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Consciousness And Apperception

( Originally Published 1899 )

THE bridge over from the physical to the mental is found in consciousness. For our present purpose consciousness may be defined as the self knowing its own states or activities. It is that which distinguishes the animal from the plant, and which in the child enables him to recognize himself as a thinking, feeling, self-active being. It enters into every mental activity, and is the one great characteristic of all minds. For this reason many authorities prefer to call the various mental activities phases of consciousness.

As heretofore explained, external forces, no matter how tumultuously they may assail the nervous organism, nor how faithfully they may be carried to the brain, can not enter the mind save through the door of consciousness. Even pain, as a toothache or a headache, slips below consciousness when something else is given a place in it. The power to adjust the mind so as to give one sensation a place in consciousness to the exclusion of others is just as much a matter of attainment as any other power mentioned in this book. Harriet Martineau as a young girl visited the seashore with some friends, and, being of a very nervous disposition, was so excited that she at first was unable to see the' breakers or to hear them beating against the rocks. Observe the children in your circle for a few days, and note how often they have similar experiences.

Note also how quickly a child becomes interested and so wholly absorbed in some object that it is difficult to turn his attention to anything else. Probably in some cases it is pure willfulness, but it is more often due to our inability to get into his consciousness. He does not hear, be-cause he is seeing. He does not see, because he is hearing. He does not hear nor see you, be-cause he is seeing or hearing something else. He may not have more pleasure in it than he would in you or in what you are trying to offer him, but the latter simply does not get into his consciousness sufficiently, if at all. I have two very little friends who, I am assured, love me and frequently call up good times they have had with me, but I often pass them with a friendly " Good morning " that does not affect them any more than it does the man in the moon. This explains why children often do not hear when mother calls. Illustrative of the opposite, however, is the case of a little friend that quietly notified her mother, who had spent some minutes calling her, though she was lying in the grass near by, that she was " playing' cow, and so, of course, couldn't hear! "

By its function consciousness is a differentiating activity, and, as the sensory ganglia in the brain of the newborn babe are scarcely differentiated, there is little or nothing to come into eonsciousness with any degree of distinctness. Discomfort or pain, without location or definition, causes him to cry, but the effort is purely reflexive. It is possible that by his very cry he rouses consciousness to recognize sound as distinct from pain if perchance the latter has in some manner already found a place there. Consciousness knows feelings, states, as well as activities, and the continuation or repetition of any new and marked sensation is Nature's method of starting the mental life of the child. How feeble must be this first glimmer in conscious life! But it is a glimmer, and it is of life! The movement thus begun enables consciousness to distinguish the different senses from each other, and then the different affections of the same sense, as already explained, expanding and strengthening at every step.

In these early days the child lies enveloped in a mass of common feeling, almost exclusively sensuous, and the pleasure that comes as one feeling after another is slightly lifted above its companion feelings in consciousness is just as grateful to him as the satisfaction which food brings to his appetite.

But while consciousness is discovering differences in these feelings, in some way also one feeling begins to remind the child of another which he once experienced, and the two great relations which enter into all knowledge, difference and identity, are recognized. What are these relations? Simply of difference and likeness in certain sensations or feelings. But the grasping of these relations constitutes knowledge. As a new sensation comes into consciousness, the only meaning which it can get is that it is like another which was once there. Slowly, yet rapidly enough for the safety of the brain, skill in recognizing this likeness and its opposite, unlikeness, comes to the child. Many times the new is interpreted by means of the old until the mind becomes less dependent upon the latter, and gets the meaning of the new immediately by " reading itself into it." This process is called apperception. As consciousness begins asserting itself, each succeeding effort reacts upon it, as exercise reacts upon a hand or arm, increasing its strength and skill, and gives it added power to act in similar lines. So to the interpretation or to the discovery of relation in each new sensation it brings increased ability. This reaction, this effect upon the self after each effort, is called retention. Understanding this, you can see that whereas in the first acquaintance with a new sensation or experience we consciously bring the old to bear upon it to find out its likeness or difference, we are afterward able to bring the self, as organized by the past experiences, to bear upon it, and thus get its meaning at once without conscious comparison. This is what is meant by " reading one's self into it." You can also easily see that, in whatever general lines a child may be exercising his activity, his apperceptive powers, or so-called apperceptive organs, will be correspondingly increased. If he uses his eyes, he will soon attain skill in interpreting eye sensations; if his ears, in interpreting sound. If he live among miners, he will the more readily discern anything pertaining to mining; if among sailors, anything pertaining to the sea; if among farmers, anything pertaining to the farm. As he exercises his mind in counting, he becomes skilled in the art of computation; in classifying plants, he gains in ability to distinguish flowers and fruits; in naming the stars, he rises to a ready apprehension of the constellations. It is for this reason that the same experience means one thing to a scientist and another thing to a merchant; that a piece of marble means one thing to a sculptor and another to a geologist; that a jardinière of delicately branching plants means a vase of maiden-hair ferns to one child and " a pot of green feathers " to another; that the word reed means a long, slender grass stalk to the son of a countryman and a thin strip of brass to the son of an organ-maker; that the cross is a symbol of freedom to one man and of oppression to another.

