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Pay attention! Early moderns on our mind’s (in)ability to focus

Date:15 June 2018
Author:Pieter Present
Figure CLXXXVIII in Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, an illustration of a bookwheel (1588)
Figure CLXXXVIII in Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, an illustration of a bookwheel (1588)

It will soon be exactly ten years since Nicholas Carr wrote his much discussed article “Is Google Making us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains”.* In it, Carr discusses the effects of extended internet use on his mind and that of his friends. A central observation is the decreased ability to focus on something for an extended period. The mind gets restless and desires to move on to something new. The shallow nature of the frantic search for new and more information on the internet (and the mental habits this engenders) is contrasted with the depth associated with reading books. Carr writes: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Distraction and worries about one’s inability to pay attention are however not only to be found in our postmodern high-tech society. In an article on “Carelessness and Inattention”, John Sutton masterfully presents early moderns thinking about, struggling with, and trying to find remedies for the wandering of their minds. Thomas Branch, one of the authors discussed by Sutton, describes the mind as “naturally a Wanderer,” which is “ever and anon flying off, and will hardly be held in” (in Sutton: 252). We therefore need external things such as other people, books, and writing, to fix the mind on something stable.

But books could also be dangerous for the mind’s ability to focus. In his monumental work on print culture, Adrian Johns refers to Robert Boyle’s autobiographical remarks on the pernicious effects that reading adventure novels in his youth had on his ability to focus. His reading “accustom’d his Thoughts to such a Habitude of Raving, that he has scarce ever been their quiet Master since” (Boyle quoted in Johns, 381). The only remedy was to be found in the development of counter-habits through rigorous training. Practicing mathematics was the best way to achieve this, especially algebra, as its operations “both accustome & necessitate the Mind to attention, by so entirely exacting the whole Man; that the least Distraction, or heedlessnesse, constraines us to renew our (Taske &) Trouble, & rebegin the Operation” (Boyle quoted in Johns, 381). The same idea can be found expressed by Francis Bacon, patron saint of the Royal Society. In The Advancement of Learning, Bacon writes that “there is no defect in the faculties intellectual, but seemeth to have a proper cure contained in some studies” (Advancement of Learning: 151). If one suffers from an inability to pay attention, one should turn to mathematical exercises, “for in them, if the wit be caught away but a moment, one is to begin anew.”**

The idea of learning as a way to discipline or “cure” the mind is widespread in the early modern period. Sorana Corneanu has given a detailed account of how (among others) Bacon, Boyle, and Locke can be read as operating within this tradition of cultura animi, the cultivation of the mind. In her discussion of Locke, we again find mathematics being put forward as the best way to exercise one’s ability to pay attention (Corneanu: 155). Like Branche, Locke sees the mind as naturally impatient and attention as something to be acquired. For Locke, as for Boyle and Bacon, mathematics provides the right kind of external discipline to train the attention. This training is understood as a process of habituation, as acquiring the skill of paying attention, which can then be applied in other (intellectual and moral) pursuits (Bacon, Advancement of Learning: 99–100).

We also find similar ideas on the Continent. More specifically in the Dutch Republic, where Locke’s epistemological and pedagogical views were popular. At the beginning of a lecture called “Exercises on Experimental Physico-Mechanics”***, the Dutch professor Petrus van Musschenbroek tells his students that whoever aims at attaining wisdom, “should learn to think orderly” ( BPL 240.30, f. 331r.). Following the authors discussed above, this way of thinking is according to van Musschenbroek something which one should learn, and not something to which one is inclined naturally. The nature of our mind is such, van Musschenbroek says, that our thoughts continually go into all kinds of different directions and that it is therefore difficult for us to think about the same thing for a while, “even for two consecutive minutes” (BPL 240.30, f. 331v.).


The mind will have to be constrained through art, in order that it would give up [its] volubility, and is made more constant, by meditating upon whatever object to which it is as it were fixed; but no science is more suitable for this labour than mathematics and its parts, such as physics and mathematics. (BPL 240.30, f. 331v)

Van Musschenbroek adds that the Ancients already thought this way, by demanding that people should know mathematics before studying philosophy. The idea of attention as a necessary prerequisite for pursuing philosophy is also expressed by van Musschenbroek’s colleague Willem Jacob 's Gravesande in his Introductio ad Philosophiam, where he says that “especially attention is necessary in the search for truth” ('s Gravesande: 268). In the work, a separate chapter is devoted to “the increase of attention” ('s Gravesande: 268-271).

These examples show that early moderns were also confronted with the mind’s tendency to drift off and were very conscious of the ability to pay attention as on the one hand an acquired habit, and on the other a prerequisite for deep thinking. Continued attention is not the default state of the mind, but an ability acquired through training and habituation. The remarks of these early modern authors help to counter nostalgia towards a mythological past before the advent of modern technology in which our minds freely and spontaneously exercised their natural ability to concentrate. At the same time, they also point to the importance andfragility of our ability to focus. Attention is indeed a prerequisite for deep thought, and perhaps also for moral behaviour. Caring for others also requires attention, as does being attentive to them. The early moderns thought about the ability to focus as an acquired habit. Carr analysed our distraction as a habit acquired through repeated (ab)use of digital media. In both case, we are made aware of the fact that our ability or inability to focus are the result of learning and habituation. As one contemporary author—commenting on liberal-arts education (rather than mathematics) as a way of learning how to pay attention—expresses it (DF Wallace, This is water: 2–3):

I have come gradually to undrstand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.



*He later worked out the arguments in the article more fully in the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company), 2011 [2010]

**For further discussion of early modern ideas on the role of mathematics in character building, see Matthew L. Jones, The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution : Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2006.

*** "Exercitationes Experimentales Physico Mechanicae". The manuscript containing van Musschenbroek’s written preparation for this lecture can be found in the Special Collections of Leiden University Library, BPL 240.12, ff. 328r-370r. All translations of the Latin original are my own.


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