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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsMental Efficiency And Other Hints To Men And Women - Chapter 1. Mental Efficiency
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Mental Efficiency And Other Hints To Men And Women - Chapter 1. Mental Efficiency Post by :jancee Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1321

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Mental Efficiency And Other Hints To Men And Women - Chapter 1. Mental Efficiency

CHAPTER I. MENTAL EFFICIENCY

THE APPEAL

If there is any virtue in advertisements--and a journalist should be the last person to say that there is not--the American nation is rapidly reaching a state of physical efficiency of which the world has probably not seen the like since Sparta. In all the American newspapers and all the American monthlies are innumerable illustrated announcements of "physical-culture specialists," who guarantee to make all the organs of the body perform their duties with the mighty precision of a 60 h.p. motor-car that never breaks down. I saw a book the other day written by one of these specialists, to show how perfect health could be attained by devoting a quarter of an hour a day to certain exercises. The advertisements multiply and increase in size. They cost a great deal of money. Therefore they must bring in a great deal of business. Therefore vast numbers of people must be worried about the non-efficiency of their bodies, and on the way to achieve efficiency. In our more modest British fashion, we have the same phenomenon in England. And it is growing. Our muscles are growing also. Surprise a man in his bedroom of a morning, and you will find him lying on his back on the floor, or standing on his head, or whirling clubs, in pursuit of physical efficiency. I remember that once I "went in" for physical efficiency myself. I, too, lay on the floor, my delicate epidermis separated from the carpet by only the thinnest of garments, and I contorted myself according to the fifteen diagrams of a large chart (believed to be the _magna charta of physical efficiency) daily after shaving. In three weeks my collars would not meet round my prize-fighter's neck; my hosier reaped immense profits, and I came to the conclusion that I had carried physical efficiency quite far enough.

A strange thing--was it not?--that I never had the idea of devoting a quarter of an hour a day after shaving to the pursuit of mental efficiency. The average body is a pretty complicated affair, sadly out of order, but happily susceptible to culture. The average mind is vastly more complicated, not less sadly out of order, but perhaps even more susceptible to culture. We compare our arms to the arms of the gentleman illustrated in the physical efficiency advertisement, and we murmur to ourselves the classic phrase: "This will never do." And we set about developing the muscles of our arms until we can show them off (through a frock coat) to women at afternoon tea. But it does not, perhaps, occur to us that the mind has its muscles, and a lot of apparatus besides, and that these invisible, yet paramount, mental organs are far less efficient than they ought to be; that some of them are atrophied, others starved, others out of shape, etc. A man of sedentary occupation goes for a very long walk on Easter Monday, and in the evening is so exhausted that he can scarcely eat. He wakes up to the inefficiency of his body, caused by his neglect of it, and he is so shocked that he determines on remedial measures. Either he will walk to the office, or he will play golf, or he will execute the post-shaving exercises. But let the same man after a prolonged sedentary course of newspapers, magazines, and novels, take his mind out for a stiff climb among the rocks of a scientific, philosophic, or artistic subject. What will he do? Will he stay out all day, and return in the evening too tired even to read his paper? Not he. It is ten to one that, finding himself puffing for breath after a quarter of an hour, he won't even persist till he gets his second wind, but will come back at once. Will he remark with genuine concern that his mind is sadly out of condition and that he really must do something to get it into order? Not he. It is a hundred to one that he will tranquilly accept the _status quo_, without shame and without very poignant regret. Do I make my meaning clear?

I say, without a _very poignant regret, because a certain vague regret is indubitably caused by realizing that one is handicapped by a mental inefficiency which might, without too much difficulty, be cured. That vague regret exudes like a vapour from the more cultivated section of the public. It is to be detected everywhere, and especially among people who are near the half-way house of life. They perceive the existence of immense quantities of knowledge, not the smallest particle of which will they ever make their own. They stroll forth from their orderly dwellings on a starlit night, and feel dimly the wonder of the heavens. But the still small voice is telling them that, though they have read in a newspaper that there are fifty thousand stars in the Pleiades, they cannot even point to the Pleiades in the sky. How they would like to grasp the significance of the nebular theory, the most overwhelming of all theories! And the years are passing; and there are twenty-four hours in every day, out of which they work only six or seven; and it needs only an impulse, an effort, a system, in order gradually to cure the mind of its slackness, to give "tone" to its muscles, and to enable it to grapple with the splendours of knowledge and sensation that await it! But the regret is not poignant enough. They do nothing. They go on doing nothing. It is as though they passed for ever along the length of an endless table filled with delicacies, and could not stretch out a hand to seize. Do I exaggerate? Is there not deep in the consciousness of most of us a mournful feeling that our minds are like the liver of the advertisement--sluggish, and that for the sluggishness of our minds there is the excuse neither of incompetence, nor of lack of time, nor of lack of opportunity, nor of lack of means?

