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Title: Psychology and parenthood
Author: Bruce, H. Addington (Henry Addington)
Language: English
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  Author of “The Riddle of Personality,” “Scientific
  Mental Healing,” etc.






The chief aim of this informal “handbook for parents” is to review and
unify, in non-technical language, the findings of modern psychology
which bear especially on the laws of mental and moral growth. The
time has come when it is not only desirable but necessary to attempt
something of this sort; for in the course of their labours the
educational, medical, and social psychologists have accumulated a
mass of data revealing unsuspected defects, and hinting at marvellous
possibilities, in the upbringing of the young.

On the one hand, they have shown that not enough heed has been paid to
the hampering influences of an unfavourable environment and physical
maladjustment; and, on the other hand, they have made it clear that, by
instituting certain reforms, it is entirely feasible to develop mental
and moral vigour in the mass of mankind to an astonishing degree. My
own belief, indeed, for reasons set forth in subsequent pages, is that
the discoveries of the modern psychologists justify the assertion that,
through proper training in childhood, it is possible to create a race
of men and women far superior morally to the generalty of the world’s
inhabitants to-day, and manifesting intellectual powers of a far higher
order than the generalty now display.

Whether this belief will ever be vindicated—whether, for the matter
of that, the discoveries of recent psychological research will
prove of any real value—depends, of course, on the extent to which
practical application is made by those having charge of the young, and
particularly by parents. For the fact most surely established by the
scientific investigators is that it is in the first years of life, and
in the influences of the home, that the forces are set in motion which
count for most in the making or marring of the individual’s character
and career. Parental responsibility is consequently much greater than
most parents suppose; but so is parental opportunity. This book
accordingly is addressed primarily to parents in the hope that it may
be of some assistance to them in avoiding the pitfalls, and developing
the possibilities, of that most important of all human activities—the
training of the next generation.

Portions of the book have already appeared in various periodicals—_The
Century Magazine_, _The Outlook_, _McClure’s Magazine_, etc.—and to the
editors of these publications I owe a word of grateful acknowledgment.
I am also under obligations to numerous medical and psychological
friends for valuable information. But most of all, as always, I am
indebted to my wife, whose critical reading of the manuscript has
resulted in many helpful suggestions.


  Cambridge, Massachusetts,
  _February_, 1915.


  CHAPTER                                        PAGE

  PREFACE                                         vii


    II SUGGESTION IN EDUCATION                     39

   III THE SECRET OF GENIUS                        71

    IV INTENSIVE CHILD CULTURE                    113

     V THE PROBLEM OF LAZINESS                    161

    VI A CHAPTER ON LAUGHTER                      193

   VII HYSTERIA IN CHILDHOOD                      221

  VIII THE MENACE OF FEAR                         249

    IX A FEW CLOSING WORDS                        283



Many years ago, according to a story which remains vividly in my memory
by reason of its grim suggestiveness, two small boys were one day
sauntering along a country road. The sight of an orchard, resplendent
in its autumn glory of red and green and gold, tempted them with
irresistible appeal, as it has tempted thousands of other boys before
and since. Over the rail-fence they scrambled, up a well-laden tree
they climbed, and soon were merrily at work filling their pockets.

But now from a near-by cottage came the man who owned the orchard,
and his coming was the signal for a hasty descent. One of the boys
made good his escape; the other, less quick-footed, was dragged, a
loudly-protesting captive, to the home of the local magistrate.

“More apple-stealing!” this stern functionary exclaimed. “Something
must be done to stop it. Let us make an example of this bad boy.” To
prison forthwith he consigned the luckless youth.

His companion, thankful for his happier fate, returned to his home, his
school, and his books. From school he went to college, and afterward
took up the study of law, beginning his professional career with a
reputation for great intellectual ability and strength of character. In
course of time he was made a judge.

As judge he was called on to preside at the trial of a man accused of
murder. The evidence of guilt was conclusive, conviction speedy. It
became his duty to don the black cap and pronounce sentence of death.
But before he did this, he was struck with something familiar in the
prisoner’s sodden, passion-marked features, made inquiry concerning his
early history, and, to his mingled horror and amazement, learned that
the wretched man was none other than the happy, buoyant lad who had
first felt the heavy hand of the law on account of the orchard-robbing
episode in which the judge, now about to doom him to the scaffold, had
gone scot-free.

Than this strange chapter in human experience I can at the moment
recall nothing that more strikingly suggests and illustrates the
dominant theory in modern scientific thought regarding the offender
against society. The implication that the contrasting careers of the
two boys were largely determined by circumstances over which they had
no control, and that it was the brutalising jail experience of the one
and the more fortunate upbringing of the other that chiefly accounted
for their diverse fates, unquestionably represents the views held by
the great majority of present-day students of delinquency and crime. To
be sure, there are not a few who would raise the question, “Might not
the boy who was caught in the orchard have ‘gone wrong’ in any event,
because of inborn defects?” These are the enthusiasts conspicuous
to-day as leaders of the so-called eugenics movement looking to the
improvement of mankind on stock-breeding principles—by sterilisation
of the “unfit,” stricter marriage laws, etc. Nor can it be denied that
they have on their side a formidable array of facts which would seem to
demonstrate the unescapable fatality of a bad heredity. On the other
hand it is equally certain that there is a steadily growing body of
evidence giving ever greater support to the opposite view—to the view,
namely, that after all the influence of heredity is of quite secondary
importance to that of environment in the marring or making of a human

Even the facts emphasised by the eugenists themselves sometimes
tend, on close examination, to bear out the belief that it is in the
surroundings and training of a child rather than in his heredity that
the sources of his ultimate goodness or badness are mainly to be found.
The history of the notorious Juke family, featured by almost every
modern advocate of the “fatal heredity” theory, is a case in point.

The first Jukes of whom anything is known were five sisters of obscure
parentage who lived in Ulster County, New York, in the second half
of the eighteenth century. At least four of the five took early to a
life of vice, and eventually all married and had children. Many years
afterward a visitor to an Ulster County jail noticed that among its
inmates, awaiting trial on various charges, were six members of one
family, including two boys accused of assault with intent to kill.
Inquiry showed that the six were directly descended from the oldest
Juke girl, and that more than half of their male blood-relatives in the
county were likewise in some degree criminal.

Impressed by these facts the jail visitor, Mr. R. L. Dugdale,
determined to make a genealogical research into the life histories
of as many of the descendants of the five Juke sisters as could be
traced. Altogether it was found possible to obtain pretty complete
data concerning seven hundred and nine of these, with the following
astonishing results:

Of the entire seven hundred and nine, not twenty had been skilled
workers, and ten of these had learned their trade in prison; only
twenty-two had been persons of property, and of this number eight
had lost the little they acquired; sixty-four had been in the county
alms-house; one hundred and forty-two had received outdoor relief; one
hundred and twenty-eight had been prostitutes, and eighteen keepers of
houses of ill-fame; finally, seventy-six were reported as criminals,
with one hundred and fifteen more or less serious crimes to their
discredit. All this in seven generations of a single family.

Surely one might well be tempted to find here “the most striking proof
of the heredity of crime,” as Cesare Lombroso did not hesitate to
pronounce this sad history of the Jukes. But there is something to be

Following the publication of Mr. Dugdale’s book, “The Jukes,”
giving the family record, there came under the care of a charitable
organisation an eighth-generation descendant of the oldest Juke sister,
a foundling baby boy, cast upon the tender mercies of the world with
all the burden of “innate depravity” transmitted from his vicious
ancestors. Instead of taking it for granted that he would inevitably
come to an evil end, the charity-workers decided to give him the
benefit of a refined environment and good family care. Accordingly a
home was found for him with a kind-hearted widow, whose own sons had
grown to a worthy manhood, and from her for ten years he received the
loving and intelligent training which is the birthright of every child.

At the end of that time he had developed into a fine, manly boy, with,
however, a somewhat superabundant fund of animal spirits and a tendency
to unruliness. It was evident that, owing to her advanced age, his
foster-mother could not give him the stricter discipline he now seemed
to need, and arrangements were made for his adoption by a farmer and
his wife living in a Western State. By them he was again treated with
the utmost affection, coupled with more firmness than he had hitherto
known. Little by little his unruliness disappeared; he became eager to
excel both at school and in the work of the farm, and soon became known
as one of the best boys of the neighbourhood. The older he grew the
more evidence he gave of possessing a strong moral foundation on which
to build his future career. When last heard from by the charitable
organisation to which he owed so much, he had struck out for himself,
an alert, vigorous, forceful young man, of sterling character, and full
of the self-confidence which wins success.

Moreover, Mr. Dugdale himself, in the course of his exhaustive account
of the evil ways of the Jukes, calls attention to the case of a
fifth-generation descendant, the daughter of a brothel-keeper, and
having two sisters who eventually became prostitutes. Nor did it seem
at all likely that she would turn out any better than they; for, before
she was fifteen, she had been arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy.
But, as good fortune would have it, shortly after her release from jail
she met, fell in love with, and married a young German, a cement-burner
of steady, industrious habits. Taken by him out of her former debasing
environment, given a good home and the example of a strong character,
she grew to a reputable womanhood, respected and admired by all who
knew her.

Many similar instances of the saving power of good surroundings might
be cited. “One of the most useful men I know of to-day,” testifies Mr.
Ernest K. Coulter, formerly clerk of the New York Children’s Court,
“saw his father murder his mother in cold blood. There was a bad
record on her side of the house, too. But a good man saw something in
that boy while he was being detained as a witness against his father.
As a result of that man’s interest, that boy to-day is serving his
fellow-men and his country in a most important field.”

In Pennsylvania an eight-year-old orphan girl of poor parentage, drudge
in a city boarding-house, with no companionship except that of ignorant
servants, was heralded in the newspapers as a “prodigy of crime”
because she had been caught setting fire to a house. When asked in
court why she had done this, she made the frank reply, “To see the fire
burn and the engines run.” There being at that time no probation system
in Pennsylvania, she was promptly sentenced to the House of Refuge,
where, like the boy sent to jail for stealing apples, she would be sure
to come under the influence of vile associates.

But, more fortunate than the boy of the orchard, this child had an
unknown friend at court, Mrs. Hannah K. Schoff, who interceded with
the judge and gained his permission to place the little incendiarist
in a good home instead of the House of Refuge. Five years afterward,
reporting to the International Prison Commission the result of her
experiment, Mrs. Schoff was able to declare that this dangerous
juvenile criminal had developed into “as sweet, attractive, and good a
child as can be found anywhere.”

An Italian Camorrist had two sons. The younger, at the age of three,
was separated from his father, taken to a distant city, and given
a good education. Like the Juke child of the eighth generation he
grew to be an exemplary young man. His brother, who remained with the
father, became, like him, a man of vice and crime, hated, feared, and

But far more impressive than isolated instances like these are the data
now available regarding the outcome of similar experimentation on a
large scale. Four years ago the Children’s Aid Society of New York—the
organisation which took the Juke foundling under its wing—published a
report detailing the results of its “placing out” system for a period
of more than half a century. The officials of this society have always
been imbued with the idea that every child, no matter how bad his
heredity, is entitled to the benefit of a good home upbringing, and in
accordance with this idea they have, during the period covered by the
report, placed twenty-eight thousand children in carefully selected
homes, besides finding situations in the country for about three
times as many older boys and girls. Most of their wards have been
slum children, having back of them a family history of crime, vice,
insanity, or pauperism. Nevertheless, the society’s officials inform us:

“A careful investigation of the records gives the following results: 87
per cent. have done well, 8 per cent. were returned to New York, 2 per
cent. died, one quarter of 1 per cent. committed petty crimes and were
arrested, and 2-1/4 per cent. left their homes and disappeared. These
last were larger boys of restless disposition, unaccustomed to country
life or any sort of restraint. Some of them struck out for themselves,
obtaining work at higher wages, and were temporarily lost sight of, but
years afterward we hear of them as having grown up good and respected
citizens.... The younger children placed out by the society always show
a very large average of success. The great proportion have grown up
respectable men and women, creditable members of society. Many of them
have been legally adopted by their foster-parents. The majority have
become successful farmers or farmers’ wives, mechanics, and business
men. Many have acquired property, and no inconsiderable number of them
have attained positions of honour and trust.”

One of the children thus developed was a typical waif of the slums,
a ragged urchin loitering in the streets of New York, and sleeping
in store-entrances and hall-ways, until one day taken in charge by
a kindly policeman. Investigation disclosed that he was a homeless
orphan, and until some definite provision could be made for his
upbringing he was committed to the city institution on Randall’s
Island. Thence, after a few months, he was transferred to the care of
the Children’s Aid Society, which undertook to find a home for him.

