§ 11. Voluntary Attention. — A voluntary determination may be either a determination to perform certain bodily movements or a determination to attend to certain objects. Attention, so far as it follows upon an express volition to attend, is called voluntary attention. All attention which is not so initiated is nonvoluntary or spontaneous. When we attend not merely without an express volition to attend, but in opposition to such a volition, attention is in the strictest sense involuntary, and not merely nonvoluntary. A good illustration of voluntary attention is to be found in "certain psychological experiments, in which the experimenter fixes his attention on an uninteresting object, in order to observe phenomena attending the process of fixation. He determines to attend to the object for the sake of observing what takes place when he attends to it. The spontaneous and the voluntary direction of attention are not merely distinct: they are also antagonistic. Everyone desires to avoid futile worry and fret; but no one has a mind so well regulated as to be able to divert his thoughts at will from irremediable misfortune, and unavoidable sources of anxiety. When, owing to overwork, our minds are besieged at night by a subject which has occupied us during the day, we vainly endeavour to compose ourselves to rest. We will to expel the intrusive thoughts; but we cannot keep up the effort persistently; and so soon as it is relaxed, the spontaneous movement of attention recurs, and murders sleep."*
* Author's Analytic Psychology, vol. i., p. 241.
"All mental training and discipline depend on the victory" of voluntary attention. "This usually takes time. The resolution to devote attention to an unattractive subject can only succeed after repeated effort followed by repeated failure. The mind wanders at first, and requires to be again and again recalled to its task. We form a design to occupy ourselves with a certain topic. So soon as this design is being carried out, we cease to think of it and of the motives which prompted it. We think instead of the subjectmatter which we had resolved to study. But this subjectmatter is, ex hypothesi, uninteresting. It cannot, therefore, command attention. Accordingly our thoughts wander from the point, and have to be recalled by a renewed effort of will. This fitful alternation of attentiveness and inattentiveness may continue until fatigue and tedium cause the task to be abandoned. On the other hand, interest may grow up as the subject of study becomes better known. When this happens, the periods of concentration become gradually prolonged, until the necessity for deliberate effort eases to exist. Thus the function of voluntary attention in such cases is to create spontaneous attention. When it fails in this, it produces only exhaustion and disgust. A person condemned to spend his whole life in constantly reiterated efforts to fix his mind on a hopelessly uninteresting topic, would go mad, commit suicide, or sink into a state of coma. Voluntary attention belongs coincidently to the province of intellect and to that of practical volition. It is the 'conduct of the understanding,' and, like external conduct, is subject to moral law. In intellectual morality the fundamental virtue is patience."*
* Author's Analytic Psychology, vol. i., p. 242.
The voluntary determination to attend plays a large and important part in the more complex forms of deliberation. We may compare the value of conflicting motives in relation to the total system of our lives; and we may find that considered from this point of view a certain motive or group of motives has not the strength and prominence which it ought to have. We may then attempt to give it this strength and prominence by voluntarily turning our attention in a certain direction. Thus a candidate preparing for an examination may find in himself a strong disposition to laziness, tempting him to spend a day in idleness. He may at the outset very faintly realise the special considerations which make such a course inadvisable: but he may at the same time know that these considerations are important, and that if he neglects them he will bitterly regret doing so. This at the outset may not constitute a motive sufficient to lead to a definite decision to apply himself to work instead of play; but it may be sufficient to give rise to the voluntary decision to fix attention on the reasons for working, and so to give to these reasons the strength and liveliness which they initially lack. In this indirect way he may reach a distinct and effective decision to go to work with steadiness and energy. It is in such cases as these that the consciousness of freedom is most conspicuous. For in such cases we not only will our act, but in a manner we will our volition. The voluntary determination to act issues out of the voluntary determination to attend; and the voluntary determination to attend directly and obviously depends on the controlling influence of the concept of the Self as a whole.