( Originally Published 1907 )
Habit "Human instincts are transient unless developed into habits." As the twig is bent the tree inclines " Habits are reflex arcs, which like electric currents follow the path of least resistance. The development of habits. The moral significance. " Man is a mere bundle of habits." The con-catenated impulse ; economic value. Professional habits. Intelligent reading is wise skipping. The conscious and sub-conscious ; relationship. The " Moment Consciousness" Sleep a dissociation of few or many nerve centers. Dreams are sleeping hallucinations ; duration short. Caused by some centripetal stimulus, somatic or external. Infinite resources of the subconscious. Wonderful memory; how to utilize it. A possible explanation of genius. Geniuses not well balanced. Mental epidemics. Concentration: in the crowd but not alit.
PREYER has said that instincts are observable in the human animal only in infancy. This may not be strictly true, yet the preponderance of the instinctive in early life has for us some very important lessons. The other fact of immense practical value is the transiency of these instincts. Take, for example, the sucking instinct. Every experienced nurse recognizes the importance of putting the baby to the breast before the milk comes. If this be omitted and if there be any delay in the natural food, it is often no easy task to teach a child to nurse. This is especially true of the lower animals, for there is evident in man a great lengthening of the period of infancy or helplessness.
As with the sucking instinct, immediate obedience makes continuance easy, so in a hundred ways instincts may be made permanent by carrying out the action, that is, by the establishment of a habit. The advantage of a lengthened infancy is the extension of the time of initiating habits.
Obviously our habits are not all formed in infancy, but the difficulty of the acquisition increases with age. The longer the infancy, the longer the period of plasticity, the greater the number of lines of thought and action which can be implanted.
" As the twig is bent the tree inclines " is a principle never lost sight of by educators and reformers.
With the majority of people moral habits formed in the " teens " become dominant thru life, while the period between twenty and thirty fixes the professional habits. This general truth need not discourage us in attempting the acquisition of new habits if we have a clear conception of the actions necessary to the formation of a habit.
Without considering the question of whence, we are constantly subject to impulses. This may be an impulse to whistle. Now two courses are open, the individual may or may not carry out this impulse. Whether or not he be a free moral agent does not concern us. Neither is the question if the impulse be good or bad.
Yielding to the impulse, doing the thing impelled, makes it very much more probable that the next time that same impulse is felt, the action will follow. This establishes a path of motor discharge, which is perhaps the best physiological definition of habit. All reflex arcs follow this law, the sensation having gotten in, the efferent impulse probably follows the path of least resistance. We can imagine that with the initial impulse, like the brook trickling from a snow-bank, the slightest obstacle may divert its course, but the grooving effect soon converts this slight obstruction into a high bank, so that nothing less than a freshet can overcome the barrier.
It is not claimed that the psychical is absolutely predestined like the physical. Were it so, effort at a change would be unavailing. Here comes in the human will, the impulse from without, if you please. Given the impulse to change a habit, or to form a new one, the one essential is the immediate action, the breaking down of the barrier for this once. As Emerson puts it : " When the divine moment of the soul comes, leave your theory like Joseph his coat in the hands of the harlot and flee."
The next time this same impulse is felt, the previous action serves as a groove, be it ever so shallow. The moral implication is so much in evidence that it is difficult to wholly exclude it. Perhaps the easiest way to surmount the difficulty is to enlarge our definition of morals. Such aphorisms as " Man is a mere bundle of habits," and " Order is Heaven's first law," show that, after all, the really important thing is care in forming one's habits.
There is also an economic side to the question. Take, for example, the act of buttoning one's coat, it is really a very complicated composite of afferent and efferent impulses, and all done unconsciously. Watch the young child as he painfully learns each part of the process.
With the adult all that is necessary is the initial impulse, either conscious or unconscious. The resulting action of the contact of the finger with the buttonhole becomes the impulse for the next specific act, and so on thru the whole series. The psychological term for this is a concatenated impulse. The word is derived from con (together) and catena (a chain), meaning literally chained together.
It thus becomes apparent that, after the formation of the habit, cerebration has simply to concern itself with one impulse instead of the many to bring about a complicated series of movements. Were it not for this fact we could accomplish very little during a lifetime. But the act of yesterday becoming the habit of to-day, leaves time for further research and progress. Just in proportion as habit may become a strong ally, so it may also become a terrible enemy.