In midsummer of 1859, accordingly, he was sent to Indiana with a
party of other homeless lads, and was placed with Mr. E. E. Hall, a
Noblesville farmer. Two years later, to the mingled grief and pride of
his foster-parents, and when not yet fifteen years old, he enlisted in
the service of his country, entering the army as a drummer-boy. After
the war he went back to the Indiana farm, and, employing his leisure
moments to good advantage, prepared for college. In the seventies,
equipped with a good education and a well-disciplined mind, he moved
farther West. He finally settled in North Dakota, where, after engaging
successfully in various enterprises, he became, in 1881, the cashier of
a bank.

His thoughts now turned to politics, into which he plunged with great
vigour, and with every prospect of success, as he had in the meantime
won for himself a commanding position as one of the most popular and
trusted men in his community. In 1884 he ran for the post of county
treasurer, won his election, and, adding to his reputation by the way
he conducted this office, held it continuously for six years. Then
higher honours were thrust upon him; for, in the Fall of 1890, “Andy”
Burke, the former ragged New York street boy, became Governor Andrew H.
Burke, of North Dakota.

Closely paralleling his career is that of another New York child
derelict, taken in charge about the same time as young Burke, and,
by a curious coincidence, a companion of his in the little party of
boys sent to Indiana in 1859 by the Children’s Aid Society. The name
of this other lad was John G. Brady. Before coming into the keeping
of the Society he had been deserted by his father, after the death of
his mother. He was just ten years old when Mr. John Green, of Tipton,
agreed to give him a home.

And it was a good home that Mr. Green gave him, a home in which he was
taught the value of hard, earnest work, and of love for God and his
fellow-man. Remaining on the farm until he was eighteen, he then became
a school-teacher, saved enough out of his scanty earnings to give him
a start at college, and three years later entered Yale. By this time
he had made up his mind to devote his life to the twofold cause of
religion and social service; and in 1874, having graduated with credit
from Yale, he became a student in the Union Theological Seminary. After
his ordination he went as a missionary to Alaska, where his labours,
both religious and secular, won him a firm place in the affections of
the people, and lasting recognition as one of the real makers of that
distant Territory. He was appointed governor of Alaska by President
McKinley in 1897, and reappointed by President Roosevelt, serving three

Further, the records show that one ward of the Children’s Aid Society
of New York rose to be a supreme court justice, another became chief
executive of a Western city, while a third was elected auditor-general
of a State. Two were elected to Congress, nine to State legislatures,
and about a score to public offices of less importance. Twenty-four
became clergymen; thirty-five, lawyers; nineteen, physicians; sixteen,
journalists; twenty-nine, bankers; eighty-six, teachers; seven,
high-school principals; two, school superintendents; and two, college
professors. Farming, the army and navy, and various mercantile pursuits
gave occupation to most of the rest.

Is it to be wondered, in view of such a showing, that most authorities
are inclining more and more to find in a faulty environment rather than
in a bad heredity the explanation of the boy who “goes wrong”? Not that
it is as yet possible, and perhaps it never will be possible, to rule
out entirely the idea of the “born criminal.” A small proportion of
delinquents undoubtedly do show, almost from infancy, an irresistible
and seemingly instinctive impulse to evil; but to just what extent
this is due to inherited and irremediable conditions remains to be
ascertained. Medical progress, indeed, is constantly making it clearer
that many supposed instances of “innate depravity” are in reality the
result of curable physical defects, and sometimes of defects that are
comparatively slight.

To give a typical example, Professor Lightner Witmer, Director of
the Psychological Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania, was once
consulted about an eleven-year-old boy, of good family, who had been
pronounced by several New York specialists “mentally defective” and
“certain to prove unmanageable.” His father reported that he was
unable to do correctly simple sums in addition and subtraction, and
could not read a simple sentence without making a number of mistakes;
also that he was cowardly, bad-tempered, and quarrelsome. In fine, the
statements made concerning him seemed to stamp him as a fit subject for
institutional care. But Professor Witmer’s preliminary testing caused
him to take a somewhat hopeful view of the poor youngster’s condition.

“He was,” Professor Witmer says, in an interesting report he has made
regarding the case (_The Psychological Clinic_, vol. ii, pp. 153-179),
“a stocky, well-built, healthy-looking child. He had red hair, and the
expression of his face suggested an unsteady temper. The brow was low,
but not of a character to awaken a suspicion of mental deficiency.
The shape of the aperture of the eyes indicated a possible arrest of
fœtal development, but this was the only suspicious symptom. The teeth
were in good condition, the mouth closed, the nose undeveloped, the
nostrils small. A hasty examination showed the necessity of consulting
an oculist, and the appearance of the nose and nostrils called for an
examination of the naso-pharynx. The chest was fairly well developed,
the voice was good, but he had a lisp, and his speech was a trifle
thick. Hearing was normal. His manners at table were good. His gait was
normal, the knee-jerks were present on both sides, the coordination of
the hands was good.

“In his conversation with me and with his family, he seemed to me to
be a normal boy of eleven, rather alert mentally, a self-contained,
independent sort of boy. If I had visited the family casually, I would
not have observed anything wrong with him. My first brief examination
was therefore negative, and excepting for the history which the
father and mother gave, I should have pronounced the boy normal, but
probably suffering from some optical defect and from naso-pharyngeal

A more thorough examination confirmed this tentative diagnosis.
Although nothing of the sort had previously been suspected, it was
discovered that the little fellow was nearly blind in one eye. Also
he was suffering from a poor circulation. On the other hand, despite
his mental retardation a careful psychological examination showed
that naturally he was bright enough. It seemed evident to Professor
Witmer, consequently, that the chief cause for the boy’s mental and
moral defects lay in improper upbringing, plus the eye-strain which had
undoubtedly made school work difficult for him, and had in addition
been a source of neural irritation. In verification of this, after he
had been provided with eye-glasses and given a few months of special
training in the hospital school connected with the psychological
clinic, the supposedly “feebleminded child” not only made rapid headway
when placed in a regular school, but also showed a surprising moral

Even diseases of the teeth may play no small part in the making of the
wayward boy. There was brought one day to Professor Witmer’s clinic a
youngster who for months had been the despair of his parents. He had
got completely beyond the control of both home and school discipline;
spent his days idling in the streets; seemed incapable of telling the
truth; stole all sorts of small articles belonging to his parents,
including his father’s watch, which he sold for five cents; and had
even begun to steal from the neighbours, a weakness which soon brought
him into the clutches of the law. Placed on probation by the judge of
the juvenile court, he had behaved as badly as ever, until, as a last
resort, it was decided to see what the psychological clinic could do
for him.

Beyond indications of some slight eye-strain nothing specially abnormal
was found in his physical condition until his mouth was examined. Then
it was seen that a number of his first teeth had not been shed, and
that the second teeth were forcing their way out alongside the old
ones, causing the gums to be greatly swollen and inflamed. Taken at
once to the dental clinic he was examined more carefully by Dean Edward
C. Kirk, who, advising gradual removal of the lingering first teeth,
suggested the possibility that when the boy was relieved of all dental
stress his conduct would show marked improvement. The outcome fully
justified this suggestion. Says Doctor Arthur Holmes, who watched the
case closely in all its stages (_The Psychological Clinic_, vol. iv,
pp. 19-22):

“In spite of Harry’s rebellion and loudly expressed fear, he was
immediately relieved of one outgrown canine tooth. The effect was
almost instantaneous. His whole nervous system seemed to express itself
in one sigh of relief.... From that time his improvement has been
marked and continuous. His teeth were removed gradually as it was found
expedient. Closely associated with this dental condition, and possibly
aggravated by it, was an eye weakness discovered at the eye clinic.
In order to insure proper treatment, Harry was placed in charge of
the social worker of the psychological clinic, who saw that the drops
were regularly put in his eyes, accompanied him to the eye specialist,
and not only secured glasses for him but accomplished the hitherto
impossible feat of making him wear them.

“On account of the dental work and the refraction of his eyes, he was
not sent back to public school. Through the psychological clinic a
private school was found where the boy could receive the intelligent
and sympathetic training he needed. His whole demeanour under the
private instruction has been that of a normal boy. He has been put upon
his honour and trusted in numberless ways, and in every case he has
justified the expectations of his teacher. He is now a healthy boy,
with a boy’s natural curiosity, with good manners, good temper, with no
more than the average nervousness, and with every prospect of taking
his proper place in society and developing into an efficient and moral

A still more remarkable case that has recently come to my knowledge
concerns a Cleveland youth who, up to the age of sixteen, had been a
model of good conduct. Then, having gone through high school and begun
work with a business firm, he suddenly developed thieving tendencies,
finally breaking into a post-office, an exploit which earned for him a
term in a reformatory. This was so far from curing him that soon after
his release he adventured into highway robbery, was caught, and was
sent to jail.

So sudden and startling had been the change in his behaviour that the
Cleveland police authorities were convinced he was not responsible for
his actions, and advised his mother to have him committed to an asylum
for the insane. Before taking this extreme step she had him examined
by a neurologist, Doctor Henry S. Upson, whose careful testing of the
boy failed to disclose any signs of organic brain trouble. Dr. Upson
noticed, however, that his teeth were badly decayed, and this led him
to suggest an X-ray examination, as a result of which it was discovered
that the youthful criminal was suffering from several abscessed and
impacted teeth.

Following an operation for their removal, there was a steady
improvement in his moral as well as his physical health. When his
term of imprisonment was at an end he found work in a printing-shop,
and at last accounts, a year after the operation, had won for himself
the reputation of being “quiet and industrious, self-controlled, and
without any indication of either moral or mental aberration.” (_The
Psychological Clinic_, vol. iv, pp. 150-153.)

In a single institution—the New York Juvenile Asylum—it was found that
the degeneracy of 20 per cent. of a group of fifty “bad boys,” who
were mentally as well as morally backward, was due in great measure to
similar trivial physical defects, adenoids, enlarged glands, eye and
ear troubles, etc. Not so very long ago these boys, like the boys in
the individual instances mentioned, would have been deemed the hopeless
victims of a bad heredity. It is therefore fair to assume that in time
to come other remediable, but as yet unsuspected, physical causes of
imperfect mental and moral functioning will be discovered.

This is not to say that in such cases medication or the surgeon’s knife
will prove all-sufficient to prevent the transition from “naughtiness”
into outright vice and crime. To this end good moral training will
still be the indispensable safeguard, and particularly the moral
training to be had through the subtle influence of a good home and good
associates. Surely as, for example, the results of the activities of
the New York Children’s Aid Society strongly suggest, the home and the
companions of youth are the great determinants of character. As has
been so well said by Doctor Paul Dubois, the eminent Swiss physician
and philosopher (“Reason and Sentiment,” pp. 69-71):

“If you have the happiness to be a well-living man, take care not
to attribute the credit of it to yourself. Remember the favourable
conditions in which you have lived, surrounded by relatives who loved
you and set you a good example; do not forget the close friends who
have taken you by the hand and led you away from the quagmires of evil;
keep a grateful remembrance for all the teachers who have influenced
you, the kind and intelligent schoolmaster, the devoted pastor;
realise all these multiple influences which have made of you what you
are. Then you will remember that such and such a culprit has not in his
sad life met with these favourable conditions, that he had a drunken
father or a foolish mother, and that he has lived without affection,
exposed to all kinds of temptation. You will then take pity upon this
disinherited man, whose mind has been nourished upon malformed mental
images, begetting evil sentiments such as immoderate desire or social

And it is not only the homeless, deserted, or neglected child, allowed
to run wild in the streets, drifting or forced into occupations which
bring him more or less closely into touch with the ways and haunts of
wrong-doing—it is not only this child who is likely in time to become a
wrong-doer himself. No less than the neglected child is the “spoiled”
one, however good his heredity, apt to degenerate into delinquency,
perhaps into criminality of the worst description. In short, to borrow
Pascal’s pregnant phrase, every child at the outset of his life is
a little impulsive being, pushed indifferently toward good or evil
according to the influences which surround him.

The blame, then, for the boy who “goes wrong” does not rest with the
boy himself, or yet with his remote ancestors. It rests squarely with
the parents who, through ignorance or neglect, have failed to mould him
aright in the plastic days of childhood. What is needed, especially
in this complex civilisation of ours, with its myriad incitements and
temptations, is a livelier appreciation of the responsibilities as well
as the privileges of parenthood. Most of all, perhaps, from the point
of view of coping with the problem of wrong-doing, do parents need to
appreciate that it is in the very first years of their children’s lives
that the work of character-building should be begun.

In this connection a curious story is told of a father and mother, who,
full of that sublime eagerness for the welfare of their young which
every parent ought to have, took their only child, a handsome boy of
three, to an old Greek philosopher.

“We want you,” said they, “to take full charge of our child’s
education, and do the best you can for him.”

“How old is he?” the philosopher asked.

“Just three.”

