What Does It Mean to “Attend”?

Starting to ruminate on a possible work focused on the term, “attention.”  A fundamental necessity of learning is for a mind to be able to focus attention on the thing being learned.  I am told more and more frequently that many of my students have a deficit when it comes to being able to attend to a lesson.

So what is a good working definition of “attention” and what are the constituent ideas compiling to form this act?

William James has so far given me the best that I can find but I am seeking more and even clearer definitions.

Attention “is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” (James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1950).

I hope to unpack this definition in the future, but for now, the following are my initial observations:

  • James sees attention as an active taking possession of the mind, not something passive
  • He sees it as an act of judgment – choosing one thing out of many possible things to attend to
  • He sees it as well to be the purposeful ignoring or withdrawing from some things so that the thing needing attention is all that is being dealt with.



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