Why does not some mental efficiency specialist come forward and show us how to make our minds do the work which our minds are certainly capable of doing? I do not mean a quack. All the physical efficiency specialists who advertise largely are not quacks. Some of them achieve very genuine results. If a course of treatment can be devised for the body, a course of treatment can be devised for the mind. Thus we might realize some of the ambitions which all of us cherish in regard to the utilization in our spare time of that magnificent machine which we allow to rust within our craniums. We have the desire to perfect ourselves, to round off our careers with the graces of knowledge and taste. How many people would not gladly undertake some branch of serious study, so that they might not die under the reproach of having lived and died without ever really having known anything about anything! It is not the absence of desire that prevents them. It is, first, the absence of will-power--not the will to begin, but the will to continue; and, second, a mental apparatus which is out of condition, "puffy," "weedy," through sheer neglect. The remedy, then, divides itself into two parts, the cultivation of will-power, and the getting into condition of the mental apparatus. And these two branches of the cure must be worked concurrently.

I am sure that the considerations which I have presented to you must have already presented themselves to tens of thousands of my readers, and that thousands must have attempted the cure. I doubt not that many have succeeded. I shall deem it a favour if those readers who have interested themselves in the question will communicate to me at once the result of their experience, whatever its outcome. I will make such use as I can of the letters I receive, and afterwards I will give my own experience.

 

THE REPLIES

The correspondence which I have received in answer to my appeal shows that at any rate I did not overstate the case. There is, among a vast mass of reflecting people in this country, a clear consciousness of being mentally less than efficient, and a strong (though ineffective) desire that such mental inefficiency should cease to be. The desire is stronger than I had imagined, but it does not seem to have led to much hitherto. And that "course of treatment for the mind," by means of which we are to "realize some of the ambitions which all of us cherish in regard to the utilization in our spare time of the magnificent machine which we allow to rust within our craniums"--that desiderated course of treatment has not apparently been devised by anybody. The Sandow of the brain has not yet loomed up above the horizon. On the other hand, there appears to be a general expectancy that I personally am going to play the role of the Sandow of the brain. Vain thought!

I have been very much interested in the letters, some of which, as a statement of the matter in question, are admirable. It is perhaps not surprising that the best of them come from women--for (genius apart) woman is usually more touchingly lyrical than man in the yearning for the ideal. The most enthusiastic of all the letters I have received, however, is from a gentleman whose notion is that we should be hypnotised into mental efficiency. After advocating the establishment of "an institution of practical psychology from whence there can be graduated fit and proper people whose efforts would be in the direction of the subconscious mental mechanism of the child or even the adult," this hypnotist proceeds: "Between the academician, whose specialty is an inconsequential cobweb, the medical man who has got it into his head that he is the logical foster-father for psychonomical matters, and the blatant 'professor' who deals with monkey tricks on a few somnambules on the music-hall stage, you are allowing to go unrecognized one of the most potent factors of mental development." Am I? I have not the least idea what this gentleman means, but I can assure him that he is wrong. I can make more sense out of the remarks of another correspondent who, utterly despising the things of the mind, compares a certain class of young men to "a halfpenny bloater with the roe out," and asserts that he himself "got out of the groove" by dint of having to unload ten tons of coal in three hours and a half every day during several years. This is interesting and it is constructive, but it is just a little beside the point.

A lady, whose optimism is indicated by her pseudonym, "Esperance," puts her finger on the spot, or, rather, on one of the spots, in a very sensible letter. "It appears to me," she says, "that the great cause of mental inefficiency is lack of concentration, perhaps especially in the case of women. I can trace my chief failures to this cause. Concentration, is a talent. It may be in a measure cultivated, but it needs to be inborn.... The greater number of us are in a state of semi-slumber, with minds which are only exerted to one-half of their capability." I thoroughly agree that inability to concentrate is one of the chief symptoms of the mental machine being out of condition. "Esperance's" suggested cure is rather drastic. She says: "Perhaps one of the best cures for mental sedentariness is arithmetic, for there is nothing else which requires greater power of concentration." Perhaps arithmetic might be an effective cure, but it is not a practical cure, because no one, or scarcely any one, would practise it. I cannot imagine the plain man who, having a couple of hours to spare of a night, and having also the sincere desire but not the will-power to improve his taste and knowledge, would deliberately sit down and work sums by way of preliminary mental calisthenics. As Ibsen's puppet said: "People don't do these things." Why do they not? The answer is: Simply because they won't; simply because human nature will not run to it. "Esperance's" suggestion of learning poetry is slightly better.

