. Even if you are lying in bed with your eyes closed, the movement of attention still appears in the rapid succession of thoughts and images, and some shift usually occurs as often as once a second.

A few simple experiments will serve to throw the shifting of attention into clearer relief. Look fixedly at a single letter written on a blank sheet of paper, and notice how one part after another of the letter stands out; notice also that attention does not stick absolutely to the letter, since thoughts obtrude themselves at intervals.

Or, make a "dot figure", composed of six or eight or more dots arranged either regularly or irregularly, and look steadily at the collection. Probably you will find that the dots seem to fall into figures and groups, and that the grouping changes frequently. Objectively, of course, the dots are grouped in one way as much as another, so that any particular grouping is your own doing. The objective stimulus, in other words, is capable of arousing several grouping reactions on your part, and does arouse different reactions one after another

Shifting also appears in looking at an {253} "ambiguous figure", drawn so as to represent equally well a solid object in either of two different positions. The transparent cube, showing near and far edges alike, is a good example. Look steadily at such a drawing, and the cube will appear to shift its position from time to time. Numerous such figures can be constructed; the most celebrated is the ambiguous staircase. Look steadily at it, and suddenly you see the under side of a flight of stairs, instead of the upper; and if you keep on looking steadily, it shifts back and forth between these two positions.

A still more striking case of shifting goes by the name of "binocular rivalry", and occurs when colors or figures that we cannot combine into a single picture are presented, {254} one to one eye, and the other to the corresponding part of the other retina. Hold red glass close in front of one eye and blue before the other, and look through both at once towards a bright background, and you will see red part of the time and blue part of the time, the two alternating as in the case of ambiguous figures.

The stereoscope is a great convenience in applying inconsistent stimuli to the two eyes, and by aid of this instrument a great variety of experiments can be made. It is thus found that, if the field before one eye is a plain color, while the other, of a different color, has any little figure on it, this figure has a great advantage over the rival plain color and stays in sight most of the time. Anything moving in one field has a similar advantage, and a bright field has the advantage over a darker one. Thus the same factors of advantage hold good in binocular rivalry as in native attention generally.

A different kind of shifting appears in what is called "fluctuation of attention". Make a light gray smudge on a white sheet of paper, and place this at such a distance that the gray will be barely distinguishable from the white {255} background. Looking steadily at the smudge, you will find it to disappear and reappear periodically. Or, place your watch at such a distance that its ticking is barely audible, and you will find the sound to go out and come back at intervals. The fluctuation probably represents periodic fatigue and recovery at the brain synapses concerned in observing the faint stimulus.

Shiftings of the fluctuation type, or of the rivalry type either, are not to be regarded as quite the same sort of thing as the ordinary shiftings of attention. The more typical movement of attention is illustrated by the eye movements in examining a scene, or by the sequence of ideas and images in thinking or dreaming. Rivalry and fluctuation differ from this typical shifting of attention in several ways:

(1) The typical movement of attention is quicker than the oscillation in rivalry or fluctuation. In rivalry, each appearance may last for many seconds before giving way to the other, whereas the more typical shift of attention occurs every second or so. In fact, during a rivalry or fluctuation experiment, you may observe thoughts coming and going at the same time, and at a more rapid rate than the changes in the object looked at. Attention does not really hold steady during the whole time that a single appearance of an ambiguous figure persists.

(2) Rivalry shifts are influenced very little, if at all, by the factor of momentary desire or interest, and are very little subject to control.

(3) In rivalry, the color that disappears goes out entirely, and in looking at a dot figure or ambiguous figure you get the same effect, since the grouping or appearance that gives way to another vanishes itself for the time being. But when, in exploring a scene with the eyes, you turn from one object to another, the object left behind simply retires to the background, without disappearing altogether; and, {256} in the same way, when attention shifts from one noise to another, the first noise does not lapse altogether but remains vaguely heard. Or when, in thinking of a number of people, one after another comes to mind, the first one does not go out of mind altogether when attention moves to the next, but remains still vaguely present for a few moments.

