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Developing Mental Power
by
George Malcolm Stratton

[Childhood Education, 1922]

V. EMOTION AND MENTAL ENERGY

But were we now to look to the energy of the mind, we should find something of wider bearing, evident not only in our thinking, but in every form of will. This energy makes itself known in the strength of the man's attention, in the vigor of his intellectual attack, and, out beyond intelligence, in his endurance, in the impact and tenacity of his purpose. Its amount is not the same as the amount available, which suffers changes not due merely to the ups and downs of health.

Some crisis, as all know from James's essay on "The Energies of Men," may open a hidden reservoir from which power now flows into a man's every act. In the World War, men and women who had before been working to their utmost, suddenly assumed duties that trebled their task. The occasion, the solemn public demand, worked in them so that energy came forth to meet the need. No new function may have been called to life, but rather the long-familiar acts felt an access of energy - as an electric light, burning dull, suddenly receives fresh current, and leaps into brilliance. In this store of energy connected with all functions, whether they be special or general, we have an intimation of the mind as of another plan than has too often been taught. It is not a mere composite of general faculties, nor a composite of particular functions, but something single and yet varied, holding together all functions, and energizing them with a common life.

* * *

Now, if we were to ask as to the sources of energy, we should be led close to the emotions, where are found changes deep and wide that reveal new possibilities in education.

For the fruit of every one of our intellectual powers is markedly affected by the emotions behind them and interfused with them. There is a whole group of passions which in certain forms and intensities are strength-giving, are energetic - hope, for example, and gladness and anger: to these we should doubtless look for the cause of that opening of the gates of energy in crises when energy is our sorest need. They make and unmake the man. They hold our powers together; they disorganize and disrupt.

The war brought new illustrations of this, where emotional stress and strain, without wounds, caused soldiers to be blind and deaf, unable to speak even their own names, great stretches of their past a blank to them. A like influence of emotion upon the total organization of the mind has long been observed in hysteria, with its functional blindness and deafness, its functional paralyses, its disturbance of memory and of the very feeling of one's identity. In all these cases something beneath the special functions has broken, and for the time their cunning is gone. Their life, then, is clearly not in themselves; in part at least it wells up from deeper sources.

But far short of these violent disturbances, we may see the emotions, the feelings, the moods, widely influencing the mind. The effect of emotion upon judgment is notorious: according as we like or dislike a person, will his acts be differently interpreted; according as we are elated or depressed will a task seem easily within or quite beyond our powers. For this reason children whose vitality is low cannot be expected to enter upon their work with normal interest and zeal. It seems probable that emotional depression hinders the power to recollect, and that recollection improves with a lifting of the emotional level.

Strange to say, emotion even works backward, increasing or diminishing our power to recollect what occurred before, as well as during, the emotion itself. A knowledge of these interconnections makes for tolerance: the teacher's, the parent's own judgment is subject to fluctuations due to abundance or want of cheer. Health and buoyancy in the teacher, health and buoyancy in the taught, multiply the power available.

* * *

Some experiments in our laboratory have a bearing upon matters of the school, showing that surroundings clearly influence the power to learn. Students were set by Dr. Brown the task of solving a series of problems, working day after day, all at the same series of problems. Half of the youths worked one at a time in a room neatly carpeted, orderly, bright, and with a cheerful outlook. The other half were required to work one at a time in a room with bare floors, dingy, chaotic with odds and ends of apparatus, well lighted from above, but with no outlook. Those who had the pleasanter surroundings greatly outdistanced their competitors. It encourages us to think that schoolrooms, study-rooms at home, if made pleasant, give more than pleasure itself; they increase the work accomplished, the fruit of the effort.

And in a different experiment the effect of the emotional attitude of the worker showed its effect. A score or more of youths had singly been set by Mrs. McCharles the same problems to solve; half of the workers were charged to regard each task as something well-disposed to them and to be met in as friendly a spirit as possible; the other half were to regard the work as an enemy that must be attacked with anger. The latter spirit, in a group of students otherwise not superior to their competitors, brought much larger success in the work.

With animals in our laboratory it is found, by students under Dr. Tolman's direction, that a mild penalty attached to each mistake shortens the process of learning - an incentive more in favor with an older generation of schoolmasters, and which I here report " without recommendation." Nor would all be willing to imitate that similar use of the emotions as an aid to learning, reported by Benvenuto Cellini, when his father, showing him a salamander in their household fire, beat the lad lest he forget the rare experience.

Emotions never know their place; they wander and make strange transfers and associations. They appear in unexpected places. A young woman whom I know came near drowning upon a moonlit night some years ago; and now upon any night when the moon is bright the old distress in awakened form returns, there is an echo of the agony of her struggle. So far as this goes it tends to disturb and hinder the free expression of power. In a wider and beneficent way, we know that love may quicken the thought, the imagination, the purposes, of the lover; tresh life has pulsed through all his powers.

The play of emotion thus reveals the mind. If its powers seem stubbornly specialized and separate and insulated, this is true only in part and for the surface. Deep within we find free intercourse, free circulation. For all its particularized abilities, then, the mind is whole and fluid. A passion acts in it like a drop of strong chemical, that causes ebullition or precipitation throughout the whole. We cannot afford to neglect these universal potencies.

The sect called Christian Scientists, with its eye upon some of these energizing emotions, shows that the neglect is being noted and avenged. And the growing attention to play is something of a belated redress. We once thought that health and mental vigor needed mere muscular contractions, so many foot-pounds of exercise per diem. The spirit of play in the y exercise is the secret elixir, and with it apparently the exercise can almost be spared. Some day we shall know how much the great and balanced workers owe to their power to play - in mind if not in body.

Wilson, like Lincoln, enjoyed the theater; and humor was a grace of each. With a right grasp of the mind's character the emotions will come into their own. They are not mere disturbers, mere ornaments; they decide whether the abilities shall be blocked or set free. Time and some impatience will bring us to share the conviction of the wise physician, Sir James Crichton-Browne, that in all education the emotions need uncommon care; that the right and sensitive emotions of the person can alone give effect to his learning and his judgment and his skill of hand.

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