Certainly the best letter I have had is from Miss H. D. She says: "This idea (to avoid the reproach of 'living and dying without ever really knowing anything about anything') came to me of itself from somewhere when I was a small girl. And looking back I fancy that the thought itself spurred me to do something in this world, to get into line with people who did things--people who painted pictures, wrote books, built bridges, or did something beyond the ordinary. This only has seemed to me, all my life since, worth while." Here I must interject that such a statement is somewhat sweeping. In fact, it sweeps a whole lot of fine and legitimate ambitions straight into the rubbish heap of the Not-worth-while. I think the writer would wish to modify it. She continues: "And when the day comes in which I have not done some serious reading, however small the measure, or some writing ... or I have been too sad or dull to notice the brightness of colour of the sun, of grass and flowers, of the sea, or the moonlight on the water, I think the day ill-spent. So I must think the _incentive to do a little each day beyond the ordinary towards the real culture of the mind, is the beginning of the cure of mental inefficiency." This is very ingenious and good. Further: "The day comes when the mental habit has become a part of our life, and we value mental work for the work's sake." But I am not sure about that. For myself, I have never valued work for its own sake, and I never shall. And I only value such mental work for the more full and more intense consciousness of being alive which it gives me.

Miss H. D.'s remedies are vague. As to lack of will-power, "the first step is to realize your weakness; the next step is to have ordinary shame that you are defective." I doubt, I gravely doubt, if these steps would lead to anything definite. Nor is this very helpful: "I would advise reading, observing, writing. I would advise the use of every sense and every faculty by which we at last learn the sacredness of life." This is begging the question. If people, by merely wishing to do so, could regularly and seriously read, observe, write, and use every faculty and sense, there would be very little mental inefficiency. I see that I shall be driven to construct a programme out of my own bitter and ridiculous experiences.

 

THE CURE

"But tasks in hours of insight willed
Can be through hours of gloom fulfilled."


The above lines from Matthew Arnold are quoted by one of my very numerous correspondents to support a certain optimism in this matter of a systematic attempt to improve the mind. They form part of a beautiful and inspiring poem, but I gravely fear that they run counter to the vast mass of earthly experience. More often than not I have found that a task willed in some hour of insight can _not be fulfilled through hours of gloom. No, no, and no! To will is easy: it needs but the momentary bright contagion of a stronger spirit than one's own. To fulfil, morning after morning, or evening after evening, through months and years--this is the very dickens, and there is not one of my readers that will not agree with me. Yet such is the elastic quality of human nature that most of my correspondents are quite ready to ignore the sad fact and to demand at once: "what shall we will? Tell us what we must will." Some seem to think that they have solved the difficulty when they have advocated certain systems of memory and mind-training. Such systems may be in themselves useful or useless--the evidence furnished to me is contradictory--but were they perfect systems, a man cannot be intellectually born again merely by joining a memory-class. The best system depends utterly on the man's power of resolution. And what really counts is not the system, but the spirit in which the man handles it. Now, the proper spirit can only be induced by a careful consideration and realization of the man's conditions--the limitations of his temperament, the strength of adverse influences, and the lessons of his past.

Let me take an average case. Let me take your case, O man or woman of thirty, living in comfort, with some cares, and some responsibilities, and some pretty hard daily work, but not too much of any! The question of mental efficiency is in the air. It interests you. It touches you nearly. Your conscience tells you that your mind is less active and less informed than it might be. You suddenly spring up from the garden-seat, and you say to yourself that you will take your mind in hand and do something with it. Wait a moment. Be so good as to sink back into that garden-seat and clutch that tennis racket a little longer. You have had these "hours of insight" before, you know. You have not arrived at the age of thirty without having tried to carry out noble resolutions--and failed. What precautions are you going to take against failure this time? For your will is probably no stronger now than it was aforetime. You have admitted and accepted failure in the past. And no wound is more cruel to the spirit of resolve than that dealt by failure. You fancy the wound closed, but just at the critical moment it may reopen and mortally bleed you. What are your precautions? Have you thought of them? No. You have not.