Laws of Attention and Laws of Reaction in General

Shifting occurs also in reflex action. Let two stimuli be acting at once, the one calling for one reflex and the other for the opposed reflex (as flexion and extension of the same limb), and the result is that only one of these reactions will occur at the same time, the other being completely inhibited; but the inhibited reflex gets its turn shortly, provided the two stimuli continue to act, and, in fact, the two reactions may alternate in a way that reminds us of binocular rivalry or ambiguous figures. Three fundamental laws of reaction here come to light.

(1) The law of selection: of two or more inconsistent responses to the same situation (or complex of stimuli), only one is made at the same time.

(2) The law of advantage: one of the alternative responses has an initial advantage over the others, due to such factors as intensity and change in the stimulus, or to habits of reaction.

(3) The law of shifting: the response that has the initial advantage loses its advantage shortly, and an alternative response is made, provided the situation remains the same.

These three laws hold good of reactions at all levels, from reflex action to rational thinking.

The mobility of attention obeys these same laws; only, attention is livelier and freer in its movements than reflex action or than the shifting in rivalry. Attention is more mobile and less bound to rigid rules.


Sustained Attention

The mobility of attention is only half the story. When we speak, for instance, of a student as having good powers of attention, we are not thinking of mobility but rather of the opposite.

Eye movement, which we employed before as a picture of the movement of attention, affords also a picture of sustained attention. Remember how the eye moves in reading. Every second it shifts, but still it keeps to the line of print. Just so, attention keeps moving forward in the story we are reading, but sticks to the story. The more absorbed we are in the story, the more rapidly we read. Attention is sustained here, and still it moves. Sustained attention is not glued to one point, by any means, but is simply confined to a given object or theme, within which its motion may be as lively as ever.

What is it, then, that sustains attention? Evidently it is the factor of present desire or interest, already mentioned. It is a reaction-tendency, aroused to activity by some stimulus or other, unable to reach its goal instantly, but persisting in activity for a while and facilitating responses that are in its line, while inhibiting others. Such a tendency facilitates response, i.e., attention, to certain stimuli, and inhibits attention to others, thus causing them to be overlooked and neglected.

For the student, the ideal attention-sustainer is an interest in the matter presented. If, however, he cannot get up any absorbing interest in the subject-matter at once, he may generate the necessary motive force by taking the lesson as a "stunt", as something to be mastered, a spur to his self-assertion. In the old days, fear was often the motive force relied upon in the schoolroom, and the switch hanging {258} behind the efficient teacher's desk was the stimulus to sustained attention. There must be some tendency aroused if attention is to be sustained. The mastery impulse is certainly superior to fear for the purpose, but better than either is a genuine interest in the subject studied.

In order to get up a genuine interest in a subject—an objective or inherent interest—it is usually necessary to penetrate into the subject for some little distance. The subject may not appeal to any of our native impulses, or to any interest that has been previously acquired, and how then are we to hold attention to it long enough to discover its inherent interest? Curiosity will give us a start, but is too easily satisfied to carry us far. Fear of punishment or disapproval, hope of reward or praise, being put on our mettle, or realizing the necessity of this subject for our future success, may keep us going till we find the subject attractive in itself.

So, when the little child is learning to read, the printed characters have so little attractiveness in themselves that he naturally turns away from them after a brief exploration. But, because he is scolded when his mind wanders from those marks, because other children make fun of his blunders, because, when he reads correctly, he feels the glow of success and of applause, he does hold himself to the printed page till he is able to read a little, after which his interest in what he is reading is sufficient, without extraneous motives, to keep his nose between the covers of the story book more, perhaps, than is good for him. The little child, here, is the type of the successful student.

Attention to a subject thus passes through three stages in its development. First comes the instinctive exploratory sort of attention, favored by the native factors of advantage. Next comes the stage of forced attention, driven by {259} extraneous motives, such as fear or self-assertion. Finally arrives the stage of objective interest. In the first and last stages attention is spontaneous, in the middle stage forced. The middle stage is often called that of voluntary attention, since effort has to be exerted to sustain attention, while the first and last stages, being free from effort, may be called involuntary.


Distraction is an important topic for consideration in connection with sustained attention. A distraction is a stimulus that attracts attention away from the thing to which we mean to attend. There are always competing stimuli, and the various factors of advantage, especially desire or interest, determine which stimulus shall get attention at any moment.