The sage shook his head.

“I am sorry,” he said, “but you have brought him to me too late.”

Modern students of the nature of man are beginning to realise that
there is a world of truth in this reply. They are beginning to
realise, that, even in the period of dawning intelligence, interests
may be created, habits formed, which all the education of later years
may not wholly eradicate. Most people, looking back at their years
of childhood, are chiefly impressed by the fact that they remember
very little of what then happened. Actually, deep in the recesses of
their minds, they possess a subconscious remembrance that may be both
remarkably extensive and almost incredibly potent in affecting their
later development.

The truth of this will become increasingly evident as we proceed.
Here let us pause for only one illustrative instance, taken from the
experience of one of the most talked about of American women, Miss
Helen Keller, who, as is well known, was left by illness deaf, dumb,
and blind when less than two years old, but has nevertheless, by
careful training, been developed into a woman of brilliant attainments.

Among her many accomplishments not the least astonishing is her power
for appreciating music, which she “hears” by placing her hand lightly
on the piano and receiving its vibrations. It occurred to Doctor Louis
Waldstein, a pioneer in the study of subconscious mental processes,
that quite possibly her appreciation of music was connected with latent
memories of music she had heard before her illness. To test this theory
he obtained from her mother copies of two songs which had often been
sung to Miss Keller as an infant in Alabama, but which she had not
heard since. These he played in her presence, with a remarkable effect.
She became much excited, clapped her hands, laughed, and communicated:

“Father carrying baby up and down, swinging her on his knee! Black
Crow! Black Crow!”

It was evident to all present that she had been drawn back in memory to
the surroundings of her infancy. But no one knew what she meant by the
words “Black Crow,” until her mother, in answer to a letter of inquiry,
explained that this was the title of a third song which her father used
to sing to her.

“What you wrote,” commented Mrs. Keller, “interested us very much. The
‘Black Crow’ is her father’s standard song, which he sings to all his
children as soon as they can sit on his knee. These are the words,
‘Gwine ‘long down the old turn row, something hollered, Hello, Joe,’
etc. It was a sovereign remedy for putting them (the children) in a
good humour, and was sung to Helen hundreds of times. It is possible
that she remembers it from its being sung to the younger children as
well as herself. The other two I am convinced she has no association
with, unless she can remember them as she heard them before her
illness. Certainly before her illness her father used to trot her on
his knee, and sing the ‘Ten Virgins,’ and she would get down and shout
as the negroes do in church. It was very amusing. But after she lost
her sight and hearing, it was a very painful association, and was not
sung to these two little ones” (the younger children).

Almost by itself this impressive bit of evidence justifies Doctor
Waldstein’s unhesitating declaration, as set forth in his interesting
book, “The Subconscious Self”:

“In those early impressions of which no one seems to be conscious,
least of all the child, and which gather up power as the rolling
avalanche, the elements are collected for future emotions, moods, acts,
that make up a greater part of the history of the individual and of
States, more effective and significant than those that are written
down in _mémoires_, however _intimes_, or that can be discovered
in archives, however ‘secret.’ The strange vagaries of affection
and passion, which affect the whole existence of men and women—the
racial and religious prejudices that shake States and communities to
their very foundations, that make and unmake reputations, and set the
wheel of progress back into the dark ages—can be traced to such small
beginnings and into those nooks of man’s subconscious memory.”

Decidedly, bearing in mind this principle of the importance of early
impressions, the education of the child should be begun while he
still is in the cradle—and should in especial include a careful
arranging of his environment, both animate and inanimate, so as to put
most effectively into play that greatest of all educational forces,



The term “suggestion” has of late fallen into undeserved disrepute.
To most people, as a result of its frequent linking with the term
“hypnotism,” it implies something exceptional and weird. Yet in reality
suggestion is one of the most universal of facts, and there is nothing
“uncanny” about it. Properly defined it means nothing more than the
intrusion of an idea into the mind in such fashion that it is accepted
automatically, overcomes all contrary ideas, and leads to a specific
course of action. The slightest reflection will show that this is of
frequent occurrence.

Every time I yawn after having seen another person do so, I am acting
on the suggestion given to me by his action. Every time, after reading
a skilfully worded advertisement, I buy something which I do not
really need, I am again acting under the influence of suggestion. So,
too, when, in a moment of abstraction, I imitate any act perceived
subconsciously, as in the amusing instance related by Professor
Ochorowitz in his book, “Mental Suggestion”:

“My friend, P——, a man no less absent-minded than he is keen of
intellect, was playing chess in a neighbouring room. Others of us were
talking near the door. I had made the remark that it was my friend’s
habit when he paid the closest attention to the game to whistle an air
from ‘Madame Angot.’ I was about to accompany him by beating time on
the table. But this time he whistled something else—a march from ‘Le

“‘Listen,’ said I to my associates, ‘we are going to play a trick upon
P——. We will order him to pass from “Le Prophète” to “La Fille de
Madame Angot.”’

“First I began to drum the march; then, profiting by some notes
common to both, I passed to the quicker and more staccato notes of my
friend’s favourite air. P—— on his part suddenly changed the air,
and began to whistle ‘Madame Angot.’ Every one burst out laughing. My
friend was too absorbed in a check to the queen to notice anything.

“‘Let us begin again,’ said I, ‘and go back to “Le Prophète.”’ And
straightway we had Meyerbeer once more, with a special fugue. My friend
knew that he had whistled something, but that was all he knew.”

Here, obviously, we have on the part of the man accepting and acting
on the idea suggested to him, a temporary suspension of the critical
faculty. Had he been on the alert, had he been aware of Professor
Ochorowitz’s intention, he would never have followed the lead thus
given, refraining from doing so if only from fear of appearing
ridiculous. This element of uncritical, automatic acceptance is
fundamental in suggestion, and it is this that makes suggestion such a
tremendously important factor in the life of the young.

The child, it has often been said, is the most imitative of beings.
This is only another way of saying that childhood is the most
suggestible period of life. Precisely because the critical faculty is
then undeveloped the child readily accepts and translates into some
form of action the suggestions impinging on his mind from the external
world. Necessarily some impressions are experienced by him more
frequently than others, and by the very fact of repetition these tend
to induce in him a more or less fixed mode of reaction. Thus, without
the slightest awareness, he acquires good or bad “habits” of thinking
and acting, and displays moods and tendencies which, often regarded by
parents as quite inexplicable, are the logical and inevitable product
of suggestions with which he has been bombarded since his life began.

In this way are to be explained many personal characteristics often
mistakenly attributed to the influence of heredity. If a man is a
“grouch,” and his young son also displays unmistakable signs of
grouchiness, it would indeed be rash to jump to the conclusion that the
son had been born grouchy. It may well be—the chances are, it is—that
he has acquired a grouchy turn of mind simply through imitation of his
father’s habitual attitude. “A little girl only fifteen months old,” to
quote one observation by that careful student of child life, B. Perez,
“had already begun to imitate her father’s frowns and irritable ways
and angry voice, and very soon after she learned to use his expressions
of anger and impatience. When three years old this child gravely said
to a visitor, with whom she argued quite in her father’s style, ‘Do be
quiet, will you? You never let me finish my sentences.’”

Similarly, peculiarities that seem to be wholly physical may thus be
handed on from father to child—characteristic gestures with the hands,
pursing of the mouth when reading, shrugging the shoulders, etc. Even
left-handedness, often conspicuous as a family trait, is probably, in
a certain proportion of cases at all events, the result of imitation
rather than heredity. In one interesting case cited by Doctor Waldstein
(“The Subconscious Self,” pp. 56-59), an English lady, Miss X——, had
lost her mother when less than three years of age. A year afterward,
during her first attempts at sewing, it was noticed that she was
threading her needle with her left hand. This had been the habit of her
mother, and Mrs. X—— herself continued throughout her life to use her
left hand in threading needles, although she was otherwise right-handed.

“Surely,” said she to Doctor Waldstein, “this is an example of
inheritance, for I could not have been taught to sew by my mother.”

When, however, he inquired closely into this lady’s mental make-up,
he soon discovered that she was most impressionable, easily and
unduly affected by her surroundings, full of prejudices, and given
to sudden likes and dislikes. Manifestly, if in adult life she was
so suggestible, she must have been even more suggestible in early
childhood, and Doctor Waldstein promptly asked himself the question:

“Is it not more natural to assume that the mother’s habit of threading
a needle with her left hand, witnessed daily during the first three
years of childhood, left its effect upon the ductile memory of the
child, so that she adopted the same habit in the absence of other
teaching, than to assume a needle-threading centre on the right side of
the brain of this particular individual?”

In view, then, of the extreme suggestibility of childhood, and in view
of the fact that under ordinary circumstances the impressions most
forcibly impinging on a child’s mind are those emanating from his
parents, a good parental example is the first essential in utilising
the power of suggestion as an aid in education. This may sound trite,
but how many parents appreciate all that it involves?

It means the regulation of the whole family life with the special
purpose of creating for the child a ceaseless flow of suggestions
which, being subconsciously absorbed by him, will give a desirable
“set” to his mind. Not merely in their dealings with the child but
in their intercourse with one another, with all other members of the
family, even with casual visitors, the father and mother will have to
be constantly on the alert to manifest only those traits which they
desire to see dominant in their little one. If they wish him to be
courteous, they themselves must be courteous; if they wish him to grow
up industrious, they must be models of enthusiastic industry; if they
wish to develop in him sentiments of unselfishness, they must banish
selfishness from their hearts.

In a word, they must think and behave as they desire him to think and
behave, and, so far as is humanly possible, they must thus behave all
the time. This of course necessitates considerable self-restraint and
self-training on the parents’ part; but it is absolutely indispensable.
The child’s eyes and ears are always wide open; his suggestibility
is such that he is prone to absorb and react to any inconsistency of
parental speech or behaviour, no matter how occasional or seemingly
insignificant it may be. If the father, in a moment of irritation,
eases his feelings by a vigorous expletive, the mother may be horrified
next day when her little boy utters a strange-sounding word. If
the mother, to avoid a tiresome caller, tells a “white lie” through
the maid-servant who answers the caller’s ring, neither father nor
mother need be astonished if their little girl unexpectedly displays
a tendency to untruthfulness; it is not a manifestation of “innate
depravity,” it is only another illustration of the power of suggestion
to affect the growing child.

Even such a “small matter” as the discussion of the news of the day
may become a potent factor for evil in the development of the child.
There are not a few parents who, entirely unmindful of their children’s
presence, retail to each other the petty chit-chat, the scandals,
the deeds of violence and crime, which so many of our newspapers
injudiciously “feature.” At the time the child may seem to be paying
no heed to the parental discussion; but, if only because it is a
discussion between his parents, it is certain to make a profound
impression upon him, perhaps to the extent of prompting him to imitate
the deeds in question. Hence, in his games, he plays pirate, bandit,
train-robber; and sometimes runs away from home and “starts West,” to
play bandit and train-robber in earnest. In this way, to the sorrowing
parents’ amazement, seeds often are unwittingly sown to grow into
poisonous plants.

No less mischievous is the discussion, in the child’s hearing, of
such frequent subjects of conversation as the latest musical comedy
or “problem play,” the “novel of the hour,” the fluctuations of the
stock market, the new fashions in gowns, the fortunes of the local
professional baseball team. Parents whose interests are thus lamentably
limited, or who choose to talk about little else, need not be surprised
if their child manifests a colossal indifference to things really worth
while. For his sake, if not for their own, they should cultivate an
intelligent interest in good books, good music, good art. Discussing
these, they will just as surely enlarge his mental and moral horizon,
as by discussing inferior themes they will limit it.

And—another point of prime importance—whatever they talk about, they
should make it a practice to use only clear, correct language, and
should insist on their child doing the same. Above all, they should
not converse with him in “baby talk,” or permit any linguistic errors
he may make to go uncorrected. They should not do this for several
reasons, chief among which is the fact that an incorrect diction is
itself a great obstacle to correct thinking.

“Language,” as one able student of human development, Doctor A. A.
Berle, has recently pointed out in his valuable book for parents, “The
School in the Home,” “is the tool of knowledge. It is the instrument
by which we gain and garner information, by which we co-ordinate what
we know and make inferences and express results. But if you blunt the
tool, not to say destroy it, before you begin to use it, how are you
ever to get knowledge in any proper or real sense? Everything depends
upon this tool. The mastery of a proper use of the mother tongue is the
first and last requisite of sound and extensive mental development.
Language is the key to everything that pertains to human life.
Once get a language and you have the key to manners, civilisation,
habits, customs, history, and all the complex and fascinating story
of humanity. Because you get all these things by reading about them,
and to read you must know the language and you must know it accurately
and extensively, and be able to follow the masters of it who have
embodied their great ideas in literature. That process begins almost at
the cradle. It begins by cultivating accuracy and skill in the use of
the tongue. It begins by striking at, and out, every false thing, the
moment it appears.”

