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The Mastery Of Perception

Manifest Your Desires Effortlessly

A leading psychologist has given us a few observations on the nature of attention :

"(1) Attention will not attach itself to uninteresting things. (2) It will soon decline in vigor (a) if the stimulus is unvarying, or (b) if some now attribute is not discovered in the object. (3) Attention cannot remain constant in the same direction for a long period, because (a) the nervous apparatus of the senses soon tire under the strain of continuous attention toward any one object, and consequently respond with less vigor, (b) the same is true of brain cells. To prove the truth of this one has only to focus the eye continuously on one object, or to keep the attention fixed on the same phase of a subject. (4) When one kind of attention is exhausted, we may rest ourselves in two ways: (a) by giving ourselves up to the play of reflex (involuntary) attention, or (b) by directing our voluntary attention into a new channel. The amount of fatigue must determine which is better. (5) Attention too continuously centered upon the same unvarying sensation, or upon any unchanging object, has been proved by experiment to tend to induce either the hypnotic state or a comatose condition."

The secret of developing the power of Perception through the efficient employment of the Power of Attention consists in the main in the intelligent practice of the principles announced in the above quoted statement of the Laws of Attention. This being so, it follows that, at the very start of our consideration of the subject of The Mastery of Perception, we should fully acquaint ourselves with the merit and meaning of the said principles, that we may efficiently employ the same in our work of the Mastery of Perception. The following suggestions may be found of interest and value in this connection:

The first of the above laws states the difficulty of attaching the Attention to uninteresting things. But there is a remedy for this as follows: (a) in the application of the equally true principle that interest may be developed in a previously uninteresting thing, by studying and analyzing it. Everything has its interesting side, and examination will bring this into view, (b) By viewing a thing from varying viewpoints, and from different angles of physical and mental vision, new facts are discovered regarding it, and these discoveries awaken interest and renewed Attention.

The same remedy applies in the case of the second law. For by changing the point of view, and by discovering new qualities, properties and attributes in a thing, the stimulus is varied, and renewed interest is obtained.

The third law explains why the Attention cannot long remain focused in the same direction. A remedy for this will be found in the well-known psychological rule to study a thing by piecemeal. That is to say, instead of considering attentively the entire subject, or object, one should break it (mentally) into as many small sections as possible, and then proceed to study it by sections, one after another. This will vary the stimulus, increase interest, and widen the inquiry by reason of the analytical treatment. Remember that we learned the alphabet letter by letter, and not as a whole learned at one effort of the mind. This is not only the easiest way to "know" a subject, but it is also the best way to acquire a thorough knowledge of any subject or object.

The fourth law informs us that we may obtain rest for the tired Attention by (a) relaxing the voluntary Attention, and opening our consciousness to the impressions of involuntary, or reflex Attention—paying attention to the sights and sounds reaching us from outside, as for instance by closing our book and looking out of the window at the passing persons and things; or (b) by directing our voluntary Attention into a new channel, as by closing our book and picking up and reading another book along entirely different lines; or changing from an abstract subject to a concrete proposition, or vice versa. This expresses an important psychological principle, i.e., that the best way to rest and relax the Attention is to change the direction of its effort and activity. Change of occupation gives the best kind of rest to physical or mental muscles. Using one set of muscles, or brain-cells, gives the other set a chance to rest and recuperate. Some of our deepest thinkers have applied this principle by occasionally laying aside the important subjects of their thought, and then resting the minds by reading a thrilling and exciting, though trashy, detective story.

The fifth law merely serves to emphasize the effect of the unnatural concentration of Attention; and the fact that a varying stimulus is necessary for continued consciousness. It serves to point us to the middle of the road, avoiding the extreme of undue concentration on a single object on the one hand, and the other extreme of bestowing no voluntary Attention at all.

By acquainting himself with the general principles underlying the subject of Attention, as above given and commented upon, the reader will be better prepared to understand and assimilate the many applications of the said principles, under many and varying forms of application, in our further consideration of the subject of the Mastery of Perception. In our consideration of the above quoted Laws of Attention, we saw that the Attention would not easily attach itself to uninteresting things; and that the only way to overcome this trait was to make interesting the object which we wished to examine carefully under concentrated voluntary Attention. This, fortunately for us, is made possible to us by reason of the psychological law that "interest is awakened by Attention," which is just as true as that "Attention follows interest." The average person is able to arouse and maintain Attention only when interest already attaches to the object to be considered. But the Master Mind rides over this obstacle by first awakening interest in the thing by means of a careful examination under concentrated voluntary Attention, and thereafter allowing the Attention to flow freely along the channels of interest thus made. Here we have an instance of the will first creating a channel, and then traveling over its course.