Professor James tells us that professional habits become fixed between the twentieth and thirtieth years. What shall these habits be? Reading and study must occupy a large part of the physician's spare time. He should form the habit of extracting the important items from a mass of unimportant detail. Certain general principles apply, whether it be a current magazine or an exhaustive treatise.
Euclid is credited with the saying, " There is no royal road to geometry." Yet there is a royal habit to be cultivated, which will make the road easy to the acquisition of any subject. Nearly every book has a preface and a table of contents. Many people form the very bad habit of skipping both. This plunges one into the details of a subject without any comprehensive view. The logical habit is just the reverse. A general idea of a subject as a whole is the first essential.
One can seldom do better than to commence with the title-page, which furnishes information about the author, his position in the professional world, and some hint as to the reliability of his statements. The table of contents gives in a broad way the matter presented, and, what is also of equal importance, the logical sequence of the data and argument. Intelligent reading is said to be wise skipping, but wise skipping requires a general grasp, else the skipping is a dangerous habit. This habit will ensure the student against plodding thru a mass of detail, which he soon forgets because he fails to see its relation to the whole. The secret of remembering is this. Details are important only as they cluster around and attach themselves to the main thoughts. This method of study will enable one to retain.
An educated man has been defined as " one who knows where to go to get information." This is in distinction from the person whose brain is full of jumbled incoherent facts. The relationship between phenomena should be carefully noted, perhaps it would be better to say the relationships between different sets of phenomena. Let them all be con-catenated, then recollection becomes literally a re-collection. One idea suggests another with which we have associated it, and so on thru the series. It is only necessary to remember the beginning of the chain, and the rest is suggested. This is the principle in most of the so-called " memory helps."
But above all is it necessary to read understandingly. One chapter read well is better than the whole book read badly. Evidently each man's ability to digest a given subject will depend upon his education and previous habit. Emerson has said : " He must take himself for better for worse as his portion, though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till."
The economic value of intellectual habits becomes apparent when it is understood that habits of mind, as well as of body functions, are soon relegated to the domain of the subconscious. Idiosyncrasies of thinking and talking are so much a matter of common experience that the importance of the subject has been very generally overlooked. The next time you are at a club meeting and some one is called upon to discuss a paper, it will be of interest to you to forecast and predict, not only the little mannerisms of address and phraseology, yes, even the argumentative machinery.
You may not know this man's opinion on the special subject at hand, but if he be a person to whom you have often listened, you can safely infer his method of taking up the subject. The relationships of any fact are so numerous, that one is almost sure to see this thing from the same point of view, as on other occasions he has seen other things. And the interesting part of it all is that the man himself seldom realizes that he has well-defined campaign plans ready made for all ordinary occasions.
The soldier knows, unconsciously (if you will al-low that a thing can be known unconsciously), just what maneuvers a certain charge or retreat demand. His whole education from private to officer is a recognition of this principle. The story is told of an old soldier going home with his dinner. Altho having long since retired from service, the old sub-conscious habit was so strong, that when some one shouted " Attention! " his arms came down to the sides and his dinner dropped to the gutter. The ordinary explanation would be that he did it " with-out thinking." This is not far from the truth, if it be added that he did it because he had previously thought and acted this way.
It is such facts as these which have led to theory of " unconscious cerebration." A more modern name is the subconscious mind. The word subliminal is also used by some psychologists. To understand its applicability it should be dissected. The root is the Latin limen (a threshold). Thresh-old in metaphysics has come to mean the smallest stimulus to which a given sense organ will respond, for example, the lowest tone, about sixteen vibrations to the second, of which the ear is conscious, is the threshold of sound.
So in psychology subliminal means under conscious or subconscious. It is conceived that the mind is divisible, not by a hard and fast anatomical line, but physiologically into the conscious and subconscious.
The reflexes belong to the subconscious, they are actions laboriously thought out by prehistoric individuals, transmitted as impulses or mental grooves to posterity, with their automatic machinery in perfect running order.
It was said that the cleavage was physiological, but this does not mean that it is absolute. Many actions are ordinarily subconscious, yet are under control of the will, if given conscious attention. Individuals vary greatly in the classification of their actions, those which are subconscious in one being impossible save by conscious thought in others. Moreover, in the same individual there is a constant shifting of the dividing line.