And, commenting on the special dangers of “baby talk,” Doctor Berle
justly observes:

“It is not enough that a word be spoken. It makes a great deal of
difference how it is spoken. The proper vocalisation of words has
an effect upon children, which is often, one may say generally,
overlooked. Almost everybody is fond of repeating the baby’s efforts
to talk, and ‘baby talk’ lingers in many homes an innocent but costly
pleasure, for the parents and the children alike. There are many
persons of mature age at this moment who will never pronounce certain
words properly, since they became accustomed to a false pronunciation
in childhood, because somebody thought it was ‘cute.’ There are many
persons who will never get over certain false associations of ideas,
because somebody thought it was very amusing and funny to see the child
mixing up things in such a beautifully childlike way.”

Putting into practice this first principle of education through the
suggestive power of a parental example characterised by correctness of
speech, soundness of thought, and the moral qualities of cheerfulness,
unselfishness, kindness, politeness, industriousness, and the other
virtues, the greatest care must also be taken to “fertilise” the
child’s mind through proper adjustment of his physical surroundings.
Nothing is more certain—and least appreciated by the average
parent—than the fact that every detail in the child’s material
environment is of suggestive significance to him. Even the pictures
on the walls of his room, the design and arrangement of the furniture
and ornaments, the pattern and colouring of the wall-paper, may play
a decisive part in shaping his character and quickening or deadening
his intellectual activities. For the matter of that, as observation
and experiment have repeatedly demonstrated, adults almost as much as
children react to the suggestive influence of their home environment,
even to the extent at times of thereby being unfavourably affected in

That is why sick people are so frequently benefited by change of
scene. Travel removes them from the baneful influence of their
accustomed environment, and assists in breaking down the mental habits
injurious to their well-being. Too often, however, to their bitter
disappointment, they suffer a relapse after returning home. Yet they
need not remain abroad indefinitely in order to obtain a lasting cure.
In many instances they need not go abroad at all, but can secure the
desired result by making a change in their home surroundings. A most
instructive case in point is afforded by an experience that occurred
to Mr. Frank Alvah Parsons, a practical psychologist as well as a
successful teacher of art in New York city.

The mother of one of Mr. Parsons’ pupils had long been regarded as a
hopeless sufferer from “nerves.” She lived in a suburban town, not many
miles from New York, but her condition was such that it had been months
since she visited that city, and usually she remained at home, secluded
in a private apartment, of sitting-room and bedroom.

One day, having occasion to call on her, Mr. Parsons was much impressed
with the fact that the furniture and decorations of both these rooms
were exceedingly faulty from a psychological as well as an æsthetic
point of view. The walls of the sitting-room were hung with mirrors,
and the room was fairly smothered with bric-a-brac. In both rooms the
colouring and design of the wall-paper contrasted harshly with the
floor-coverings, while the furniture, though expensive, was gaudy
and inharmonious. He talked the situation over with her daughter,
and between them they persuaded her to allow them to make radical
alterations in the furnishings of her rooms.

They papered the walls with a soft sage-green paper, without design.
The woodwork was made lighter, with a shade of green in it. A brass
bedstead was installed, the yellow of the brass blending well with the
green of the paper and woodwork. The bric-a-brac was unceremoniously
bundled out, and, excepting for a few green draperies and some
well-chosen pictures, the rooms were left without ornament. Mahogany
furniture, of a quiet, dignified style, replaced the gilded chairs and
tables previously there.

The effect was to substitute for the former nerve-irritating
environment one that gave out a constant stream of restful, soothing,
strengthening suggestions; and the therapeutic value of the change was
increased by Mr. Parsons wisely insisting that the patient should not
leave the refurnished rooms for two weeks. He desired to expose her,
at once and systematically, to the full suggestive effect of her new
surroundings. At the end of a month, although she had been told that
she would be an invalid for life, she felt strong enough to undertake a
shopping expedition to New York, and soon was as well as in her earlier
days of robust health.

In this case, of course, the cure was effected at a cost beyond the
means of most people. It is not everybody who can afford to refurnish
and redecorate his living-quarters. But the point is that everybody
can so arrange his environment to begin with as to extract from it
suggestions that will assist in maintaining his health and happiness,
and in promoting the proper upbringing of his children. This is equally
within the reach of a dweller in a Fifth Avenue mansion, a Newport
palace, a crowded East Side tenement, or a lonely, isolated farm-house,
miles from the nearest village. I might cite many illustrative
instances to bear out this statement. Here is one, reported by an
observant New York physician:

“The refined tastes and joyous dispositions of the elder children in
a family with whom I often came into contact were a matter of some
surprise to me, as I could not account for the common trait among them
by the position or special characteristics of the parents: they were
in the humblest position socially, and all but poor. My first visit to
their modest home furnished me with the natural solution, and gave me
much food for reflection.

“The children—there were six—occupied two rooms into which the sunlight
was pouring as I entered; the remaining rooms of the apartment were
sunless for the greater part of the day; the colour and design of the
cheap wall-paper were cheerful and unobtrusive; bits of carpet, the
table-cover, and the coverlets on the beds were all in harmony, and
of quiet design in nearly the elementary colours; everything in these
poor rooms of poor people had been chosen with the truest judgment for
æsthetic effect, and yet the mother seemed surprised that I could make
so much of what seemed to her so simple.”

That colours have a profound psychological effect on human beings is
a fact which should be appreciated far more generally than is now the
case. Used in small quantities, either in the clothing or in household
decoration, the colour red, for instance, is most stimulating, both
in the way of helping to overcome depression, and quickening the
intellectual processes. But when used in any great amount it tends to
over-stimulation, with resultant nerve-strain. According to an English
savant, Havelock Ellis, who has made a careful study of the psychology
of colours, there are some people so constituted that they become
violently excited, fall into convulsions, or faint, if obliged even for
a short time to look at anything vividly red.

The same effect has been noted from yellow. In one instance, the case
of a man operated on at the age of thirty for congenital cataract, it
is recorded that “the first time he saw yellow, he became so sick that
he thought he would vomit.” And that yellow has a nerve-stimulating
effect fully comparable with that of red is curiously indicated by the
statement of a friend of mine, a professor in a Western university,
who says:

“Whenever the day is overcast, or I have to do a piece of work calling
for unusual mental exertion, I always wear a red or yellow necktie.
I find that either colour has a stimulating effect on my mental

On the other hand, the colour violet appears to have a deadening
effect. Another acquaintance, a member of the Harvard University
professorial staff, and a well-known psychologist, assures me that
the sight of anything violet almost nauseates him, and gives rise to
a most depressed feeling. In such a case, however, it may be that the
colour is subconsciously associated with some unpleasant occurrence
in the earlier life, and that the nausea and depression are merely
symbolical manifestations of the presence in the subconsciousness of
some memory of this occurrence, concerning which there is no conscious
recollection. (This important point will later be discussed in detail.)

Of more immediate significance is the fact that violet rays are
sometimes used to quiet unruly patients in asylums for the insane, and
that the alienist Osburne, after many years’ experience, testifies that
“in the absence of structural disease, violet light—for from three to
six hours—is most useful in the treatment of excitement, sleeplessness,
and acute mania.”

Altogether, there is warrant for the assertion that red, yellow, and
violet are colours that should not be used overmuch, either in one’s
apparel or in the decorating of one’s home. Blue, green, grey, and
brown, on the contrary, have psychological qualities that make them
particularly desirable for decorative purposes.

Care must always be exercised, though, to work out a colour scheme
that harmonises, since discordant colour effects inevitably carry to
the mind suggestions of discordant thinking and feeling and doing. As
a first aid to the study of colour harmony—a subject which, as soon
as its significance to human welfare is more generally recognised,
will be taught far more systematically than at present—I recommend
painstaking observation of the colour schemes developed by master
artists, as shown in the paintings to be seen in the art museums of
our cities; or, better still, excursions into the country, where, in
the colour combinations of earth and sky, tree and water, mountainside
and valley meadow, one can gain invaluable hints from that greatest of
artists, Nature. On such excursions, need I add, the children should
be taken along, to receive early lessons in the appreciation of true

But now, while thus utilising to the full the educational possibilities
opened by the suggestibility of childhood—while reinforcing
the educational value of example by the educational value of a
well-arranged home environment—it must also be recognised that the
child’s extreme suggestibility carries with it certain dangers. As
was said, the essential element in every successful suggestion is the
automatic, uncritical acceptance of whatever idea is thus intruded
into the mind. It goes without saying that, so long as the critical
faculty remains unawakened and untrained, it will always be possible to
intrude by suggestion erroneous as well as sound ideas.

More serious still, there is warrant for adding that unless the child’s
critical powers be developed at an early age—unless he be taught from
the outset of his life how to observe accurately and reason closely—the
tendency to uncritical acceptance may become more or less of a habit.
That, under present conditions of child training, this is a real danger
is clearly shown by the results of recent experiments by French and
German psychologists.

In Germany, Kosog, visiting a school-room before the beginning of the
lesson-hour, placed three objects, a pen-holder, a pocket-knife, and a
piece of chalk, so near the edge of the teacher’s desk that they could
be plainly seen by every pupil in the room. During the brief recess
that followed the first lesson-hour, he removed these objects, and
after the pupils had reassembled asked them what they had seen on the
desk the previous hour. Hardly one of them, it turned out, had noticed
the objects at all. Next day, _after leaving the desk entirely bare
the first hour_, he put the same question to them at the beginning of
the second hour. Now 26 per cent. of the pupils asserted that they had
seen the pocket-knife, 57 per cent. the chalk, and 63 per cent. the

In France, the headmaster of a school, following the instructions
of the famous psychologist, Alfred Binet, announced to a class of
eighty-six boys that he intended to test their memory of the length of
lines. A line two inches long, ruled on white cardboard, was shown to
each boy, who, after looking at it, had to draw it as accurately as he
could on a sheet of paper. The boys were then told that they would be
asked to draw another line a little longer than the first, and were
accordingly given a second line to copy. In reality it was shorter
than the first, being only an inch and three quarters long. Yet out of
the entire class only nine resisted the suggestion and believed their
eyes and their memories rather than the master’s statement. The other
seventy-seven boys—some of whom were fourteen years old—made the second
line longer than the first.

A variation of the same experiment was made on another class, to whom
a series of thirty-six lines was shown, one after the other. Of these
lines the first five progressively increased in length, while the
remainder were uniformly long. Not one of the forty-two boys who were
asked to copy them reached the maximum length at the fifth line, while
nine industriously continued making their lines longer up to the last
line shown them. The first five lines, that is to say, had acted as
a suggestion having sufficient force to induce in them, despite the
evidence of their eyes, a belief that the entire series similarly
increased in length.

Much the same thing, as everyday observation shows, occurs in the
case of full-grown men and women. The judicious have long grieved at
the gullibility with which people who are by no means illiterate and
uneducated accept and act upon the most preposterous suggestions of the
fraudulent advertiser, from the patent-medicine man to the swindling
promoter. Political mountebanks and charlatans daily ride into power
through nothing else than skilfully working on the suggestibility of
the voters. So, too, religious cults, no matter how fantastic, gain
a foothold and a following. “I am Elijah,” some one announces, and
straightway a multitude proclaim him Elijah. “There is no such thing as
disease,” says another, and thousands take up the cry, accepting the
absurd suggestion with as much unthinking readiness as was shown by the
French boys who, although they had concrete evidence to the contrary,
accepted their master’s deceptive statements.

What these, and even more glaring evidences of undue suggestibility,
really mean is that there is something wrong with our educational
methods. Appreciating this, there is an increasing tendency to
criticise and condemn the school system. “Our common schools,” exclaims
President Emeritus Charles W. Eliot, of Harvard University, “have
failed signally to cultivate general intelligence, as is evinced by the
failure to deal adequately with the liquor problem, by the prevalence
of gambling, of strikes accompanied by violence, and by the persistency
of the spoils system.” From the standpoint also of mere efficiency much
complaint is made. The charge is even heard that the public schools
of to-day make for mediocrity, and that instead of fostering they in
reality retard the development of a child’s intellect. In the words of
a recent critic (_The Psychological Clinic_, vol. iv., p. 141):

“The public school attempts the impossible feat of making a course for
all children, irrespective of strength, mentality, inheritance, or home
environment—whether they are to be lawyers or blacksmiths, artisans
or mathematicians. Plainly, this course cannot suit all children. Is
it, then, adapted to the bright child? Doctor Witmer, Professor of
Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania, says, ‘The public schools
are not giving the bright child a square deal. He is marking time,
waiting for the lame duck to catch up.’ Is the course intended to fit
the dull pupil? Evidently not, in view of the tears shed by the many
who, despite their efforts, fail to keep up to grade.

