There are mainly three types of mental activity-knowing, feeling and willing. We must attend to a particular thing at first in order to know, feel or act. Attention is common to all these mental activities. It is a pre-condition to them and is always present in conscious life. It is a characteristic of our consciousness.
To attend to a particular thing means to be conscious of it more keenly and intensely than anything else. For example, I am reading these few lines, which are in my consciousness. But besides these words, I am also conscious of the paper, fan, table, chair and time-piece. That is, while attending to reading, other things are also in my consciousness. But the thing which I am attending at a particular time is said to be in the focus of my consciousness and other things which I am aware of, remain in the margin of consciousness.
This may be compared with a lighted room. The things Reside the lamp are seen distinctly and the things away from it are seen dimly. The objects which are in the focus of consciousness attract keen attention and others in the marginal area draw less attention or no attention. Thus there are two fields; one of attention and the other of inattention.
Although attention is the core of consciousness, it is not all. At a particular moment, the mind makes a selection from amongst the large number of things present in the margin of consciousness and allows only a few of them to come into the focus. Thus this selective activity of mind is known as attention, which is the centre of consciousness.
Nature of Attention
(1) Attention is a psychomotor response that brings stimulation from the object which is in the focus of consciousness. When we listen to a lecture on the platform, we hear only the words of the speaker. We look at the platform and sit on the edge of our seats. There is a motor attitude of tenseness and also sense organ adjustments in retention. In case of visual attention, the eyes are focussed and directed which involve mental as well as motor adjustments.
(2) Attention is not a fixed state or power of mind. It is an activity and cannot be centred round any one object for a longtime. It constantly shifts from one object to another. Although we may attend to the same object, for some time, attention is shifted from one aspect of it to another. Objects constantly pass from the margin to the centre. H.R. Bhatia has compared the entire field to consciousness to a dome of stimuli, trying to attract attention. There is a base and an apex in this dome. Objects drawing attention stand at the apex of the dome and objects of which we are not conscious at all, sleep at the base. The objects at attention stay at the apex for some time, and are displaced by others after some moments.
(3) Attention is cognitive, conative and affective. The process of attention has all the three aspects of conscious life- knowing, feeling and willing. Attention helps not only to know objects clearly, but also to strive and feel in the form of interest.
(4) Attention is selective. It is not drawn to everything that comes in its way. Those objects which have some special advantages can draw attention and others are ignored, even when we pay attention.
All are not alike. One likes or interest is different from that of another: A poet, an artist, a merchant and a professor do not visit a city with the same interest. A poet may like to see the ways of living, beautiful spots in the city and write poems. 'An artist may do the same for drawing pictures of painting a landscape. A merchant may be interested to explore the possibility of starting a business firm there. A Professor may be inclined to conduct a study into the problems of school dropouts, beggary system or economic development. Thus, they may attend to different aspects of the situation according to their own interests.
Meaning of Interest
In Latin, the word "interest" means "it matters" or "it concerns". An object that interests us is something which concerns us. Interest may refer to the motivating force that drives the individual to attend to a person, an object or an activity. It may be the cause of an activity and the result of participation in the activity. We tend to attended to such objects which interest us.
The fundamental interests of human beings are the instincts themselves. During childhood the individual's interests are mainly instinctive. With him mental and social development, new interest are acquired out of sentiments or objects and ideas which affect him deeply. We are interested in certain things, as they satisfy our natural desires and needs. The chicken is interested in pecking, the birds in nests. Infants in bright moving, objects growing up children in games and sports. A hungry Person does not attend to anything but food and a mother is always attentive to her baby's cry inspite of her busy schedules.
Most of our interests are governed by our drives, emotions and motives. A woman's interest in embroidery may by due to satisfaction of her desire for putting on ornamental garments. The interest of young people in their clothes or appearance may be due to their desire to attract members of the opposite sex. Thus, instinctive drives are powerful forces which provide a fund of interests to be channelized into useful activities.