In connection with the above, a leading psychologist has said: "When it is said that attention will not take a firm hold on an uninteresting thing, we must not forget that anyone not shallow and fickle can soon discover something interesting in most objects. Here cultivated minds show their especial superiority, for the attention which they are able to give generally ends in finding a pearl in the most uninteresting oyster. When an object necessarily loses interest from one point of view, such minds discover it in new attributes. The essence of genius is to present an old thing in new ways, whether it be some force in nature or some aspect of humanity."

In short, if the subject which you wish to master, or the object with which you wish to become thoroughly acquainted, seems at first to be uninteresting, then your first task is to convert that uninteresting thing into an interesting one by discovering the interesting traits about it—and such traits are always there. A writer has said about Agassiz, the great scientist, and his work: "A grasshopper is to most persons an oblong insect, capable of jumping. Agassiz's pupils say that after he had compelled them to find out a world of interesting matter about it, they would sometimes go to hear him deliver a popular lecture. They noticed that the audience became as much interested in the grasshopper as if he were reading from a romance." Those who have read Fabre's several works on insect life, in which he describes the respective lives of the bee, the ant, the spider, etc., will readily understand how extreme interest may be created in a commonplace subject, or a commonplace object, by means of a masterful examination of the subject or subject in question.

The allusion to Agassiz naturally brings to mind the well-known story of how he once taught a new pupil how to perceive—and how to discover interesting facts in an uninteresting object. Agassiz, as you probably know, was renowned not only for his own remarkable powers of perception, but also for the fact that he developed like powers in his pupils—and that therefore his services as a teacher were in great demand. The following story contains a powerful lesson, and the reader is asked to carefully consider it.

Here is the story in question: A pupil appeared before the great teacher for instruction. The teacher took the pupil into the laboratory, and there laid out a fish before him, telling him to closely examine the outer appearance thereof, and to prepare himself to make a full report about it when asked. The teacher then left the room, leaving the pupil alone with the fish. He looked the fish over for a few minutes, noting its general shape, its fins, its tail, etc., and was sure that he had learned all that was to be known of the outer form of that fish at the end of a quarter-hour. He then grew tired of waiting for the teacher who had disappeared. In disgust, he again seated himself before the fish, and looked casually at it— and lo! he saw something new in its details. Becoming then interested in spite of himself, he examined it still more carefully and in closer detail, and was amazed to discover quite a number of new details.

Then came another period of disgusted waiting. He knew all about that fish (so he thought), and why should he be kept waiting longer? Lunch time came—and still no teacher. After eating his lunch, he returned to the old fish in order to kill time. He began idly to count its scales, and in doing so was surprised to notice that the fish was without eyelids. Then the teacher returned, and expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the observation of the pupil. He again left the latter alone with the fish, telling him in parting that "a pencil is the best of eyes," and bidding him note on paper the results of his further observations as he proceeded. The student, in despair, plunged again into the task. And lo! as he discovered point after point of new details about the fish, he began to find a new interest awakening. And before long he was amazed at the long list of new points that he had discovered and noted down.

Agassiz kept the young man at work on this fish for three long days, and was rewarded by securing a remarkably long list of details that the pupil had observed and discovered. But best of all—and this was the real purpose and intent of the lesson— the student had acquired the knowledge that a careful examination of an uninteresting subject tended to develop a live and active interest therein, which interest then tended to spur on the Attention to further acts of Perception.

The thoughtful reader will probably have already noted that in the above story is also contained the lesson of overcoming the obstacles mentioned in our presentation of the second law of Attention, i.e., the fact that the Attention will decline in vigor if (a) the stimulus is unvarying, or (b) of some new attribute is not discovered in the object. In the case of Agassiz's pupil it will be noted that "the stimulus was unvarying" after he had exhausted his discovery of the most superficial facts concerning the fish, and that thereafter his Attention waned and he became wearied, bored, and disgusted. When, later, he made the discovery of "new attributes," he awakened his "second wind" of interest and Attention. And so he proceeded, each new set of discoveries serving to renew his interest and the vigor of his Attention. And each new set of discoveries tended to rest certain brain cells concerned in the discovery of previous attributes of the fish. The "something new" in the fish tended to not only arouse fresh interest and mental vigor, but also to rest his mind. There is a great lesson here for those who can understand it.

The reader who may wish to practice exercises tending to develop his or her powers of Perception may easily arrange such exercises for himself, or herself, by basing the exercises upon the above recorded story of Agassiz and his pupil. Many teachers give quite a number of such exercises, but an analysis thereof will show that the principle underlying all of them is practically the same. This principle is simple: it consists merely in placing an object before you, and then studying all of its details, making a list of the same in writing as you proceed. Note the general shape of the object, its color, etc., and then proceed to an examination and analysis of its minor details. By so doing you will finally build a general chart of the thing, with general divisions and details under each class. When your interest wanes, rest your mind by putting the object away from you find turning your attention to other things—less serious things, in fact.