“It has been suggested that the course has been designed for the
average pupil. The ‘average’ pupil does not exist. You cannot strike
an average between a goose and an eagle, nor can you add a dull pupil
and a bright pupil together and get anything. A course of study based
on this idea is not fitted to any one. Instead, then, of a school to
fit the pupil, the pupil is made to fit the school. The lock-step
masquerades under the name of discipline. The rigid curriculum tends
with each passing year to produce more and more the type of factory
employés, obliterating individuality and forcing all into the same

That there is a large measure of truth in these criticisms cannot be
denied, and our school authorities to-day are bestirring themselves
to effect sundry greatly needed reforms. But is it wholly fair to
cast on the schools the blame for human irrationalities of thought and
conduct? Nay, is it not possible, in view of the fact that habits are
formed so early in life, that the real trouble may be that the material
with which the schools have to work—the children of the nation—is
more or less unworkable by the time it gets to the schools? Is it
not reasonable to assume that neglect of proper instruction in the
pre-school period has permitted the formation of faulty and well-nigh
unchangeable modes of thinking and feeling?

“But,” I hear a puzzled parent protest, “do you mean that the formal
education of the child should be begun before he has reached school
age? Would you have us lay on the tender mind the burden of actual

I mean precisely that. Not only do I believe that the postponement of
formal education to “school age” is a serious pedagogical error, but I
also believe that “actual study,” properly directed, would by no means
prove such a “burden” on the mind of the child as most people take for

I am willing to go further than this, and to contend, for reasons
which I shall endeavour to make clear, that if the formal education of
children were begun earlier than is the rule at present, and if it were
carried out with the supplementary aid of education through a really
good example and a really well arranged environment, our boys and girls
would develop not only into morally superior men and women, but also
into men and women of mental attainments fairly comparable with those
to-day displayed by the comparative few acclaimed as men and women of



The theory of genius which it is my purpose to present and defend has
little in common with the views held by most students of this world-old
problem. Especially does it differ from the well-known and at present
dominant doctrine of the Moreau-Lombroso-Hagen school of investigators,
by whom the man of genius is regarded as an aberrant, even degenerate,
type of humanity, closely allied to the insane, and hence by
implication deserving to be repressed rather than encouraged. Nor am I
at one with those who, justly protesting against the degeneracy theory,
themselves contend that genius is an anomaly in the scheme of Nature,
and that the man of genius, biologically speaking, is a “variation”
dependent on unknown, perhaps unknowable, laws of heredity.

On the contrary, following the lead of the late Frederic W. H.
Myers—the first, in my opinion, to glimpse the true significance and
fundamental characteristics of genius—I shall endeavour to show that
in the man of genius there is, at bottom, no real departure from
normality, and that he differs from the “average man” only in being the
fortunate possessor of a power for utilising more freely than other
men faculties common to all. More than this, going beyond Myers, I
venture to affirm that genius is to an appreciable extent susceptible
of cultivation, so as to become a far more frequent phenomenon than it
is to-day.

In other words, I maintain that God, in giving to the world its Dantes,
Newtons, and Emersons, has not intended them as mere objects of
admiration and bewilderment, but as indications of possibilities open
to the generalty of mankind.

Such a view, it may at once be conceded, could not reasonably have
been advanced many years ago. It rests mainly on facts then unknown
or misunderstood, and even now little appreciated outside of a
narrow circle of scientific investigators. Foremost in importance is
the discovery that, in addition to the ordinary realm of conscious
thought, there exists in all of us a second realm—that of the so-called
subconscious—in which, quite without any will-directed effort of our
own, the most varied mental processes are carried on.

The subconscious, in fact, is a kind of vast store-house, wherein
are preserved, seemingly without time limit and in the most perfect
detail, memory-images of everything we have seen, heard, or otherwise
experienced through our sense-organs. It is also a kind of workshop
for the facile manipulation of ideas, including even the elaboration
of complicated trains of thought. Manifestly, the more freely and
habitually one can draw on its resources, the more one ought to be able
to accomplish with regard to any set task or chosen field of work. And
in this, I am persuaded, we have the clue to the true explanation of
the brilliant achievements of the man of genius.

He does what he does so well, not because he is of an abnormal type of
mentality, as the Lombrosians ask us to believe, nor yet because he is
born with gifts transcending those of other men, but simply because he
has found a way more readily, more frequently, and more profitably than
others to avail himself of the subconscious powers that are the common
heritage of the race. Or, to put it more elaborately in the words of
Frederic Myers:

“I would suggest that genius—if that vaguely used word is to receive
anything like a psychological definition—should be regarded as a power
of utilising a wider range than other men can utilise of faculties
in some degree innate in all—a power of appropriating the results of
subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought; so
that an ‘inspiration of genius’ will be, in truth, a subliminal uprush,
an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously
manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated,
but which have shaped themselves beyond his will in profounder regions
of his being. I would urge that here there is no real departure from
normality; no abnormality, at least in the sense of degeneration; but,
rather, a fulfilment of the true norm of man.”

That the inspirations of genius are really nothing more than
spontaneous upsurgings from the depths of the subconscious, is indeed
demonstrable from the recorded statements of men of genius themselves.
To the modern psychologist one of the most impressive proofs of the
actuality of subconscious mental processes, is the occasional solution
in dreams of problems that have long baffled the waking consciousness.
In this way abstruse mathematical problems have sometimes been worked
out after all hope of solving them had been abandoned; and troublesome
clerical errors, the perpetual dread of book-keepers, have been cleared
away during sleep, as in the following typical instance, reported by a
successful business man to the Society for Psychical Research:

“I had been bothered since September with an error in my cash account
for that month, and, despite many hours’ examination, it defied all my
efforts, and I had almost given it up as a hopeless case. It had been
the subject of my waking thoughts for many nights, and had occupied
a large portion of my leisure hours. Matters remained thus unsettled
until December 11. On this night I had not, to my knowledge, once
thought of the subject, but I had not been long in bed, and _asleep_,
when my brain was as busy with the books as if I had been at my desk.
The cash-book, banker’s pass-book, etc., appeared before me, and
without any apparent trouble I almost immediately discovered the cause
of the mistake, which had arisen out of a complicated cross-entry.

“I perfectly recollect having taken a slip of paper in my dream and
making such a memorandum as would enable me to correct the error at
some leisure time; having done this, the whole of the circumstances
had passed from my mind. When I awoke in the morning I had not the
slightest recollection of my dream, nor did it once occur to me
during the day, although I had the very books before me on which I
had apparently been engaged in my sleep. When I returned home in the
afternoon, as I did early for the purpose of dressing, and proceeded
to shave, I took up a piece of paper from my dressing-table to wipe
my razor, and you may imagine my surprise at finding thereon the very
memorandum I fancied had been made during the night.

“The effect on me was such that I returned to our office and turned to
the cash-book, when I found that I had really, _when asleep_, detected
the error which I could not detect in my waking hours, and had actually
jotted it down at the time.”

The modern psychological explanation of all this would be that in his
many hours of searching through the books he had, though without being
in the least aware of it, gradually brought together the data necessary
to the solution of his problem; and that in this case this happened to
be first definitely formulated in his mind while he slept, thus giving
rise to the dream that caused him such astonishment. Or he might from
the outset have subconsciously been aware of the cause of his error,
but without being able to profit from the knowledge until a favouring
condition in sleep permitted its emergence above the threshold of his

Now, suppose that instead of being a business man he had been a
novelist, artist, or musician, and had been preoccupied with some
special or general problem peculiar to his art. If in that event he
had had a dream in which was presented to his sleeping consciousness a
plot or subject or theme, which, being afterward given permanent form
on paper or canvas, proved to have the qualities of a “work of genius,”
would it not be logical to infer that precisely the same mental
processes were operant in the second instance as in the first, the only
difference being in the character of the product? This is what, from
their own statement, has happened to not a few men of high achievement.

Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” was a dream composition. So was the
sonata by which the composer Tartini is best known, and to which he
appropriately gave the name of “The Devil’s Sonata,” in recognition of
the fact that he owed it to a dream of selling his soul to the devil,
and being rewarded by hearing the latter play on a violin the music out
of which grew what Tartini himself regarded as his best piece of work.
Benjamin Franklin was another man of genius who gained something from
his dreams, as was Condillac. But the most striking illustration is
afforded by Robert Louis Stevenson, whose marvellous “Doctor Jekyll and
Mr. Hyde” was only one of several novels and stories that he conceived
in dreams. Stevenson, it is worth adding, in his delightful “Chapter on
Dreams,” frankly recognises and acknowledges the debt he owed to his
subconsciousness, which, with characteristic felicity and whimsicality,
he personified as “Brownies” and “little people.”

“This dreamer, like many other persons,” is the way he puts it, “has
encountered some trifling vicissitudes of fortune. When the bank
begins to send letters and the butcher to linger at the back gate,
he sets to belabouring his brains after a story, for that is his
readiest bread-winner; and, behold! at once the little people begin to
bestir themselves in the same quest, and labour all night long, and
all night long set before him truncheons of tales upon their lighted
theatre. No fear of his being frightened now; the flying heart and the
frozen scalp are things bygone; applause, growing applause, growing
interest, growing exultation in his own cleverness—for he takes all the
credit—and at last a jubilant leap to wakefulness, with the cry ‘I have
it; that’ll do!’ upon his lips—with such and similar emotions he sits
at these nocturnal dramas; with such outbreaks, like Cassius in the
play, he scatters the performance in the midst.

“Often enough the waking is a disappointment. He has been too deep
asleep, as I explain the thing; drowsiness has gained his little
people; they have gone stumbling and maundering through their
parts; and the play, to the wakened mind, is seen to be a tissue of
absurdities. And yet, how often have these sleepless Brownies done him
honest service, and given him, as he sat idly taking his pleasure in
the boxes, better tales than he could fashion for himself.

“The more I think of it,” Stevenson goes on, “the more I am moved to
press upon the world my question, ‘Who are the little people?’ They
are near connections of the dreamer’s, beyond doubt; they share in his
training; they have plainly learned, like him, to build the scheme of a
considerable story, and to arrange emotion in progressive order. Only,
I think they have more talent; and one thing is beyond doubt—they can
tell him a story piece by piece, like a serial, and keep him the while
in ignorance of where they aim.

“That part of my work which is done while I am sleeping is the
Brownies’ part, beyond contention; but that which is done when I am up
and about is by no means necessarily mine, since all goes to show that
the Brownies have a hand in it even then.”

Than these exquisite paragraphs, it would be hard to find—and I have
quoted them for that reason—anything more graphically descriptive of
the mechanism which I am convinced is always operant in the production
of works of genius. Asleep or awake, it is from the resources of
the subconscious region of their minds that men of genius gain the
“inspirations” that delight, benefit, or amaze posterity.

Mostly, of course, the subconscious upsurgings come to them when
they are awake, sometimes in momentary gleams of insight, sometimes
continuing through comparatively long periods, when they write,
compose, or develop valuable discoveries without conscious effort. In
fact, there even is one type of genius—although by no means the most
useful—in which, within a certain limited field, the subconscious is
perpetually in evidence, and perpetually responsive to the demands
of the upper consciousness. I refer to the so-called “lightning
calculators,” those prodigies whose mathematical feats, performed
without the aid of pencil and paper, have been a source of unending
surprise to the world, and have at times been so remarkable as to be
well-nigh incredible.

Thus, Zerah Colburn, an American lightning calculator, when only six
years old, unable to read, and ignorant of the name and value of any
numeral set down on paper, is known to have stated correctly the number
of seconds in a period as long as two thousand years, and to have
returned the correct answer (9,139,200) to the question, “Supposing I
have a corn-field, in which are 7 acres, having 17 rows to each acre,
64 hills to each row, 8 ears on a hill, and 150 kernels on the ear, how
many kernels in the corn-field?”

A little later, having been taken by his father to England, it is
recorded that, in the presence of a number of witnesses:

“He undertook and succeeded in raising the number 8 to the sixteenth
power, 281,474,976,780,656. He was then tried as to other numbers,
consisting of one figure, all of which he raised as high as the tenth
power, with so much facility that the person appointed to take down the
results was obliged to enjoin him not to be too rapid. With respect
to numbers of two figures, he would raise some of them to the sixth,
seventh, and eighth power, but not always with equal facility; for the
larger the products became the more difficult he found it to proceed.
He was asked the square root of 106,929, and before the number could be
written down he immediately answered 327. He was then requested to name
the cube root of 268,336,125, and with equal facility and promptness he
replied 645.”

