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DIFFERENT as the active nucleus and the relatively passive protoplasmic mass are, no hard and fast line can be drawn between the two; they are constantly in the most intimate intercommunication, one passes into the other. With the formation of a new centre of activity, the old nucleus may pass into the general protoplasmic mass of the lower moments. The passing of the nucleus into the general protoplasm of the moment is a process that is constantly going on in the life history of the total moment consciousness.
As a new nucleus is taking the place of the old one, the latter retreats in the background and exercises its influence on the course of the psychic activity from behind the scenes, so to say. The potency of this influence is in proportion to the duration and intensity of the activity manifested by the old nucleus. We are all well acquainted with the commonplace fact that an action requiring at first great stress of attention, finally, with its repetition, drops out of the focus of consciousness and becomes, as it is called, automatic. They who have observed a child striving to stand by himself or beginning to walk realize how such seemingly automatic acts as standing or walking are at first accompanied with intense attention. The child, when standing up all by himself, does it hesitatingly; he shakes and trembles, as if occupying unsafe ground, or doing a difficult act; he looks around for support stretches out his hands asking the help of his parents or nurse, and if he does not get aid in time, begins to cry from sheer fear and drops on all-fours. During the whole process of standing, simple as it appears to us, and lying as it does with us outside of the field of attention, the baby’s mind is fully engrossed with the act of maintaining his equilibrium. It is a difficult feat for him. Withdraw his attention from his performance, and in the first stages of his series of trials he simply drops helplessly to the ground.
The same holds true in the case of walking. The child in beginning to walk, does it with great hesitation and fear. It can only be compared to the attempt of an adult in walking on a narrow board over a precipice or learning to walk on a rope. Each step as it is made requires full attention, each advance is a victory. The least distraction of attention and the baby falls down in the heap. The least change in the touch, muscular and kinaesthetic sensations coming from leg and foot will interfere with the successful attempt at standing or walking. Thus in the baby under my observation, after the first two days of more or less successful trials at walking, a new pair of shoes were put on him. The new peripheral stimuli and the strange sensations experienced at once told on the successful issue of his walking activity. The number of failures became so great that they finally arrested further attempts at walking. Only when the baby became accustomed to the new shoes and the sensations they gave rise to became so habitual that they fell in the background of his consciousness and no longer distracted his attention, it was only then, that the baby once more started a series of trials, and with such success that after two days’ practice he walked almost a whole mile. After a period of long practice the complex muscular adjustments, required in the acts of standing and walking, gradually retreat to the background of consciousness and become automatic. Not that consciousness in those acts is lost; it has simply reached its necessary minimum, leaving the focus of consciousness free for other new and unaccustomed adjustments, which in their turn fall out of the centre into the periphery, giving place to new experiences. To Minimize the expenditure of neuron energy and reach the minimum of consciousness constitutes the tendency psychomotor life.
We can fully realize the importance of this tendency, if we regard it from a teleological point of view. In the struggle for existence or in the economical system of competition of modern life, the saving of unnecessary expenditure, where only possible, is of the highest consequence. Those organisms that will best effect such an economy of energy will be the fittest to survive. Those organisms that are enabled to reduce to its minimum the friction and loss of neuron energy have the great advantage of possessing at their disposal a greater amount of energy to cope with new circumstances, with novel conditions and react better and in a more favorable way, when confronted with changes in this environment. This economizing becomes absolutely indispensable to the life-existence of higher organisms, the environment of which is always highly complex. The reduction of psychomotor activity to the least amount of psychophysiological energy expenditure, in other words, to the minimum of consciousness, is the law of psychomotor life in general and of the highest representation of that life in particular.