THE MOMENT CONSCIOUSNESS
The experiences of the moment, which Sidis calls the " Moment Consciousness," consist of that of which we are directly conscious, the fact upon which the attention is fixed, and all the other environmental facts which are also perceived by the senses. These impressions may not be intense enough to rise into consciousness, and yet are indelibly registered in the subconscious. The next moment an-other cluster of sensations is perceived, and a large part, perhaps all, of the content of the previous " moment consciousness " becomes subconscious.
The reverse of this process is equally true, sub-conscious memories by association loom up into consciousness, both prompting and modifying in a thou-sand ways the sensations of the conscious. As life experiences multiply, the stored up facts increase. The content of the present " moment consciousness " includes the essence of all previous " moments consciousness."
Moreover, it must not be assumed that a sub-conscious memory must rise into consciousness in order that it shall become an active factor. Cases of hallucination studied by Doctor Sidis show that ofttimes some forgotten psychic shock is sufficient to give rise to the mental aberration. This leads Sidis to conclude that " hallucinations are waking dreams and that dreams are sleeping hallucinations." As brain activity is functional association of nerve dusters, so sleep is a dissociation of few or many brain centers, just as it is less or more profound.
As we know, some people seem to sleep " with one eye open," being aroused by the slightest unusual sound, while others fall into a profound lethargy. Dreams do not occur in the sound sleeper, except when he is in the transition stage between sleeping and waking. We are often conscious of having dreamed, but find it impossible to recollect the subject matter. At other times the dream is so vivid as to waken one with a start.
Sidis argues that the cause is always a centripetal stimulus, that is, something from outside the brain, since the brain does not originate impressions. For example, indigestion giving rise to pain may cause in the dissociated cell groups of the brain a sleeping hallucination of a gastric ulcer, and cold applied to a sleeper's feet call forth a dream of an arctic expedition.
A recent experience of the writer is such a perfect illustration of this point that he cannot refrain from introducing it.
At a dinner with some medical friends a large dish of anchovies was allowed to remain on the table during several courses. Without thinking of how many I was eating I continued nibbling during the meal.
Before going to sleep I was not conscious of any unpleasant sensations from the indulgence, but in the middle of the night I dreamed that I was seated at a café table, and opposite sat my friend of the evening.
I do not remember giving the order, but the waiter brought to my friend a large glass bowl which would hold two or three quarts. This was filled with some light pink sherbet, and completely encircling the dish was a row of most luscious strawberries.
With some impatience I asked the waiter why he did not serve me with the same. He replied, " In just a minute, sir."
My friend very politely said he would wait till I was served, but I insisted that he should not.
He ate very leisurely, and all the time my thirst increased, and with equal rate my anger rose at that waiter and his repeated " Yes, sir, just a minute." But the climax came when he finally put before me a bowl similar to the one from which my friend was eating, but alas ! empty.
To add to my exasperation, the bowl had a red stain around the top where the strawberries had been. My anger became uncontrollable, and I waked with such a parched mouth that I immediately drank off several glasses of water.
The short duration of the dream state, notwithstanding the varied experiences thru which one passes, is well illustrated by the following account which was given the writer by a telegraph operator.
" One evening in the summer of 1882, or possibly 1881, while taking press report for the Rochester Herald, at Rochester, N. Y., I had what appears to me to be a somewhat unusual experience, so unusual, in fact, that its impression has been lasting.
" At the time of this occurrence I had been doing some extra work, and was feeling considerably worn out and extremely sleepy.
" At about ten o'clock P. m. I was engaged in taking a baseball score by innings. The sending of these scores, I will state for the benefit of the un-initiated, would require not to exceed one-half a minute on a wire worked at the speed the report wires are worked. I had taken the first team score, which would appear about as follows :
" At the point marked I dropped asleep. I dreamed that I started on a long vacation trip, New York being my first stopping-point. The trip from Rochester to New York City over the Central, especially that part from Albany down the Hudson, with its beautiful scenery, was one of the many details noted.
" After reaching New York I seemed to have plenty of time to spare, and this was spent in visiting points of interest, calling on friends and acquaintances. About two weeks were spent in this manner, when I started for Europe.
" The voyage across the Atlantic was a pleasant one, the sightseeing in London was intensely interesting, and the return trip all that could be desired, in fact, the whole trip was delightful, the more so as I seemed to have no cares.