Henri Mondeux, Vito Mangiamele, Jacques Inaudi, Zacharias Dase,
Jedediah Buxton, Truman Safford, André Ampère, Karl Gauss, George
Bidder and his son of the same name, were other world famous
calculators. From some of them direct evidence as to the subconscious
character of their calculations has been forthcoming. One of the most
remarkable in this group, the elder Bidder, in a paper contributed to
a scientific journal, declared, “Whenever I feel called upon to make
use of the stores of my mind, they seem to rise with the rapidity
of lightning.” In a later issue of the same journal it is asserted
regarding him:

“He had an almost miraculous power of seeing, as it were, intuitively,
what factors would divide any large number, not a prime. Thus, if he
were given the number 17,861, he would instantly remark that it was
327 × 53. He could not, he said, explain how he did this; it seemed a
natural instinct with him.”

Another expert calculator, an English civil engineer named Blyth, says
in a letter:

“I am conscious of an intuitive recognition of the relations of
figures. For instance, in reading statements of figures in newspapers,
which are often egregiously wrong, it seems to come to me intuitively
that something is wrong, and when that occurs I am usually right.”

In the case of at least one lightning calculator there is proof
positive of the concurrent operation of two trains of thought, the one
conscious, the other subconscious. This is Jedediah Buxton, who “would
talk freely while doing his questions, that being no molestation or
hindrance to him.”

Moreover, prodigious memory power is nearly always characteristic of
the lightning calculator. This of itself is evidence of unusual access
to the subconscious, since it is in the subconscious that memories
are stored. Most impressive of all, however, is the rapid, almost
instantaneous emergence of the answers to the problems propounded by
those testing the calculator’s powers. It is as though the mere putting
of the problem, and the mere desire to solve it, were enough to set
in motion a “thinking machine” that automatically brought about the
desired result. It is significant that in most cases, as in Bidder’s,
the calculators themselves are unable to give any satisfactory account
of the methods they employ, and sometimes frankly admit that they “do
not know how the answers come.”

Now, this sudden irruption of ideas, this dazzling solution of
problems, is characteristic not only of calculating prodigies, but
also of all men of genius. They may not have—in truth, they have
comparatively seldom—such a spectacular resort to the subconscious;
but they assuredly have it in an astonishing measure, and to better
purpose. Precisely as we find the answers to mathematical puzzles
rising spontaneously in the minds of ready reckoners, so, time and
again, do we find great thoughts, amounting it may be to epoch-making
conceptions, forcing themselves upon men of genius, frequently at
moments when they are consciously thinking of some other matter, or are
not consciously exercising their minds at all. And again we have only
to go to the published testimony of men of genius themselves to obtain
a strong body of evidence bearing out this statement.

Many a poet of the first order, puzzling over the state of his mind
during his creative moments, has declared that his works were composed
as in a dream, the main ideas, sometimes even the phrases used, shaping
themselves of their own accord in his consciousness. “Often it happened
to me,” says Goethe, “that I would repeat a song to myself and then be
unable to recollect it; that sometimes I would run to my desk, and,
without taking time to lay my paper straight, would, without stirring
from my place, write out the poem from beginning to end, slopingly. For
the same reason I always preferred to write with a pencil, on account
of its marking so readily. On several occasions, indeed, the scratching
and spluttering of my pen awoke me from my somnambulistic poetising and
distracted me so that it suffocated a little product in its birth.”
(Hirsch’s “Genius and Degeneration,” p. 33.)

Elsewhere Goethe specifically states that his “Werther” was written
“somewhat unconsciously, like a sleepwalker.” And, according to
Vischer, the poet Schiller, Goethe’s almost equally great contemporary,
complained that whenever he was consciously at work creating and
constructing, his imagination was hampered and did not perform “with
the same freedom as it had done when nobody was looking over its

“It is not I who think,” confesses Lamartine, “but my ideas which think
for me.” Dante had much the same feeling, as recorded in his famous
lines, “I am so constituted that when love inspires me, I attend; and
according as it speaks in me, I express myself.” Voltaire, who wrote
to Diderot that “in the works of genius instinct is everything,” on
seeing one of his own tragedies performed, exclaimed, “Was it really I
who wrote that?”

“My conceptions,” says Rémy de Gourmont, “rise into the field of
consciousness like a flash of lightning or the flight of a bird.”

“One does not work, one listens; it is as though another were speaking
into one’s ear,” writes De Musset. Exactly similar is the statement of
the composer, Hoffman:

“When I compose, I sit down to the piano, shut my eyes, and play what I

From other great musicians comes equally emphatic testimony to the
part played by the subconscious in the creation of their works. Mozart
frankly avowed that his compositions came “involuntarily, like dreams.”
Among eminent composers of to-day Saint-Saens has only to listen,
like Socrates, to his Dæmon; and Vincent d’Indy, writing to Dr. Paul
Chabaneix (to whose “Le Subconsciente chez les Artistes, les Savants,
et les Ecrivains” I am indebted for most of these French instances)
relates that he “often has, on waking, a fugitive glimpse of a musical
effect which—like the memory of a dream—needs a strong immediate
concentration of mind to keep it from vanishing.”

The situation is the same, in whatever field genius finds expression.
Napoleon, by many considered the greatest military genius in the
history of mankind, believed from his own experience that the fate of
battles usually turned not so much on conscious planning and manœuvring
as on tactics dictated by “latent thoughts” arising suddenly in the
mind. “The decisive moment approached; the spark burst forth, and one
was victorious.” In like manner there frequently has come to scientists
and inventors, with the unexpectedness of lightning out of a clear sky,
the discovery of natural laws or mechanical principles of which they
previously had no conscious knowledge whatever.

Everybody has heard the story of Newton, the falling apple, and the
discovery of the law of gravitation; and of Galileo’s invention of the
pendulum, born of the thoughts springing up in his mind while idly
watching the oscillations of the great bronze lamp swinging from the
roof of Pisa Cathedral. Not so well known, but particularly impressive
because of its revelation of the manner in which the desultory
development of a train of thought in the mind of a man of genius may
lead to a subconscious upsurging of the highest value, is Alfred Russel
Wallace’s own account of his epoch-making discovery of the scientific
doctrine of the origin of species—a discovery achieved by him, in the
far-off Malay Archipelago, with no knowledge that the same doctrine had
even then been worked out, though not as yet made public, by Charles

“At the time in question,” Wallace relates, in his “My Life,” “I was
suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever, and every day
during the cold and succeeding hot fits had to lie down for several
hours, during which time I had nothing to do but to think over any
subjects then particularly interesting me. One day something brought
to my mind Malthus’s ‘Principle of Population,’ which I had read about
twelve years before. I thought of his clear exposition of the ‘positive
checks to increase’—disease, accidents, war, and famine—which keep down
the population of savage races to so much lower an average than that
of more civilised peoples. It then occurred to me that these causes,
or their equivalents, are continually acting in the case of animals
also; and as animals usually breed much more rapidly than does mankind,
the destruction every year from these causes must be enormous in order
to keep down the numbers of each species, since they evidently do not
increase regularly from year to year, as otherwise the world would long
ago have been densely crowded with those that breed most quickly.

“Vaguely thinking over the enormous and constant destruction which
this implied, it occurred to me to ask the question, Why do some die
and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best
fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from
enemies, the strongest, the swiftest, or the most cunning; from famine,
the best hunters or those with the best digestion; and so on. Then it
suddenly flashed on me that this self-acting process would necessarily
_improve the race_, because in every generation the inferior would
inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain—that is, _the
fittest would survive_.

“At once I seemed to see the whole effect of this, that when changes
of land and sea, or of climate, or of food-supply, or of enemies
occurred—and we know that such changes have always been taking
place—and considering the amount of individual variation that my
experience as a collector had shown me to exist, then it followed that
all the changes necessary for the adaptation of the species to the
changing conditions would be brought about; and as great changes in the
environment are always slow, there would be ample time for the change
to be effected by the survival of the best fitted in every generation.
In this way every part of an animal’s organisation could be modified
exactly as required, and in the very process of this modification the
unmodified would die out, and thus the _definite_ characters and the
clear _isolation_ of each new species would be explained. The more I
thought about it, the more I became convinced that I had at last found
the long-sought-for law of nature that solved the problem of the origin
of species.”

This passage, with its significant phrases, “Then it suddenly flashed
on me,” and “At once I seemed to see the whole effect of this,”
makes very clear the subconscious element in the achieving of the
momentous discovery. It also emphasises another fact indispensable
to a complete understanding not alone of Wallace’s achievement but
of the achievements of all men of genius: the fact that creative
upsurgings from the subconscious would be valueless—would, indeed, be
impossible of occurrence—in any but a mind rendered by conscious study,
observation, and reflection, capable of appreciating their significance.

The subconscious, let me recall, is a kind of workshop where the “ego”
rummages among the memory-images of its past experiences to develop
trains of thought and reach definite conclusions with a minimum of
effort. Obviously the results of its rummaging will depend on the
material it finds to work with; in proportion as this is rich and
abundant, the subconscious upsurgings will be “worth while.” Obviously,
too, both the richness of the material and the character and value of
the subconscious upsurgings will ultimately depend on the character of
the individual’s interests, and the extent to which these impel him to
conscious study, observation, and reflection.

Wherefore it is that all men of genius have been great workers. Even
when, as has been observed in certain cases, they indulge in more
or less protracted periods of idleness, they later make amends by
an unusual industry; and, for that matter, their idleness often is
more seeming than real, their minds being busied all the while with
some baffling problem. Ardent, whole-souled absorption in the thing
he has set himself to do—that, unquestionably, is a distinguishing
characteristic of the man of genius. It is almost as if by instinct he
labours hard to provide his subconsciousness with the data it must have
in order to afford him, by way of recompense, those flashes of insight,
those moments of “inspiration,” that mean acknowledged leadership among
his fellow-men.

I have already quoted Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of what his
subconscious did for him. Let me now give his account of how he toiled
to provide his subconscious with its working material. Never was there
a man who strove more diligently and deliberately to attain success as
an author; and this even while he was a student in college, where most
of those who knew him thought that his chief occupation was “killing
time.” As he tells us:

“All through my boyhood and youth I was known and pointed out for the
pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end,
which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket,
one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting
what I saw with appropriate words. When I sat by the roadside, I would
either read, or a pencil and a penny version book would be in my hand,
to write down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting

“Thus I lived with words. And what I thus wrote was for no ulterior
use; it was written consciously for practice. It was not so much that
I wished to be an author—though I wished that, too—as that I had vowed
that I would learn to write. That was a proficiency that tempted me;
and I practised to acquire it, as men learn to whittle, in a wager
with myself.... I worked in other ways, also; often accompanied my
walks with dramatic dialogues, in which I played many parts; and often
exercised myself in writing down conversations from memory.

“This was all excellent, no doubt; so were the diaries I sometimes
tried to keep, but always and very speedily discarded, finding them a
school of posturing and melancholy self-deception. And yet this was
not the most efficient part of my training. Good though it was, it
only taught me—so far as I have learned them at all—the lower and less
intellectual elements of the art, the choice of the essential note and
the right word; things that to a happier constitution had perhaps come
by nature. And regarded as training it had one grave defect; for it set
me no standard of achievement.

“So that there was, perhaps, more profit, as there was certainly more
effort, in my secret labours at home. Whenever I read a book or a
passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or
an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some
conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit
down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful,
and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful, and always
unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts I got some practice in
rhythm, in harmony, in construction, and the coordination of parts.”

Balzac, the greatest novelist that France has ever produced, similarly
exemplifies the laborious industry of the man of genius in providing
his subconsciousness with material for future use, and training it to
respond more fully to the demands of the upper consciousness. It was
Balzac’s habit to wander for days among the people, inquiring into
their customs, manners, motives, and ways of thinking; and he would
travel a hundred miles to get the data for a few lines of description.
The result, when his genius began to show itself, after a long and
painful period of incubation, was the creation of a series of works
that will be read and reread as long as books are printed.

Of Dante, Boccaccio tells us that “taken by the sweetness of knowing
the truth of the things concealed in Heaven, and finding no other
pleasure dearer to him in life, he left all other worldly care and
gave himself to this alone; and, that no part of philosophy might
remain unseen by him, he plunged with acute intellect into the deepest
recesses of theology, and so far succeeded in his design that, caring
nothing for heat or cold, or watchings or fastings, or any other
bodily discomforts, by assiduous study he came to know of the divine
essence and of the other separate intelligences that the human
intellect can comprehend.”

Napoleon is known to have occupied his mind almost incessantly with
problems of military strategy. Even at the opera he would forget the
music in wrestling with such questions as, “I have ten thousand men at
Strassburg, fifteen thousand at Magdeburg, twenty thousand at Würzburg.
By what stages must they march so as to reach Ratisbon on three
successive days?” Mozart, on the contrary, thought, lived, and moved in
an atmosphere of music. He could not so much as go for a walk or play a
game of billiards without humming to himself over and over again airs
that he was striving to develop to his satisfaction.