Then, the following day, resume the task by trying to recall as many of the previously recorded points as possible, and then read over your list and see how many you have missed. Then start afresh with your investigations. You will be surprised to discover how fresh your interest has again become for the task. You will then discover many new details. Repeat this exercise on the same object for several days, until you are satisfied that you have exhausted its possibilities. Each time you take it up you will discover new details, and will awaken a fresh interest. And, at the same time you will be pleased to discover that your general powers of Perception have increased to a marked degree.

After having mastered the principle of the said class of exercises, you may proceed to a more complex phase. This new phase consists in quickening the power of Perception in the perception of a number of articles at the same time. A favorite exercise of certain schools of mental training is that which develops the power of the person so instantaneously add up a number of small objects, marbles or beans for instance. In practicing this exercise, begin with a small number, and then add one or two to the number each day—picking up the pile without knowing the exact number, of course, and then after taking a hasty glance at the pile try to state the exact number thereof. A variation of this is had in the familiar trick of bookkeepers of adding several figures at one mental operation—beginning with groups of two, and then increasing the number from time to time.

Another form of this exercise is what is known as "The Houdin Exercise" which, by the way, is the method employed by Houdin whereby he acquired the faculty of passing by a large shop window and "taking in" all the articles contained therein at a single comprehensive glance. Houdin began training for this feat by the preliminary practice of laying a number of dominoes before him, spread out on the table, face up; he took a hasty but keen glance at the dominoes, and then wrote down what he had observed. He soon was able to set down the names of quite a large number of dominoes—but he had first built up the power of persistent and determined practice and exercise.

In France, and in Italy, the schoolboys play a game which is based on precisely the same principle as that just stated. The Italian boys are very proficient at this game, which they call "Morro," while the French boys call it "little foxes"—and its practice does indeed make little foxes of them. The game consists of one boy showing a closed fist from which he suddenly extends several fingers. The other boy must state instantly, and without hesitation, the exact number of fingers shown. The best guesser wins the game. A variation of the game consists in the quick statement of a number of small beans shown in a suddenly opened hand. It is amazing what a degree of proficiency is attained by these little games. And it cannot be doubted that the proficiency thus gained is of value to them in their after life, for it certainly increases the power of Perception along certain lines.

A leading psychologist says, regarding this point of practice and its results: "Criminals have some excellent methods for training the young. An instructor in the department of thievery will place on the palm of his hand a number of objects, say a coin, a chestnut, a button, a key, a bean. He will unclasp his hand for a second before a number of boys, who are expected not only to name all the objects, but to describe them. For instance, the value of the coin must be given, and the shape of the key accurately described, or drawn on paper or in the dirt. Then the instructor will, perhaps, substitute a hazelnut for the chestnut and a pea for the bean, but woe to the boy who does not instantaneously detect the difference. These boys are sent out for the feigned purpose of begging. They catch a glimpse of the parlor, the hall, the kitchen, or the office, and in that one glance they note the position and value of everything. They then report to the men who sent them out, and a burglary is planned. It is a pity that such excellent methods of teaching rapidity of Perception are, for the most part, left to criminals."

The same writer says; "Successful gamblers often become so expert in noticing the slightest change of an opponent's facial expression that they will estimate the strength of his hand by the involuntary signs which appear in the face and which are frequently checked the instant they appear. There are many excellent methods for cultivating rapidity of Perception, and they can be employed with but little trouble. At the start, place upon a small table seven different articles. Remove for an instant the cloth used to cover them, and then have some one describe the articles. This can be played as a game, and prizes are offered to the one naming the most things. Only one should be allowed to approach the table at once, and the cloth should be raised for the same length of time for each one. To avoid disputes, each one should at once sit down in another room, or in a different part of the same room, the name of each article seen. The number of things on the table should be gradually increased to forty. If different things are at the same time tossed into the air and allowed to fall behind a screen, or into a basket, bag, or sheet gathered up, great quickness of Perception will be necessary to name and describe all.

Extreme rapidity of perception, due to careful training, was one of the factors enabling Houdin and his son to astonish everybody and to make a fortune. He placed a domino before the boy, and instead of allowing him to count the spots, required him to give the sum total at once. This exercise was continued until each could give instantaneously the sum of spots on a dozen dominoes. The sum was given just as accurately as if five minutes had been consumed in adding.''

