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Absorbing self-communion

November 20, 2010

Virginia Heffernan is not the first New York Times Magazine writer to tackle the topic of attention. A correspondent pointed me to another piece (published precisely 100 years ago today), which was titled "The Secret of Success – Intellectual Concentration." It looks at "notable cases where men won fame and fortune through absorbing self-communion." These fellows – they include "Edison, Keene, Pupin, Hewitt, Westinghouse and Gould" – seem to have been gifted with big, fat, wonky attention spans.

I particularly enjoyed the description of Edison's ability to focus his attention:

When Edison, still a telegraph operator in Boston, was receiving or sending messages with a rapidity which at that time had never been surpassed [one can only imagine the vigor of the tweet stream Edison would have emitted! -editor], he began to wonder whether it might not be possible to send two messages each way at the same time through a telegraph wire. As he thought about this matter he became convinced that this seemingly impossible feat could be shown to be not impossible at all, but entirely practicable.

Finally Edison concentrated his mind upon the problem. He ate mechanically; he was almost unconscious of what he put into his mouth. He gave himself no sleep. He sat in his little laboratory as silent as a graven image. What was in his mind no man could tell. What he saw with his intensely concentrated mental vision he alone knew. But as a result of that concentration of mind he gave the world the quadruplex telegraph.

Some years later, one hot Summer day in the year 1878, Edison took a train at New York for the manufacturing village of Derby in the Housatonic Valley in Connecticut. With him was his friend George H. Barker, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Both were in high spirits, for the excursion seemed to them to be a sort of brief vacation – a pleasure trip.

But when Edison, on arriving at his destination, stood in front of a new electrical apparatus his whole manner changed instantly. He stood before that great piece of machinery which was creating, or at least capturing, electricity of great volume, utterly unconscious of his surroundings. There was no other intelligence in his eye than that which seemed to be reflected from the machine. If any one spoke to him he did not hear.

He was, in fact, under the complete domination of absolutely concentrated thought. He was another man – almost superman; and when later in the day his friend called to him, saying that it was time to take the return train, then only did Edison seem to awaken from what appeared to be almost a hypnotic or somnambulistic state. And then he said simply: "I think I have solved the secret of the divisibility of the electric current so that we may have the incandescent electric light."

I love that "simply."

It has recently become fashionable (as we swing to the sway of our new technologies) to denigrate solitary, deeply attentive thinking, the kind celebrated and symbolized by Rodin's The Thinker. Ideas and inventions, we're urged to believe, leap not from the head of the self-communing genius but from the whirl of "the network." In fact, you need both - the lonely wizard and the teeming bazaar - as Edison's life so clearly demonstrates. Edison certainly drew on the work and ideas of his predecessors and contemporaries, and his Menlo Park laboratory was by all accounts a noisy orgy room of intellectual cross-fertilization. But, like other deep thinkers, Edison had the ability to screen out the noise and focus his mind – and that capacity, half innate and half hard-won, was also essential to his creativity.

Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn't make Newton any less of a giant.


While I think this is one of your greatest posts (Kids! Watch for "My Greatest Blog Posts" by Nick Carr, coming to bookstores in 2011), you left out the secret fact that strong self communication requires regular doses of beer to ignite the imagination.

Posted by: Michael Drips [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2010 02:59 PM

Here's how Freeman Dyson recently described Paul Dirac, a contemporary of Einstein who won the Nobel Prize in Physics (with Schrodinger) in 1933:

"He was silent and aloof because he liked to think about one thing at a time. In his choice of problems to think about, he was guided by his ability to set aside irrelevancies, to see clearly what was important and what was not."

Dyson, who knew Dirac, is debating here a new biographer's description of him as a "mystic." He goes on:

"What was strange about Dirac was not mysticism but formidable concentration of attention upon a single problem."

Strange indeed.

Full article here:


Posted by: Kelly Roberts [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2010 04:46 PM

Drips: Yes, the science is quite clear on that point: "More intelligent children in both studies grew up to drink alcohol more frequently and in greater quantities than less intelligent children." Link.

Cheers, Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2010 11:19 PM

Meditation techniques begin with focused attention and concentration. Attention is one of the premises of awareness. If we aren’t fully attentive, it will be hard to integrate information in our awareness and transform it into knowledge and then wisdom. Also, without attention we can only absorb information without filtering it by our identities and values.

Without attention we risk becoming servomechanisms of technology, clicking compulsively with no aim or direction. Differently from the state of serendipity where our minds are open with no goals, in that lack of direction the mind is in a state of frenzy wanting to be filled, where we don’t have control over our intentions because we don’t have control over our attention.

Posted by: Ivo Quartiroli [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2010 11:53 PM

Hmm ... I agree with some of this, but there's problematic inferences and slippery language.

1) "The Secret of Success – Intellectual Concentration."

That title invites us to read it as concentration means success as a general rule. But it looks at a very very narrow subset, technical achievement. Yes, absolutely, I'd agree, concentration is an requirement there. But again, an extremely small percentage of the population is in such fields.
Elsewhere, "It's not WHAT you know, but WHO you know".

2) "screen out the noise" also has an unhappy tendency to require covering wife(or husband) and kids. That's something which is NOT so popular with fogeyism and moral preaching.

3) "Ideas and inventions, we're urged to believe, leap not from the head of the self-communing genius but from the whirl of "the network.""

As a debunking of web-evangelism, I'm with you all the way here. As a Great Man theory, I'm much more dubious.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2010 03:37 AM

Seth, It's not great man theory at stake in these issues, but the extremity of the other 'not great or worse' 98% of people we live with.

Posted by: LucaZombini [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2010 05:55 PM

Come on, Nick -- that flowery description of how Edison worked sounds like the kind of over-written hyperbole that was common at the time (and in many cases bordered on fiction). I doubt it had any relationship to how the man actually did what he did. He didn't invent the electric light bulb either, just FYi.

Posted by: Mathew Ingram [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 23, 2010 12:32 AM

Oh, Mathew, you're such a debunker. You take all the fun out of life.

(And, just fyi, if you had read the excerpt a little more attentively you would have discovered that what Edison was inventing was a system of electricity distribution, not the bulb.)

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 23, 2010 09:25 AM

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