I have not the pleasure of your acquaintance. But I know you because I know myself. Your failure in the past was due to one or more of three causes. And the first was that you undertook too much at the beginning. You started off with a magnificent programme. You are something of an expert in physical exercises--you would be ashamed not to be, in these physical days--and so you would never attempt a hurdle race or an uninterrupted hour's club-whirling without some preparation. The analogy between the body and the mind ought to have struck you. _This time, please do not form an elaborate programme. Do not form any programme. Simply content yourself with a preliminary canter, a ridiculously easy preliminary canter. For example (and I give this merely as an example), you might say to yourself: "Within one month from this date I will read twice Herbert Spencer's little book on 'Education'--sixpence--and will make notes in pencil inside the back cover of the things that particularly strike me." You remark that that is nothing, that you can do it "on your head," and so on. Well, do it. When it is done you will at any rate possess the satisfaction of having resolved to do something and having done it. Your mind will have gained tone and healthy pride. You will be even justified in setting yourself some kind of a simple programme to extend over three months. And you will have acquired some general principles by the light of which to construct the programme. But best of all, you will have avoided failure, that dangerous wound.

The second possible cause of previous failure was the disintegrating effect on the will-power of the ironic, superior smile of friends. Whenever a man "turns over a new leaf" he has this inane giggle to face. The drunkard may be less ashamed of getting drunk than of breaking to a crony the news that he has signed the pledge. Strange, but true! And human nature must be counted with. Of course, on a few stern spirits the effect of that smile is merely to harden the resolution. But on the majority its influence is deleterious. Therefore don't go and nail your flag to the mast. Don't raise any flag. Say nothing. Work as unobtrusively as you can. When you have won a battle or two you can begin to wave the banner, and then you will find that that miserable, pitiful, ironic, superior smile will die away ere it is born.

The third possible cause was that you did not rearrange your day. Idler and time-waster though you have been, still you had done _something during the twenty-four hours. You went to work with a kind of dim idea that there were twenty-six hours in every day. _Something large and definite has to be dropped. Some space in the rank jungle of the day has to be cleared and swept up for the new operations. Robbing yourself of sleep won't help you, nor trying to "squeeze in" a time for study between two other times. Use the knife, and use it freely. If you mean to read or think half an hour a day, arrange for an hour. A hundred per cent. margin is not too much for a beginner. Do you ask me where the knife is to be used? I should say that in nine cases out of ten the rites of the cult of the body might be abbreviated. I recently spent a week-end in a London suburb, and I was staggered by the wholesale attention given to physical recreation in all its forms. It was a gigantic debauch of the muscles on every side. It shocked me. "Poor withering mind!" I thought. "Cricket, and football, and boating, and golf, and tennis have their 'seasons,' but not thou!" These considerations are general and prefatory. Now I must come to detail.

 

MENTAL CALISTHENICS

I have dealt with the state of mind in which one should begin a serious effort towards mental efficiency, and also with the probable causes of failure in previous efforts. We come now to what I may call the calisthenics of the business, exercises which may be roughly compared to the technical exercises necessary in learning to play a musical instrument. It is curious that a person studying a musical instrument will have no false shame whatever in doing mere exercises for the fingers and wrists while a person who is trying to get his mind into order will almost certainly experience a false shame in going through performances which are undoubtedly good for him. Herein lies one of the great obstacles to mental efficiency. Tell a man that he should join a memory class, and he will hum and haw, and say, as I have already remarked, that memory isn't everything; and, in short, he won't join the memory class, partly from indolence, I grant, but more from false shame. (Is not this true?) He will even hesitate about learning things by heart. Yet there are few mental exercises better than learning great poetry or prose by heart. Twenty lines a week for six months: what a "cure" for debility! The chief, but not the only, merit of learning by heart as an exercise is that it compels the mind to concentrate. And the most important preliminary to self-development is the faculty of concentrating at will. Another excellent exercise is to read a page of no-matter-what, and then immediately to write down--in one's own words or in the author's--one's full recollection of it. A quarter of an hour a day! No more! And it works like magic.

This brings me to the department of writing. I am a writer by profession; but I do not think I have any prejudices in favour of the exercise of writing. Indeed, I say to myself every morning that if there is one exercise in the world which I hate, it is the exercise of writing. But I must assert that in my opinion the exercise of writing is an indispensable part of any genuine effort towards mental efficiency. I don't care much what you write, so long as you compose sentences and achieve continuity. There are forty ways of writing in an unprofessional manner, and they are all good. You may keep "a full diary," as Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson says he does. This is one of the least good ways. Diaries, save in experienced hands like those of Mr. Benson, are apt to get themselves done with the very minimum of mental effort. They also tend to an exaggeration of egotism, and if they are left lying about they tend to strife. Further, one never knows when one may not be compelled to produce them in a court of law. A journal is better. Do not ask me to define the difference between a journal and a diary. I will not and I cannot. It is a difference that one feels instinctively. A diary treats exclusively of one's self and one's doings; a journal roams wider, and notes whatever one has observed of interest. A diary relates that one had lobster mayonnaise for dinner and rose the next morning with a headache, doubtless attributable to mental strain. A journal relates that Mrs. ----, whom one took into dinner, had brown eyes, and an agreeable trick of throwing back her head after asking a question, and gives her account of her husband's strange adventures in Colorado, etc. A diary is