In Oriental lands there is frequently played a series of games which really are carefully designed exercises calculated to develop to a high degree the power of quickness and accuracy of perception among the young. Many Orientals are able to cast a single, apparently sleepy, casual glance at a table full of objects, and then to write down a full and complete list thereof. This power is not a natural gift, as many suppose when witnessing these feats, but is rather entirely a matter of hard work, careful training from childhood, and steady practice. A typical instance of this form of Perception-training is related by Kipling in his interesting tale of his little hero, "Kim," in his story of that name. This tale, somewhat abbreviated is given below, and is worthy of careful consideration and analysis, for it teaches an important lesson along the very lines which we are now considering. Here follows the synopsis of the incident:

Kim was matched against a native boy, by old Lurgan Sahib, who wished to train Kim for the Indian Secret Service work, in which accurate and rapid perception is most essential. The native boy was an old hand at the game, while Kim was a novice. The old man threw fifteen jewels on a tray, and bade the two boys gaze upon them for a moment or two. Then the tray was covered, and each boy recited what he had observed. Here follows the result, in the words of Kipling: " 'There are under that paper five blue stones, one big, one smaller, and three small,' said Kim all in haste. 'There are four green stones, and one with a hole in it; there is one yellow stone that I can see through, and one like a pipe stem. There are two red stones, and—and—I have made the count fifteen, but two I have forgotten. No! give me time. One was of ivory, little and brownish, and—and—give me time.' But Kim could do no better. 'Hear my count,' cried the native child. 'First are two flawed sapphires, one of two ruttees and one of four, as I should judge. The four ruttee sapphire is chipped at the edge. There is one Turkestan turquoise, plain with green veins, and there are two inscribed—one with the name of God in gilt, and the other being cracked across, for it came out of an old ring, I cannot read. We have now five blue stones; four flamed emeralds there are, but one is drilled in two places, and one is a little carven.' 'Their weight!' said Lurgan Sahib, impassively. 'Three—five—and four ruttees, as I judge it. There is one piece of greenish amber, and a cheap cut topaz from Europe. There is one ruby of Burma, one or two ruttees, without a flaw. And there is a ballas ruby, flawed, of two ruttees. There is a carved ivory from China, representing a rat sucking an egg; and there is last—Ah, ha!—a ball of crystal as big as a bean, set in gold leaf.' He clapped his hands at the close.''

It may interest the reader to know that the mortified, defeated Kim so profited by the experience that he managed, finally, to outdo the native boy at his own game, and by so doing aroused the jealousy of the latter to such an extent that he tried to murder Kim. It may also interest the reader to hear the final advice to Kim, regarding these exercises, given by old Lurgan Sahib, as follows: "The secret consists in doing it many times over, till it is done perfectly, for it is worth doing."

Of interest, and undoubted value also, to the student of this subject of the Mastery of Perception, is the quotation from Maupassant, the great French writer, in which he tells the story of how his master, Flaubert (another great French writer), taught him how to be original in literary expression. It will be seen at once that the method both requires, and at the same time develops, keenness, accuracy, and rapidity of Perception. Flaubert told Maupassant: "Talent is nothing but long patience. Go to work! Everything which one desires to express must be looked at with sufficient attention, and during a sufficiently long time, to discover in it some aspect which no one has yet seen or described. In everything there is still some spot unexplored, because we are accustomed only to use our eyes with the recollection of what others before us have thought on the subject which we contemplate. The smallest object contains something unknown. Find it! To describe a fire that flames, and a tree on a plain, look, keep looking, at that flame and that tree until in your eyes they have lost all resemblance to any other tree or any other fire. That is the way to become original."

Maupassant adds: "Having laid down this truth, that there are not in the whole world two grains of sand, two specks, two hands, or two noses exactly alike, Flaubert compelled me to describe in a few phrases a being or an object in such a manner as to distinguish it from all other objects of the same race or the same species. "When you pass a grocer seated at his shop door, a janitor smoking his pipe, a stand of hackney coaches, show me that grocer and that janitor—their attitude, their whole physical appearance—embracing, likewise, as indicated by the skillfulness of the picture, their whole moral nature; so that I cannot confound them with any other grocer, or any other janitor. Make me see, in one word, that a certain cab horse does not resemble the fifty others that follow or precede it."

There is contained in the above quotation from Maupassant the essence of the entire philosophy of efficient observation and trained perceptive powers. Study it carefully, with concentrated attention and interest, so as to grasp the principle clearly. Can you doubt the degree of perceptive power necessary to fulfill the requirements therein stated? Can you doubt that the impressions arising from such an exercise of perceptive power would be clear cut and distinct, and all-embracing? And can you doubt the result of even a reasonable degree and amount of practice along the lines indicated?