In the excited insane condition known as "mania" or the "manic state", the patient is excessively distractible. He commences to tell you something, all interest in what he has to say, but, if you pull out your watch while he is talking, he drops his story in the middle of a sentence and shifts to some remark about the watch. He seems to have no impulse persistent enough to hold his thoughts steady. There are contrary insane conditions in which it is almost impossible to distract the patient from his own inner broodings, so much is he absorbed in his own troubles.

Distraction is a favorite topic for experiment in the laboratory. The subject is put to work adding or typewriting, and works for a time in quiet, after which disturbances are introduced. A bell rings, a phonograph record is played, perhaps a perfect bedlam of noise is let loose; with the curious result that the subject, only momentarily distracted, accomplishes more work rather than less. The distraction has acted as a stimulus to greater effort, and by this effort {260} is overcame. This does not always happen so in real life, but it shows the possibilities of sustained attention.

There are several ways of overcoming a distraction. First, greater energy may be thrown into the task one is trying to perform. The extra effort is apt to show itself in gritting the teeth, reading or speaking aloud, and similar muscular activity which, while entirely unnecessary for executing the task in hand, helps by keeping the main stream of energy directed into the task instead of toward the distracting stimuli. Effort is necessary when the main task is uninteresting, or when the distraction is specially attractive, or even when the distraction is something new and strange and likely to arouse curiosity. But one may grow accustomed or "adapted" to an oft-recurring distraction, so as to sidetrack it without effort; in other words, a habit of inattention to the distracting stimulus may be formed. There is another, quite different way of overcoming a distraction, which works very well where it can be employed, and that is to couple the distraction to the main task, so as to deal with both together. An example is seen in piano playing. The beginner at the piano likes to play with the right band alone, because striking a note with the left hand distracts him from striking the proper note with the right. But, after practice, he couples the two hands, strikes the bass note of a chord with the left hand while his right strikes the other notes of the same chord, and much prefers two-handed to one-handed playing. In short, to overcome a distraction, you either sidetrack it or else couple it to your main task.

Doing Two Things at Once

The subject of distraction brings to mind the question that is often asked, "Can any one do two things at once?" In this form, the question admits of but one answer, for we {261} are always doing at least two things at once, provided we are doing anything else besides breathing. We have no trouble in breathing and walking at the same time, nor in seeing while breathing and walking, nor even in thinking at the same time. But breathing, walking, and seeing are so automatic as to require no attention. The more important question then, is whether we can do two things at once, when each demands careful attention.

The redoubtable Julius Caesar, of happy memory, is said to have been able to dictate at once to several copyists. Now, Caesar's copyists were not stenographers, but wrote in long-hand, so that he could speak much faster than they could write. What he did, accordingly, was undoubtedly to give the first copyist a start on the first letter he wished to send, then turn to the second and give him a start on the second letter, and so on, getting back to the first in time to keep him busy. Quite an intellectual feat, certainly! But not a feat requiring absolutely simultaneous attention to several different matters. In a small way, any one can do something of the same kind. It is not impossible to add columns of numbers while reciting a familiar poem; you get the poem started and then let it run on automatically for a few words while you add a few numbers, switch back to the poem and then back to the adding, and so on. But in all this there is no doing of two things, attentively, at the same instant of time.

You may be able, however, to combine two acts into a single cooerdinated act, in the way just described under the head of distraction, and give undivided attention to this compound act.

The Span of Attention

Similar to the question whether we can attentively perform more than a single act at a time is the question of {262} how many different objects we can attend to at once. The "span of attention" for objects of any given kind is measured by discovering how many such objects can be clearly seen, or heard, or felt, in a single instant of time. Measurement of this "span" is one of the oldest experiments in psychology. Place a number of marbles in a little box, take a single peek into the box and see if you know how many marbles are there. Four or five you can get in a single glance, but with more there you become uncertain.

In the laboratory we have "exposure apparatus" for displaying a card for a fifth of a second or less, just enough time for a single glance. Make a number of dots or strokes on the card and see whether the subject knows the number on sight. He can tell four or five, and beyond that makes many mistakes.