“Nobody,” he once declared, “takes so much pains in the study of
composition as I. You could not easily name a famous master in music
whom I have not industriously studied, often going through his works
several times.”

Schiller, even as a boy, “felt that without diligence no mastery can
be won.” Halley once asked Newton how he had made his marvellous
discoveries in the physical realm. “By always thinking about them,” was
his reply. Thus the record might be continued down to the Edisons and
Bergsons and Debussys of to-day.

Quite evidently, what happens is that the perpetual concentration of
attention on some one problem or set of problems, not merely deposits
in the subconscious an exceptional wealth of material, but also favours
the emergence of the results of its manipulation of that material. Just
as, in the case of the ordinary man, it is only when he is intensely
interested in, say, the detection of an error in book-keeping, that he
is likely to have the cause of that error made plain to him by a sudden
“happy thought,” or through the medium of a dream.

It may, then, be stated as a well-established fact that intense
interest plus persistent effort is the prime essential to the highest
success in any sphere of human activity. Of importance, also, is
the fact that, as a general thing, the “set” of a man’s mind, the
direction which his interest most readily takes, is indicated more or
less clearly in the first years of life. This is proved not only by
the early lives of the world’s most eminent men and women, but also
by the results of careful statistical investigations into the life
histories of “average” people. Especially impressive are the findings
of an inquiry carried out not long ago by that well-known American
psychologist, Edward L. Thorndike, and reported by him in _The Popular
Science Monthly_, vol. lxxxi (1912).

Professor Thorndike submitted to one hundred third year students in
Columbia College, Barnard College, and Teachers’ College, New York, a
list of subjects of study, including mathematics, history, literature,
science, drawing, and such hand-work as carving, carpentering,
gardening, etc. Each student was required to fill in a tabular blank
showing the order in which the various subjects were of greatest
interest to that particular student: (1) during the last three years of
elementary school attendance, (2) during the high school period, and
(3) at the time of the investigation. Blanks were also to be filled
indicating the student’s judgment as to his or her ability in each of
the respective subjects during the period covered by the inquiry.

From the statistics thus gathered two things stood out clearly. No
fewer than 60 per cent. of the students made returns showing that the
subjects which appealed to them most strongly in their college work
were the subjects that had most interested them in early life; and an
even closer correspondence (65 per cent.) was shown between intensity
of interest and intellectual ability. Professor Thorndike then extended
his investigation to include two hundred other individuals, and
obtained virtually the same results.

“These facts,” it is not surprising to find him saying in comment,
“unanimously witness to the importance of early interests. They are
shown to be far from fickle and evanescent.... It would indeed be hard
to find any feature of a human being which was a more permanent fact of
his nature than his relative degree of interest in different lines of
thought and action.”

What this means, unquestionably, is that every parent, in planning the
education of his children or in assisting them to choose a vocation,
should make a real effort to gain some insight into their special
interests. Not only so, but there is reason for adding that he should
also endeavour to ascertain and cultivate those interests while his
children are still quite young. Otherwise he is likely to find them
growing to manhood and womanhood—as, under present conditions, most
children do grow—with the strongest of their “worth while” interests so
attenuated that really effective mental effort is next to impossible.
In these circumstances—unless they chance, as Charles Darwin did, to
come under the influence of a personality able to rouse their dormant
powers into exceptional activity—the likelihood is that they will
achieve only mediocre results, muddling along through life even when
they happen to hit on vocations truly suited to them.

Are we to infer that children, at a tender age, should be encouraged
to think seriously about serious subjects? Assuredly, provided
the subjects be made sufficiently interesting to them. It is not
without significance that a large majority of men of genius have
been distinguished for their precocity; or, if not precocious in the
ordinary sense of the term, they have busied themselves in childhood
with mental activities allied to those for which they afterward
attained eminence.

Napoleon’s interest in military problems dates from his boyhood. Lord
Kelvin, the foremost physicist of the nineteenth century, was making
electrical machines when only nine years old, and played with them as
other children play with dolls and marbles. Thomas Hobbes translated
the “Medea” of Euripides into Latin iambic verse before he was
fourteen. Cicero at thirteen is credited with having written a treatise
on the art of oratory. Fénelon preached his first sermon when only
fifteen years old. Grotius at the age of fourteen was widely known for
his learning. Hallam, the famous historian, could read well before he
was five, and had turned author four years later. Galileo, like Lord
Kelvin, constructed mechanical toys in his childhood.

Not to accumulate instances tediously, it need only be added that, in
making a survey of the biographies of a thousand eminent British men
and women, the English psychologist, Havelock Ellis, found that only
forty-four were specifically mentioned as not having been precocious,
while nearly three hundred were mentioned as having been distinctly
precocious in one sense or another. Even in the case of the forty-four,
Mr. Ellis discovered, several were really as precocious as any of the
three hundred, being “already absorbed in their own lines of mental
activity.” To this class belong, for example, Landor, Byron, and
Wiseman, the last of whom is described as having been in boyhood, “dull
and stupid, always reading and thinking.” Nor, according to the results
of Mr. Ellis’s investigation, did precocity have any unfavourable
effect on the health of these men and women of genius.

All similar investigations, in fact, go to show that intellectual
activity makes for longevity—that those who think hardest are likely
to live longest. Of one group of nearly eight hundred and fifty
men of genius it was found that only two hundred and fifty died
before they were sixty years old, while one hundred and thirty-one
lived to be eighty or older. For another group of five hundred, an
average life-span of nearly sixty-five years was found, as against a
life-span of fifty-one years for all classes of people who pass the
age of twenty. In the case of still another group, studied by a third
investigator, an average of seventy-one years was established.

What gives these figures greater significance is the fact that in
many instances the man of genius is exceptionally frail in early
life. Mr. Ellis, in his statistical study, found that more than two
hundred—or more than 20 per cent. of the eminent men and women included
in his survey—were “congenitally of a notably feeble constitution,”
yet that among these were some of the longest lived. How is this to
be explained? Only on the theory that the joy they felt in doing work
congenial to them promoted bodily as well as mental vigour. And, in
point of fact, it is to-day a commonplace among psychologists that
pleasurable emotions make for increased strength, while disagreeable
feelings make for weakness.

Viewed from whatever angle, therefore, “being interested” is one of
the most important things in the world to every one of us. The earlier
we become interested—intensely interested—in some specific field of
activity, the brighter our future prospects will be.

But—this is the crucial question in the present connection—is the
awaking of a lively interest, an interest so intense that it spurs to
incessant endeavour in some special field, sufficient to account for
the achievements of the man of genius? Granting that the man of genius
depends for his results, as I have tried to show, on the extent to
which he upbuilds and stimulates his subconscious powers by conscious
observation and thought, must we not assume that he possesses,
to begin with, an exceptional mental capacity? Or is favouring
circumstance in his environment—the occurrence of events that make
so profound an impression on his mind as to arouse a fervent longing
for accomplishment—sufficient to explain him? In short, would it be
possible, by careful education and the wise adjustment of environmental
influences, so to develop any individual of normal mentality that he
might achieve in his chosen life-work results usually regarded as
bearing the stamp of genius?

Such, decidedly, is my belief. I base it partly on the repeated failure
of investigators to demonstrate the operation of heredity in the making
of the vast multitude of men of genius who, in the history of mankind,
have sprung from all sorts and conditions of ancestors, rich and poor,
proud and humble, wise and ignorant. Partly I base it on the many
instances in which men of genius have themselves been able to trace
the determination of their activities to fortunate happenings in early
life. But most of all I base it on certain experiments in education
undertaken by parents entirely unaware of the interrelationship between
conscious thinking and subconscious “inspiration,” yet intuitively
believing that the sooner a child is habituated to using his mind to
good purpose the more he will accomplish in later life.



The student body of Harvard University at present includes three youths
whose remarkable intellectual achievements and the manner of their
upbringing have given rise to much discussion in American educational
circles. The oldest of these students was graduated from Tufts College
at the age of fourteen, gained the degree of Ph.D. at Harvard when
only eighteen, and now is continuing his studies abroad as the holder
of a Harvard travelling fellowship. The youngest of the trio became
a special student at Harvard before he was twelve, was graduated
with honours when scarcely sixteen, and is at present engaged in
post-graduate studies. The third passed the regular Harvard entrance
examinations when less than fourteen, completed his college course
with distinction in three years, and to-day is studying law.

What has excited controversial interest in these youths is not so much
their precocity, striking though that is, as the fact that in each
case they have been educated along novel lines from their earliest
childhood. Their fathers, who have worked independently of one another,
assert, indeed, that their unusual mental development is not due to any
exceptional talent, but is the result of the peculiar home training
they have received; the implication being that a similar development
is possible to every normal child if reared in the same way. Besides
which, the fathers contend that the prevailing method of giving
children little or no formal education until they are old enough to go
to school is fundamentally wrong; that the home is the proper place in
which to begin a child’s education, and that the proper time to begin
is with the first dawning of the child’s ability and desire to use his
reasoning powers. Or, as one of them has recently declared:

“In the large majority of children the beginning of education should be
between the second and third year. It is at that time that the child
begins to form his interests. It is at that critical period that we
have to seize the opportunity to guide the child’s formative energies
in the right channels. To delay is a mistake and a wrong to the child.
We can at that early period awaken a love of knowledge which will
persist through life. The child will as eagerly play in the game of
knowledge as he now spends the most of his energies in meaningless
games and objectless, silly sports.” (Boris Sidis’s “Philistine and
Genius,” pp. 67-68.)

Some few educators in this country have already tentatively approved
the new ideas in child-training as exemplified by the methods pursued
and the results obtained in the case of these youthful Harvard
students. For the most part, however, their promulgation has been
greeted skeptically, even with caustic criticism. On the one hand,
it is alleged that the parents cannot positively prove that the
achievements of their boys are not the result of inherited gifts
rather than the special education given them; and, on the other hand,
the position is taken that, assuming the correctness of their fathers’
contention in this respect, it is by no means evident that such
training is desirable.

In the words of one critic, to begin the education of a child at two or
three is to rob that child of his childhood. The training in question
is described as a “forcing” system, much talk is heard of “mind
strain,” and the prediction is freely made that the ultimate outcome
can only be to drive children thus educated into an asylum for the
insane, or into an early grave.

My own belief is that the critics are wrong. I have long been
acquainted with all three of these students, and in one case have
had opportunity to observe rather closely the process of mental and
physical development for upward of eight years. All three are sturdy,
strong young fellows; if anything above the average for their years
in stature and weight. Time alone, of course, can tell whether they
will live to a good old age. But if they should die or become insane,
I am satisfied that neither misfortune could justly be attributed to
their parents’ educational methods. On the contrary, the principles
underlying these methods seem to me for the most part so beneficial
that I believe the time will come when they will be quite generally

Decidedly, though, I should not express myself with such assurance were
it not for the fact that these same principles have long ago been put
to the test and impressively vindicated. I wonder if the name of James
Thomson of Annaghmore has ever been heard by those who have so hastily
condemned the parents of the three Harvard students? Doubtless not,
else they would surely have moderated their denunciations.

Thomson, who was born in the year 1786, the son of a Scotch-Irish
farmer, was pre-eminently a “self-made” man. Seemingly doomed to the
obscure existence of an ordinary farm-labourer, he had emancipated
himself by dint of an extraordinary energy. With but slight aid he
contrived, while a mere child, to teach himself to read, write, and
cipher. In the fields, and by candle-light in his farm home, at every
opportunity, he studied little text-books that were to him the most
fascinating things in the world because they gave him knowledge. He
was determined to become an educated man, and continually he urged his
father to let him go to school.

To school eventually he went, in the neighbouring village of Ballykine,
and there, as in his childhood, he found his greatest delight in the
study of mathematics. He must, he told himself, know more about this
great science; he must know everything that could be learned about it.
Also, being of a religious turn of mind, he planned to fit himself to
become a clergyman. Obviously, whether to learn higher mathematics, or
to qualify for the ministry, it was necessary to go to college. And to
college he did go; but, so difficult were his circumstances, not until
he was a man full-grown.

From 1810 to 1814—that is, from the age of twenty-four to
twenty-eight—he spent six months of every year at the University of
Glasgow. The other six months he spent earning his living. Finally he
received the coveted M.A. degree, and having in the meantime become
more enamoured of mathematics than of a clerical career, he accepted
appointment to the teaching staff of an academy in Belfast, where,
married to a sweetheart of his Glasgow days, he soon entered upon the
additional task of bringing up a family.

It is at this point that he becomes of special interest to us. For,
looking back at the stupendous obstacles he himself had had to overcome
in gaining an education, he resolved to do everything in his power to
make the road to learning easy for his children.