All I, I, I, I, itself I


(to quote a line of the transcendental poetry of Mary Baker G. Eddy). A journal is the large spectacle of life. A journal may be special or general. I know a man who keeps a journal of all cases of current superstition which he actually encounters. He began it without the slightest suspicion that he was beginning a document of astounding interest and real scientific value; but such was the fact. In default of a diary or a journal, one may write essays (provided one has the moral courage); or one may simply make notes on the book one reads. Or one may construct anthologies of passages which have made an individual and particular appeal to one's tastes. Anthology construction is one of the pleasantest hobbies that a person who is not mad about golf and bridge--that is to say, a thinking person--can possibly have; and I recommend it to those who, discreetly mistrusting their power to keep up a fast pace from start to finish, are anxious to begin their intellectual course gently and mildly. In any event, writing--the act of writing--is vital to almost any scheme. I would say it was vital to every scheme, without exception, were I not sure that some kind correspondent would instantly point out a scheme to which writing was obviously not vital.

After writing comes thinking. (The sequence may be considered odd, but I adhere to it.) In this connexion I cannot do better than quote an admirable letter which I have received from a correspondent who wishes to be known only as "An Oxford Lecturer." The italics (except the last) are mine, not his. He says: "Till a man has got his physical brain completely under his control--_suppressing its too-great receptivity, its tendencies to reproduce idly the thoughts of others, and to be swayed by every passing gust of emotion_--I hold that he cannot do a tenth part of the work that he would then be able to perform with little or no effort. Moreover, work apart, he has not entered upon his kingdom, and unlimited possibilities of future development are barred to him. Mental efficiency can be gained by constant practice in meditation--i.e., by concentrating the mind, say, for but ten minutes daily, but with absolute regularity, on some of the highest thoughts of which it is capable. Failures will be frequent, but they must be regarded with simple indifference and dogged perseverance in the path chosen. If that path be followed _without intermission even for a few weeks the results will speak for themselves." I thoroughly agree with what this correspondent says, and am obliged to him for having so ably stated the case. But I regard such a practice of meditation as he indicates as being rather an "advanced" exercise for a beginner. After the beginner has got under way, and gained a little confidence in his strength of purpose, and acquired the skill to define his thoughts sufficiently to write them down--then it would be time enough, in my view, to undertake what "An Oxford Lecturer" suggests. By the way, he highly recommends Mrs. Annie Besant's book, _Thought Power: Its Control and Culture_. He says that it treats the subject with scientific clearness, and gives a practical method of training the mind, I endorse the latter part of the statement.

So much for the more or less technical processes of stirring the mind from its sloth and making it exactly obedient to the aspirations of the soul. And here I close. Numerous correspondents have asked me to outline a course of reading for them. In other words, they have asked me to particularize for them the aspirations of their souls. My subject, however, was not self-development My subject was mental efficiency as a means to self-development. Of course, one can only acquire mental efficiency in the actual effort of self-development. But I was concerned, not with the choice of route; rather with the manner of following the route. You say to me that I am busying myself with the best method of walking, and refusing to discuss where to go. Precisely. One man cannot tell another man where the other man wants to go.

If he can't himself decide on a goal he may as well curl up and expire, for the root of the matter is not in him. I will content myself with pointing out that the entire universe is open for inspection. Too many people fancy that self-development means literature. They associate the higher life with an intimate knowledge of the life of Charlotte Bronte, or the order of the plays of Shakespeare. The higher life may just as well be butterflies, or funeral customs, or county boundaries, or street names, or mosses, or stars, or slugs, as Charlotte Bronte or Shakespeare. Choose what interests you. Lots of finely-organized, mentally-efficient persons can't read Shakespeare at any price, and if you asked them who was the author of _The Tenant of Wildfell Hall they might proudly answer Emily Bronte, if they didn't say they never heard of it. An accurate knowledge of _any subject, coupled with a carefully nurtured sense of the relativity of that subject to other subjects, implies an enormous self-development. With this hint I conclude.

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