Expose letters not making any word and he can read about four at a glance. But if the letters make familiar words, he can read three or four words at a glance. If the words make a familiar phrase, he gets a phrase of several words, containing as many as twenty letters, at a single glance.

Expose a number of little squares of different colors, and a well-trained subject will report correctly as many as five colors, though he cannot reach this number every time.

Summary of the Laws of Attention

Bringing together now what we have learned regarding the higher and more difficult forms of attention, as revealed by sustained attention and work under distraction, by the span of attention and by trying to do two things at once, we find the previously stated three laws of attention further illustrated, and a couple of new laws making their appearance.

(1) The law of selection still holds good in these more {263} difficult performances, since only one attentive response is made at the same instant of time. Automatic activities may be simultaneously going on, but any two attentive responses seem to be inconsistent with each other, so that the making of one excludes the other, in accordance with the general law of selection.

What shall we say, however, of reading four disconnected letters at the same time, or of seeing clearly four colors at the same time? Here, it would seem, several things are separately attended to at once. The several things are similar, and close together, and the responses required are all simple and much alike. Such responses, under such very favorable conditions, are perhaps, then, not inconsistent with each other, so that two, three, or even four such attentive responses may be made at the same time.

(2) The law of advantage holds good, as illustrated by the fact that some distractions are harder to resist than others.

(3) The law of shifting holds good, as illustrated by the constant movement of attention, even when it is "sustained", and by the alternation between two activities when we are trying to carry them both along simultaneously.

(4) The law of sustained attention, or of tendency in attention, is the same old law of tendency that has shown itself repeatedly in earlier chapters. A tendency, when aroused to activity, facilitates responses that are in its line and inhibits others. A tendency is thus a strong factor of advantage, and it limits the shifting of attention.

(5) A new law has come to light, the law of combination, which reads as follows: a single response may be made to two or more stimuli; or, two or more stimuli may arouse a single joint response.

Even though, in accordance with the law of selection, only one attentive response is made at the same time, more than {264} one stimulus may be dealt with by this single attentive response. Groups of four dots are grasped as units, familiar words are grasped as units. Notice that these units are our own units, not external units. Physically, a row of six dots is as much a unit as a row of four, but we grasp the four as a unit in a way that we cannot apply to the six. Physically, six letters are as much a unit when they do not form a word as when they do; but we can make a unitary response to the six in the one case and not in the other. The response is a unit, though aroused by a number of separate stimuli.

The law of combination, from its name, is open to a possible misconception, as if we reached out and grasped and combined the stimuli, whereas ordinarily we do nothing to the stimuli, except to see them and recognize them, or in some such way respond to them. The combination is something that happens in us; it is our response. If the expression were not so cumbersome, we might more accurately name this law that of "unitary response to a plurality of stimuli".

Sometimes, indeed, we do make an actual motor response to two or more stimuli, as when we strike a chord of several notes on the piano. The law of combination still holds good here, since the movements of the two hands are cooerdinated into a single act, which is thought of as a unit ("striking a chord"), attended to as a unit, and executed as a unit. Such cooerdinated movements may be called "higher motor units", and we shall find much to say regarding them when we come to the subject of learned reactions. The law of combination, all in all, will be found later to have extreme importance in learned reactions.

Passing now to another side of the study of attention, we shall immediately come across a sixth law to add to our list.


Attention and Degree of Consciousness

Up to this point, the introspective side of the psychology of attention has not been considered. One of the surest of all introspective observations belongs right here, to the effect that we are more conscious of that to which we are attending than of anything else. Of two stimuli acting at once upon us, we are the more conscious of that one which catches our attention; of two acts that we perform simultaneously, that one is more conscious that is performed attentively.

We need not be entirely unconscious of the act or the stimulus to which we are not attending. We may be dimly conscious of it. There are degrees of consciousness. Suppose, for example, you are looking out of the window while "lost in thought". You are most conscious of the matter of your thoughts, but conscious to a degree of what you see out of the window. Your eyes are focused on some particular object outside, and you are more conscious of this than of other objects seen in indirect vision, though even of these last you are not altogether unconscious. Consciousness shades off from high light to dim background.