Everything that comes into the life of the child, whether through his environment, his occupation, his companions, or his books, affects him, organizes him, in such a way as to determine in great measure the meaning which he will put into and get out of each succeeding experience. However strange it may seem, the only meaning a child gets out of a thing is that which he puts into it. Whatever he is himself he will in kind be getting out of each new experience. If you wish to find out all about a boy, get him to express himself freely in words and actions about some thing which you can bring to his notice. His words and actions are approximately about the object, but they are as truly about himself. In them he reveals what he knows, what he is, as clearly as a burnished mirror reflects his ruddy face; indeed, the only thing he sees in an object is himself, and it is himself 'that he reads not into but in that object.

Put a robin's egg or nest on the desk and adroitly get the boys and girls to talking about it at recess while you are apparently busy at some-thing else. Take mental notes and write them out afterward. Test them in the same way with a tad-pole, a violet, a strawberry, a snail, a praying mantis, a butterfly, a dragon fly, a cotton plant, a lump of anthracite coal, and you will soon learn more about those children and their homes what they talk about, what they read, where they have been, what they are thinking about, what kind of language they use, what manners they have, what ideas of right and wrong, what they lack, what they retain, whether they are accurate or loose in their observations, whether they reason well or poorly than you could learn in a whole year by direct questions.

Give a child an idea of a rectangle, and start him around to find all the rectangles he can see in the room. He will name the windows, the doors, the blackboards, the slates, the desks, the books, the walls, the ceiling, the panes of glass. Try him again with a circle, a triangle, with an idea of wood, of cloth, of a nail head, a leaf, a pencil, a chair. In all cases he will recognize these in objects presented to him only as he is able to see that in them which is in himself as idea. This simple principle, so easily verified in children, controls every onward movement in knowledge-getting, however slight, and a thorough understanding of it is essential to any profitable study of their development.

A few simple experiments additional will help us to formulate the laws in accordance with which apperception acts. Give a child a piece of candy. He instantly puts it into his mouth and gets pleasure out of it. Some time after, let him choose from several articles in your hand, among which is a stick of candy like the former, and he promptly picks it up. Vary the test from time to time with sticks of differing forms and colors. As long as the likeness is evident the recognition is ready enough. Gradually his knowledge extends until he will with fair certainty pick candy of any form or color from among a variety of articles, even though some of them may be round and colored so as at least to suggest the first stick he ate. It does not take any one long to see that similarity in form or color enables the child to discover the second as a stick of candy, and also to see that the association of the sweet taste with that of form and color in the one experience was sufficient to suggest sweet taste again when the form and color in the second stick were recognized. He could see by similarity that the second was a stick of candy, and that, being a stick of candy, it must also be sweet. In both cases he reads his former experience into it, and gets its meaning as a stick of candy. The law of apperception by similarity, then, may be stated as follows:

When the mind recognizes elements in an experience as similar to those in a previous experience, it immediately gives the new experience the same meaning as the old.

This law is dependent upon the great law of association which may now be stated:

The elements of which any experience is composed become so related in the mind by the association that the recurrence of one tends to bring back the others.

This law riot only makes apperception but all knowledge-getting possible. At sight of the stick of candy, the sensation of taste also returns to the mind; at sight of a hot poker, the fact that it will burn comes back to the child; at sound of the bark of the dog, comes also the picture of the dog; at the touch of its fur, the picture of a cat and of its sharp claws; at sight of the chair, the picture of a man sitting on it; at the sound of the clock striking the hour of nine, the children singing the Gloria for the opening of school. These last illustrations show how contiguity in time or place may help the apperceptive process as well as similarity.

It must be clear enough to any teacher that the principle of apperception sufficiently explains the need for a sequence of studies and of subjects in each study, so that the learning process will be easy, natural, economical. It also shows that any method of instruction which adheres strictly to the class plan and ignores the differences in the individual pupils is illogical and wasteful. It is more important that the teacher find out the facts already mentioned in this chapter concerning the kind and extent of each child's knowledge, together with his skill in using what he knows in getting further knowledge, than that he should have all of the information which the best set of school records in the world can give. The best training which can be given a child is not that which fills his head with facts, but that which enables him to use to the best possible advantage the facts which he does get. The man with small capital and great capacity is sure to be rich; the man with great capital and little capacity will soon be poor. The principle holds just as well in the mental and spiritual world.

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