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Concentration

Those writing about logic emphasize with good reason the creative power of concentration, although they tend to ignore a variety that might appropriately be called cerebral polarization or sustained concentration—that is, steady orientation of all our faculties toward a single object of study for a period of months or even years. The thinking of countless brilliant minds ends up sterile for lack of this ability, which the French call esprit de suite. I could cite dozens of Spaniards with minds finely suited to scientific investigation who retreat discouraged from a problem without seriously measuring their strength, perhaps just at the moment when nature was about to reward their eagerness with the anxiously awaited revelation. Our classrooms and laboratories are full of these capricious and restless souls who love research and suffer through mishaps with the retort or microscope day after day. Their feverish activity yields an avalanche of lectures, articles, and books—upon which they have lavished a great deal of scholarship and talent. They constantly exhort the garrulous throng of dreamers and theorizers with the indispensable need for observing nature directly. Then, after long years of publicity and experimental work, those closest to them (their satellites at the prestigious yet mysterious meetings where the great preside) are asked about the discoveries of the master. The allies are forced to confess shamefacedly that the great burden of talent, combined with the virtual impossibility of summarizing in a nutshell the extraordinary magnitude and range of the work undertaken, make it impossible to state what partial or positive progress had been made. These are the inevitable fruits of negligence or excessive lack of focus, not to mention childish, encyclopedic ostentation. This approach is inconceivable today, when even the most renowned scholars specialize and concentrate in order to produce. But enough of this; we shall deal later with bad habits of the will.
To bring scientific investigation to a happy end once appropriate methods have been determined, we must hold firmly in mind the goal of the project. The object here is to focus the train of thought on more and more complex and accurate associations between images based on observation and ideas slumbering in the unconscious—ideas that only vigorous concentration of mental energy can raise to the conscious level. One must achieve total absorption; expectation and focused attention are not enough. We must take advantage of all lucid moments, whether they occur during the meditation following prolonged rest; during the super-intense mental work nerve cells achieve when fired by concentration; or during scientific discussion, whose impact often generates unanticipated intuition like sparks from steel. Most people who lack self-confidence are unaware of the marvelous power of prolonged concentration. This type of cerebral polarization (which involves a special ordering of perceptions) refines judgment, enriches analytical powers, spurs constructive imagination, and—by focusing all light of reason on the darkness of a problem—allows unforseen and subtle relationships to be discovered. If a photographic plate under the center of a lens focused on the heavens is exposed for hours, it comes to reveal stars so far away that even the most powerful telescopes fail to reveal them to the naked eye. In a similar way, time and concentration allow the intellect to perceive a ray of light in the darkness of the most complex problem.

The comparison just made is not, however, entirely accurate. Photography in astronomy is limited to recording faint though preexisting stars, whereas intellectual work is an act of creation. It is as if the mental image that is studied over a period of time were to sprout appendages like an ameba— outgrowths that extend in all directions while avoiding one obstacle after another—before interdigitating with related ideas.

The forging of new truth almost always requires severe abstention and renunciation. During the so-called intellectual incubation period, the investigator should ignore everything unrelated to the problem of interest, like a somnambulist attending only to the voice of the hypnotist. In the lecture room, on walks, in the theater, in conversation, and even in reading for pleasure, seek opportunities for insight, comparisons, and hypotheses that add at least some clarity to the problem one is obsessed with. Nothing is useless during this process of adjustment. The first glaring errors, as well as the wrong turns ventured on by the imagination, are necessary because in the end they lead us down the correct path. They are part of the final success, just as the initial formless sketches of the artist are a part of the finished portrait.

When one reflects on the ability that humans display for modifying and refining mental activity related to a problem under serious examination, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the brain is plastic and goes through a process of anatomical and functional differentiation, adapting itself progressively to the problem. The adequate and specific organization acquired by nerve cells eventually produces what I would refer to as professional or adaptational talent. As a motivator of the will itself, this brain organization provides the energy to adapt understanding to the nature of the problem under consideration. In a certain sense, it would not be paradoxical to say that the person who initiates the solution to a problem is different from the one who solves it. This is an obvious and simple explanation for the astonishment proclaimed by all investigators on discovering the simple solution so laboriously sought. “Why didn’t I think of this at the outset!” we exclaim. “There was so much confusion traveling down roads that led nowhere!”

If a solution fails to appear after all of this, and yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while. Several weeks of relaxation and quiet in the countryside brings calmness and clarity to the mind. Like the early morning frost, this intellectual refreshment withers the parasitic and nasty vegetation that smothers the good seed. Bursting forth at last is the flower of truth, whose calyx usually opens after a long and profound sleep at dawn—in those placid hours of the morning that Goethe and so many others consider especially favorable for discovery.

Travel has the same virtue of renewing thought and dissipating tiring preoccupations by furnishing new views of the world and transmitting our store of ideas to others. How often the powerful vibration of the locomotive and the spiritual solitude of the railway car (the “just rewards of humanity,” as Descartes might say) suggest ideas that are ultimately confirmed in the laboratory!