The "field of attention" is the maximum or high light of consciousness; it comprises the object under attentive observation, the reaction attentively performed. The "field of consciousness" includes the field of attention and much besides. It includes objects of which we are vaguely aware, desires active but not clearly formulated, feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness, of tension, excitement, confidence, etc.

Apparently the field of consciousness shades off gradually into the field of unconscious activity. Some physiological processes go on unconsciously, and very habitual movements may be almost or entirely unconscious. The boundary {266} between what is vaguely conscious and what is entirely unconscious is necessarily very vague itself, but the probability is that the field of consciousness is broader than we usually suspect, and that many activities that we ordinarily think of as unconscious, because we do not observe them at the time nor remember them later, lie really near the margin of the field of consciousness, but inside that field. "Unconscious motives", such as spite or pride often seem to be, are probably vaguely conscious rather than unconscious. We shall return to the fascinating topic of the unconscious at the close of the book.

Degree of consciousness does not always tally with intensity of sensation or energy of muscular action. You may be more conscious of a slight but significant sound than of much louder noises occurring at the same time. You may be more conscious of a delicate finger movement than of a strong contraction of big muscles occurring at the same time. Degree of consciousness goes with degree of mental activity. Of all the reactions we are making at the same time—and usually there are several—the most active in a mental way is the most conscious. The slight sound arouses intense mental response because it means something of importance—like the faint cry of the baby upstairs, noticed instead of the loud noises of the street. The delicate finger movement aims at some difficult result, while the big muscles may be doing their accustomed work automatically.

It is not always the most efficient mental process that is most conscious; indeed, practising an act makes it both more efficient and less conscious. It is, rather, the less efficient processes that require attention, because they require mental work to keep them going straight.

Our sixth law of attention, emerging from this introspective study, is naturally of a different style from the remainder of the list, which were objectively observed; yet it {267} is no less certain and perhaps no less significant. It may be called:

(6) The law of degrees of consciousness, and thus stated: An attentive response is conscious to a higher degree than any inattentive response made at the same time. An inattentive response may be dimly conscious or, perhaps, altogether unconscious. The less familiar the response, and the higher it stands in the scale of mental performances, the more attentive it is, and the more conscious.

The Management of Attention

Attentive observation is more trustworthy than inattentive, and also gives more facts. Attentive movement is more accurate than inattentive, and may be quicker as well. Attentive study gives quicker learning than inattentive, and at the same time fixes the facts more durably.

Shall we say, then, "Do everything attentively"? But that is impossible. We sense so many stimuli at once that we could not possibly attend to all of them. We do several things at once, and cannot give attention to them all. A skilful performance consists of many parts, and we cannot possibly give careful attention to all the parts. Attention is necessarily selective, and the best advice is, not simply to "be attentive", but to attend to the right things.

In observation, the best plan is obviously to decide beforehand exactly what needs to be observed, and then to focus attention on this precise point. That is the principle underlying the remarkably sure and keen observation of the scientist. Reading may be called a kind of observation, since the reader is looking for what the author has to tell; and the rule that holds for other observation holds also for reading. That is to say that the reader finds the most when he knows just what he is looking for. We can learn {268} something here from story-reading, which is the most efficient sort of reading, in the sense that you get the point of the story better than that of more serious reading matter, the reason being that attention is always pressing forward in the story, looking for something very definite. You want to know how the hero gets out of the fix he is in, and you press forward and find out with great certainty and little loss of time. The best readers of serious matter have a similar eagerness to discover what the author has to say; they get the author's question, and press on to find his answer. Such readers are both quick and retentive. The dawdling reader, who simply spends so much time and covers so many pages, in the vague hope that something will stick, does not remember the point because he never got the point, and never got it because he wasn't looking for it.

In skilled movement, or skilled action of any sort, the best rule is to fix attention on the end-result or, if the process is long, on the result that immediately needs to be accomplished. "Keep your eye on the ball" when the end just now to be achieved is hitting the ball. Attention to the details of the process, though necessary in learning a skilled movement, is distracting and confusing after skill has been acquired. The runner does not attend to his legs, but to the goal or, if that is still distant, to the runner just ahead of him.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12     Next Part
Home - Random Browse