Paying Attention: A Case Study in Conceptual Histories through Millions of Texts

Benjamin MacDonald Schmidt

Visiting Fellow, Cultural Observatory @ Harvard

Ph.D. Candidate in History, Princeton University

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The History of Attention

Mind as Camera

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence.

William James, Principles of Psychology

The History of Attention



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Mind as Camera

Those who lay stress on the unity of mind regard it as almost evident a priori, that but one concept can occupy the focus of attention at a time... Attention, like the lens of the eye, is now [ie, first] accommodated to act as an instrument of near focus, high magnification, but limited aperture, and again [then] as one of distant focus, small magnifying-power, but wide range

Can the Mind attend to two things at once? Science: July 18, 1887