Friday, February 20, 2009

Mental Physiology and Attention.

After this I'm going to leave Dr Carpenter for the time being, but he may come up again as I go on through Charlotte Mason's thoughts on habits. Obviously these parts aren't very directly practical and I want to get to Charlotte Mason's practical thoughts on teaching habits, but her first practice was to "go back to the principles" to figure out how to teach and raise children, so I wanted to get the origins of the principles somewhat more clear in my own mind.

Also, sorry about the flood of posts! I want to get them all out here but if you don't happen to be very interested, feel free to skip these CM-theory oriented posts. This won't last forever but this blog is sort of a thinking place for me as you know.

Dr Carpenter, in Principles of Mental Physiology, speaks a bit in his preface about "Attention". In his day, as now, there were some theoretical scientists who believed everything about a human could be explained by biochemical processes. He argued against that. He said he noticed within himself that a person could *decide* how much of an impression something would make upon him. He could "alter the relative potency of different motives or sets of motives by determinately directing his attention to those which would draw him in one direction, and by partially or completely excluding those of an opposite tendency from his mental view."

If an "Automatist" (as he terms those with a mechanist point of view) argues that we decide based on the real strength of motive presented by our character set so far, he would argue in return that he is conscious of the act of will it takes to prefer one consideration over another. The desire alone is not enough; he has to make an effort to fix his will. He thinks that this is the operation of our free will and that it is the automaticism of our "default mode" (he does NOT use that term) that limits his freedom. He goes on to mention that some of the strongest evidence for his case outside his own consciousness of his mental processes is the work done in Education. A large part of education seems to be a process of helping the child to fix his effort in light of what his Reason and Moral Sense tell his Will to do, and to exclude from consideration the primitive considerations which would rule in the other direction.

In chapter III and following, he talks in detail about Attention and how it is mustered. Briefly he seems to consider that the continuum is similar to the one I mentioned in the last post in regard to walking. In some ways attentiveness is a simple automatic reflex. Even a tiny baby once its needs are met will look around and attend. And a very healthy and wonderful response to the world that is. As Charlotte Mason says, no learning can take place without some level of attention. Attention is what fixes our senses upon its environment. But Dr Carpenter points out that the Will uses attention in a regulative way as we get older. We learn to pay attention to a higher priority thing and discard what is less important.

If we are not careful, attention becomes a low-level acquired automatic thing and we only pay attention to what is specifically necessary to maneuver our environment. For example, we can easily drive to work and back consciously enough for safety, but not really noticing anything beyond the bare requirements of road awareness. This is actually a sign of the efficiency of the mind in selecting a sort of outline of what is necessary for survival, freeing the rest of the brain up to think about the problems at work or the enjoyments of the weekend or one's Rosary or whatever, but it pays to reflect on whether this automaticity is working for you or not.

People with attention deficit problems often have difficulty mustering and filtering their attention to what is important though not as pressing. To Dr Carpenter, there is a certain element of conscious choice in the effort or refusal to muster our attention to what needs attention. Obviously a child with an actual handicap like ADD would be in Carpenter's category that I mentioned earlier, comparable to the stammerer who might will not to stammer and fail until he could figure out a strategy for improvement. But that doesn't abridge our will, it just shows how its function is essentially selective -- it has to work with what it has.

You can certainly find lots of modern research about the physiology of attention. I'm just going to list a few for my own future reference and in case anyone else is interested. Many of these simply restate the obvious ("It is biologically impossible to learn and remember information to which the brain has not paid any attention") and some are more technical and theoretical in their focus ("Led by Donald Stuss, Ph.D., of the Rotman Research Institute, the psychologists say that their findings support a proposed cognitive architecture of attention.") but it still is interesting.

Attention and the Brain (pdf)
How the Brain Holds our Attention (pdf)

Study Shows How the Brain Pays Attention
Psychologists Draw an "Architecture of Attention"
Brain Knows When to REALLY Pay Attention

Directing Attention -- The Bane of Multi-Tasking
Smart But Underachieving -- When Knowledge, Creativity and Retrieval Diverge
Strategic Memory and Reason Training for Teens

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