" The entire trip occupied about six weeks, and I seemed to be greatly benefited thereby.
" When I awoke my first thought was that I had about finished the night, and instinctively reached for the telegraph-key to find out how much ` report ' I had lost, supposing, of course, that I was in for trouble. Upon asking New York what he was sending he replied : ` Ball scores, Chicago-Boston.' I started him on the Boston score, which I had put down in very small figures (as per above) during my sleep.
" How it was done, I will make no attempt to explain, I simply give it up. The figures were there, and furthermore they were correct.
" The actual time consumed by me in taking this imaginary trip could not have exceeded ten seconds. I had absolutely missed nothing in the report. Neither had the circuit been interrupted in any way, which I took pains to verify. The explanation of all this, I leave to those better informed on such matters.
" My friend Mr. Lee,' to whom I related this little experience at about the time it occurred, will doubtless remember it, as will also others, were it really worth the trouble to look them up."
A good deal is being said just now about the education of the subconscious. In mercantile affairs a man is spoken of as a good organizer, which means that he can call others to work out certain details, confining his attention to the larger concern, and the relation of the whole to the outside world.
So in the psychic realm, in proportion as one is developed intellectually has he relegated to the sub-conscious the routine work of life. So long as things run smoothly in his mental workshop he pays no attention to it. Should an accident happen in any department, the central office is immediately in-formed, and the necessary steps taken to meet the emergency.
So the education of the subconscious is simply the formation of correct habits, and, as was said before, the formation of a habit requires acting on the impulse. Failing to act, the next time the impulse is felt, its impulsiveness is lessened, the very failing to act has established a habit of inaction.
Impulsiveness must, it is true, be curbed by moderation, but excessive indecision is worse.
Many a man will fire with enthusiasms over some project, but failing to act, soon cools down to a state of disinterestedness. People who devote an excessive amount of time to fiction and the theatre, often mistake their sympathy for the hero for a real virtue. This sentimentality soothes their consciences in lieu of genuine philanthropy, and their fine impulses are barren of any actual good deeds.
Most of our evidence of the outer world comes thru the eyes and ears, that is, every object pictured on the retina and every sonorous vibration the unfailing afferent nerves transmit to the brain. There are many examples of the fact that " having eyes we see not and having ears we hear not," at least consciously.
A well-authenticated case illustrative of this is as follows : A lady was startled by seeing on the wall, as if thrown by a flash-light, a notice of the death of a friend. The wording was such as would appear in a newspaper notice. Naturally she was very much startled, and the wonder grew when the inquiry revealed that the person had died as stated.
Reference to the morning paper discovered the identical notice. This paper she had :read. More-over, she remembered having read something else which was in the same column, and the presumption is that the notice was also read in what we commonly call an " absent-minded way." The conscious mind was certainly absent.
Every one has had the experience of reading on, sometimes for pages, and then suddenly discovering that he had been thinking of something entirely foreign to the matter read, of which he was really ignorant. Probably it was registered in the sub-conscious, but ordinarily the subconscious is a sealed book, until some abnormal experience brings it to the surface.
This ability to ignore noises and sights, and to apply one's self to other problems or acts, marks the strong mind, the power to be in the crowd but not of it. This power of concentration is the power of inhibiting extraneous impressions, and it may go to the extent of absent-mindedness. Every one is familiar with stories of mural painters so engrossed in their work that they have fallen from their scaffolding or been rescued only by some timely interference.
On the other hand, when we realize of what unspeakable value a perfect memory would be, we long for some method of tapping this reservoir.
It is a somewhat common experience that one is able to recollect some lost fact by a process of deliberate inattention. By assuming a passive non-concentration the mind wanders to some of the associated elements of the " moment consciousness " of which the desired item was a part, which is thus reached by direct continuity. This is in striking analogy to retinal perception. In looking for faint stars, one should look a little to one side of where the star is known to be. This brings the retinal image a little to one side of the fovea centralis, and thus aids perception, because such portions are more sensitive to light stimulus. The visual acuity of the fovea, or the power of definition, is immensely superior to peripheral portions. This phenomenon in both instances might be called decentration of attention.
Sidis suggests closing the eyes and putting one's self into a passive state, as a means of discovering the subconscious. This will again be referred to under auto-suggestion.