Now that scientific research has become a regular profession on the payroll of the state, the observer can no longer afford to concentrate for extended periods of time on one subject, and must work even harder. Gone are the wonderful days of yore when those curious about nature were able to remain withdrawn in the silence of the study, confident that rivals would not disrupt their tranquil meditations. Research is now frantic. When a new technique is outlined, many scholars immediately take advantage of it and apply it almost simultaneously to the same problems—diminishing the glory of the originator, who probably lacks the facilities and time necessary to gather all the fruits of his labors, and of his lucky star.

As a result, the coincidences and battles of priority are inevitable. It is clear that once an idea becomes public it joins the intellectual atmosphere that nourishes all of our minds. Because of the functional synchronization that governs minds prepared and oriented toward a particular subject, the new idea is assimilated simultaneously in Paris and Berlin, in London and Vienna—in virtually the same way, with similar developments and applications. The discovery grows and develops spontaneously and automatically like an organism, as though scholars are reduced to mere cultivators of the seed planted by a genius. The magnificent flowering of new information is observed by all, and naturally everyone wishes to gather for themselves the splendid blossoms. This explains the eagerness to publish most laboratory studies, even when imperfect and incomplete. The desire to arrive first results at times in shallowness, although it is also true that feverish anxiety to reach the goal first wins the prize for priority.

Be that as it may, it is unwise to become disenchanted if someone arrives ahead of us. Continue work undaunted; in time our turn will come. That eminent woman, Madam Curie, provides an eloquent example of untiring perseverance. After discovering the radioactivity of thorium, she was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the same observation had been announced a short time earlier by Schmidt in the Wiedermann Annalen. Far from disheartened, however, she continued her research uninterrupted. She analyzed new substances with the electroscope, including uranium oxide (pitchblende) from the mines of Johann Georgenstadt, and its radioactivity proved four times stronger than that of uranium itself. Suspecting that this very active material contained a new element, she undertook (with the assistance of M. Curie) a series of ingenious, patient, and heroic experiments that were rewarded with the discovery of a new element, the remarkable radium. Its properties inspired a great deal of further work that has revolutionized chemistry and physics.

In Spain, where laziness is a religion rather than a vice, there is little appreciation for how the monumental work of German chemists, naturalists, and physicians is accomplished—especially when it would appear that the time required to execute the plan and assemble a bibliography might involve decades! Yet these books have been written in a year or two, quietly and without feverish haste. The secret lies in the method of work; in taking advantage of as much time as possible for the activity; in not retiring for the day until at least two or three hours are dedicated to the task; in wisely constructing a dike in front of the intellectual dispersion and waste of time required by social activity; and finally, in avoiding as much as possible the malicious gossip of the café and other entertainment—which squanders our nervous energy (sometimes even causing disgust) and draws us away from our main task with childish conceits and futile pursuits.
If our professions do not allow us to devote more than two hours a day to a subject, do not abandon the work on the pretext that we need four or six. As Payot wisely noted, “A little each day is enough, as long as a little is produced each day.”
The harm in certain things that are too distracting lies not so much in the time they steal from us as in the enervation they bring to the creative tension of the mind, and in the loss they cause to that quality of tone that nerve cells acquire when adapted to a particular subject.

Of course we don’t recommend the elimination of all distractions. However, those of the investigator should always be light and promote the association of new ideas. A stroll outside, contemplating works of art and photography, enjoying scenes such as monuments in different lands, the enchantment of music—and more than anything else the companionship of a person who understands us and carefully avoids all serious and reflective conversation—are the best ways for the laboratory worker to relax. Along these lines, it is wise to follow the advice of Buffon, who justified his abandon in conversation (which displeased many of those who admired the nobility, along with his elegant writing style) by noting: “These are my moments of rest.”

In summary, all great work is the fruit of patience and perseverance, combined with tenacious concentration on a subject over a period of months or even years. Many illustrious scholars have confirmed this when questioned about the secret of their creations. Newton stated that he arrived at the sovereign law of universal attraction only by constant thinking about the same problem. According to one of his sons, Darwin achieved such a high degree of concentration on the biological facts related to the principle of evolution that for many years he systematically deprived himself of all reading and contemplation unrelated to the goal of his thoughts. Buffon said unreservedly, “Genius is simply patience carried to the extreme.” To those who asked how he achieved fame he replied: “By spending forty years of my life bent over my writing desk.” As a final example, it is widely known that Mayer, the genius who discovered the principle of energy conservation and transformation, dedicated his entire life to this concept.
Thus, it is clear beyond doubt that great scientific undertakings require intellectual vigor, as well as severe discipline of the will and continuous subordination of all one’s mental powers to an object of study. Harm is caused unconsciously by the biographers of illustrious scholars when they attribute great scientific conquests to genius rather than to hard work and patience. What more could the weak will of the student or professor ask than to rationalize its laziness with the modest, and thus even more lamentable, admission of intellectual mediocrity! Not even biographers with the good sense of G.L. Figuier are immune from the regrettable trend of extolling beyond reason the mental gifts of famous investigators. Careful thought should make them realize how discouraging this can be to their readers. On the other hand, many autobiographies wherein the sage presents himself full-length to the reader provide an excellent moral tonic, showing weaknesses and passions, lapses and triumphs. After reading autobiographies that fill the soul with hope, you might well say: “Even I can be a painter!”

3 Comments

  1. Impressive Article , I thought it was remarkable

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  2. Very insightful article that I found when looking for an aforism by Santiago Ramón y Cajal.


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