To do this, it seemed to him, the proper course to pursue was to begin
their education as soon as they showed an intelligent interest in the
world about them. For, he argued, quite in the manner of the fathers
of the three Harvard students of to-day, it is because the education of
children begins too late that they find it hard to learn, and strain
their minds in the attainment of knowledge. Let a child get accustomed
to using his mind to good purpose in early childhood, and study will
never be a tax on him but a perpetual joy. This, thought he, is the way
all children should be brought up.

And, with the faithful co-operation of his wife, this was the way James
Thomson brought up his own children. He taught them, boys and girls, to
spell and to read almost as soon as they could speak. He taught them
mathematics, history, geography, and the elements of natural science.
One of the busiest of men—for he was a writer of mathematical text-books
as well as a class-room instructor—he made great sacrifices for the sake
of their education. He would even get up at four in the morning to work
on his text-books and to prepare his lectures, so as to be sure of
having freedom to instruct his little ones during the day. Especially
he made it a point to fertilise their minds, to whet their interest in
worth while things, in the course of table-talk and when out walking
with them.

“When spring came,” one of his daughters, Mrs. Elizabeth King, has
recalled in a delightful volume of family reminiscences, “our father
generally took a walk with us in the early morning before breakfast,
and he used to invent interesting topics of conversation, which were
carried on through successive mornings. Two of us held his hands and
two walked quite near, but the places of honour were shared alternately
by the four. I remember all being intensely interested in a series of
talks on the progress of civilisation, in which every one, even little
Willie, suggested ideas, and took part in the conversation.

“We also in these walks made imaginary voyages of discovery, full of
adventure, calling at various ports, and sailing up rivers to obtain
the products of the countries we visited, and become acquainted with
the inhabitants. We explored the icy regions of the north, the
burning deserts of Africa and Arabia, and the fragrant forests of
Ceylon. There was no end to our travels and the wonders we saw when we
walked with our father. Sometimes we transported ourselves to ancient
days, and sailed with the Argonauts in search of the golden fleece,
or accompanied the Greeks to Troy to recover the beautiful Helen, or
joined Ulysses in his protracted wanderings. Our father always led the
talk, but we all assisted.”

His two older sons, James and William, were the special objects of
his care, particularly after their mother’s death, which occurred
when James was eight and William six. After this sad event he lived
more than ever with these two boys, giving up part of his bedroom to
them, and diligently drilling them in the rudiments of an all-round
education. When, in 1832, he was appointed professor of mathematics at
his old university, he continued their home training, and in addition
obtained permission for them to attend his university lectures and the
lectures of some other professors.

Two years later, James being then twelve and William ten, they were
admitted as full-fledged undergraduates. And, precocious though they
were, they also were healthy, vigorous, active boys, full of fun and
eager to romp and play. Like other boys they delighted in games and
toys, with the sole difference that in many instances their toys were
scientific instruments. Thus, they made with their own hands little
electrical machines with which to give harmless and laughter-provoking
shocks to their friends.

In a word, all who knew them liked them—and marvelled at them. There
was abundant cause for marvel. Not only did they keep up with their
studies with ease, but in more than one department of knowledge they
outdid their classmates, some of whom were well into their twenties.
The following excerpt from “The Book of the Jubilee” gives a vivid
idea of the scholastic achievements of these two remarkable boys in
the first years of their life at Glasgow University:

“At the end of his first winter’s work William Thomson carried off two
prizes in the Humanity Class; this before he was eleven. In the next
session we follow him to the classes of Natural History and Greek—we
wonder what the present occupants of these chairs would say to a
stripling under twelve who presented himself at their lectures—and his
name figures in both prize-lists.

“Sympathy is not lacking for the hard-worked school-boy of to-day; but
what would the child of twelve think of the holiday task of translating
Lucian’s ‘Dialogues of the Gods,’ with full parsing of the first three
dialogues! This is the piece of work for which William Thomson, Glasgow
College, receives a prize in May, 1836.

“Next session we find the two brothers together in the Junior
Mathematical Class, of the Junior Division of which they are first
and second prize-men. They appear again at the head of the list for
the Monthly Voluntary Examinations on the work of the class and its
applications. Proceeding to the Senior Mathematical Class in 1837-38,
they again stand at the top, nor have they failed to present themselves
for the Voluntary Examinations. William is not satisfied with this
class, but in addition receives the second prize in the Junior Division
of Professor Robert Buchanan’s Logic Class.”

And, continuing to win laurels, at the close of the next session they
took the first and second places as prize-men in natural philosophy,
while William the following year gained the class prize in astronomy,
and was awarded a university medal for an essay, “On the Figure of
the Earth,” the manuscript of which, a carefully bound volume of
eighty-five pages, is still in existence. He was then not sixteen years

Of course there were not lacking wiseacres who dolefully predicted all
manner of unpleasant things for these “unhappy victims of a father’s
folly,” who must inevitably fade into an early grave. But the father
only smiled serenely, confident that the future would vindicate his
educational innovation. And, of a surety, the future did. For James
Thomson, the older of the two, living to the age of seventy, left
behind him the reputation of one of England’s leading authorities on
engineering; while William, who did not die until he was eighty-three,
became even more famous, winning, as Lord Kelvin of Largs, a place in
the annals of science fairly comparable with that held by the immortal

A similar process of intensive child culture was carried out, with
similarly happy results, in the case of John Stuart Mill, whose father
modelled his whole upbringing in accordance with the theory that the
mind, like the body, grows with exercise, and that the sooner the
process of exercising and training it begins, the better the child’s
prospects for a worthy and efficient manhood. Like James Thomson the
elder Mill was an exceedingly busy man, but this did not prevent him
from making the intellectual development of his son a matter of
patient, personal attention. Almost as soon as the little John could
talk, his formal education began, and throughout his childhood was
continued along lines that have provoked indignant comment in many

“I have no remembrance,” he tells us, in his interesting
“Autobiography,” “of the time when I began to learn Greek. I have been
told that it was when I was three years old. My earliest recollection
on the subject is that of committing to memory what my father termed
vocables, being lists of common Greek words, with their signification
in English, which he wrote out for me on cards. Of grammar, until
some years later, I learned no more than the inflexions of the nouns
and verbs, but after a course of vocables, proceeded at once to
translation; and I faintly remember going through ‘Æsop’s Fables,’ the
first Greek book which I read. The ‘Anabasis,’ which I remember better,
was the second. I learned no Latin until my eighth year.

“At that time I had read, under my father’s tuition, a number of
Greek prose authors, among whom I remember the whole of Herodotus, and
of Xenophon’s ‘Cyropaedia’ and ‘Memorials of Socrates’; some of the
lives of the philosophers by Diogenes Laertius; part of Lucian; and
‘Isocrates ad Demonicum’ and ‘Ad Nicoclem.’... What he himself was
willing to undergo for the sake of my instruction, may be judged from
the fact that I went through the whole process of preparing my Greek
lessons in the same room and at the same table at which he was writing;
and as in those days Greek and English lexicons were not, and I could
make no more use of a Greek and Latin lexicon than could be made
without having yet begun to learn Latin, I was forced to have recourse
to him for the meaning of every word which I did not know. This
incessant interruption he, one of the most impatient of men, submitted
to, and wrote under that interruption several volumes of his history
and all else that he had to write during those years.

“The only thing besides Greek that I learned as a lesson in this part
of my childhood was arithmetic; this also my father taught me. It was
the task of the evenings, and I well remember its disagreeableness.
But the lessons were only a part of the daily instruction I received.
Much of it consisted in the books I read by myself, and my father’s
discourses to me, chiefly during our walks.

“From 1810 to 1813 (that is, from Mill’s fourth to eighth year) we
were living in Kensington Green, then an almost rustic neighbourhood.
My father’s health required considerable and constant exercise, and he
walked habitually before breakfast, generally in the green lanes toward
Hornsey. In these walks I always accompanied him, and with my earliest
recollections of green fields and wild-flowers, is mingled that of the
account I gave him daily of what I had read the day before. To the
best of my remembrance, this was a voluntary rather than a prescribed
exercise. I made notes on slips of paper while reading, and from these
in the morning walks I told the story to him....

“In these frequent talks about the books I read, he used, as
opportunity offered, to give me explanations and ideas respecting
civilisation, government, morality, mental cultivation, which he
required me afterward to restate to him in my own words.... He was
fond of putting into my hands books which exhibited men of energy and
resource in unusual circumstances, struggling against difficulties and
overcoming them: of such works I remember Beaver’s ‘African Memoranda,’
and Collins’s ‘Account of the First Settlement of New South Wales.’...
Of children’s books, any more than of playthings, I had scarcely any,
except an occasional gift from a relation or acquaintance: among those
I had, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ was pre-eminent, and continued to delight me
through all my boyhood.

“It was no part, however, of my father’s system to exclude books of
amusement, though he allowed them very sparingly. Of such books he
possessed at that time next to none, but he borrowed several for me;
those which I remember are the ‘Arabian Nights,’ Cazotte’s ‘Arabian
Tales,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ Miss Edgeworth’s ‘Popular Tales,’ and a book of
some reputation in its day, Brooke’s ‘Fool of Quality.’”

In one respect, it must be conceded, Mill’s early education was
deficient—it depended altogether too much on the knowledge to be gained
from books, and not enough on direct study of the laws and beauties of
Nature. But against this stands the unquestionable fact that it did
establish in him lifelong habits of industry and thoroughness, and an
abiding joy in intellectual achievement; and, more important, it had
the happy result of habituating him to regard himself as consecrated to
a life of labour for the public good. As to the “wrong” done to Mill
by “robbing him of the joys of childhood,” one of his biographers,
Professor William Minto, justly observes:

“Much pity has been expressed over the dreary, cheerless existence
that the child must have led, cut off from all boyish amusements and
companionship, working day after day on his father’s treadmill; but
a childhood and boyhood spent in the enlargement of knowledge, with
the continual satisfaction of difficulties conquered, buoyed up by
day-dreams of emulating the greatest of human benefactors, need not
have been an unhappy childhood, and Mill expressly says that his was
not unhappy. It seems unhappy only when we compare it with the desires
of childhood left more to itself, and when we decline to imagine its
peculiar enjoyments and aspirations. Mill complains that his father
often required more than could be reasonably expected of him, but his
tasks were not so severe as to prevent him from growing up a healthy,
hardy, and high-spirited boy, though he was not constitutionally
robust, and his tastes and pursuits were so different from those of
other boys of the same age.”

Mill was never a college student, and was for the most part
self-educated after his sixteenth year. But had he been sent to college
at an early age, as his home training amply warranted, there is every
reason to think he would have acquitted himself as brilliantly as did
the Thomson boys, and as did Karl Witte, another noteworthy example of
the possibilities open to all parents. Indeed, Witte’s case is in some
respects the most interesting and instructive on record. For one thing
his father has left a minutely detailed account of the methods employed
in his education; and there is ground to suspect that at the outset of
life Karl Witte was below rather than above the average in mentality.

Born in July, 1800, in the German village of Lochau, near Halle, he was
the son of a country clergyman, likewise named Karl Witte, who had long
been regarded as somewhat “eccentric.” In especial the elder Witte was
known to hold “peculiar” views on education. It was his firm belief,
just as it was the belief of James Thomson and James Mill, that only
by beginning the educational process in infancy could one make sure of
developing children into really rational men and women. Looking at the
world about him, and noting the extent to which people wasted their
lives in hopeless inefficiency and reckless dissipation, he said to
himself, in effect:

“These poor people do not reason, do not use their God-given
intellects. If they did they would conduct themselves altogether
differently. The trouble must be that they have not been educated
aright. They have not been taught how to think, and what to think
about. They have been started wrong in life. The schools and
universities are to blame, but far more their parents are to blame. If
love of the good, the beautiful, and the true had been implanted in
them in youth, if they had been trained from the first in the proper
use of their minds, they would not now be living so foolishly.”

Holding these views, Pastor Witte promised himself that if God blessed
him with children he would make their education his special care. His
first child, however, died in early infancy. Then came Karl, at birth
so unprepossessing and “stupid” in appearance that his father wondered
in what way he had offended God that he should be afflicted with a
witless child. The neighbours, sympathising, held out what hopes they
could, but secretly agreed that Pastor Witte’s boy was undoubtedly an

Thus matters stood until one day the father fancied that he detected in
the child signs of intelligence. There and then he set about “making
a man of him,” as he expressed it. He began, even before Karl could
speak, by naming to him different parts of the human body, objects
in his bedroom, etc. Later, as soon as the child was old enough to
toddle about, he gradually broadened the horizon of his knowledge,
taking him for walks through the streets and fields of Lochau, and
calling his attention to all sorts of interesting things. Encouraging
him to ask questions he went in his replies as fully as possible into
the essential details of the subject under discussion. Above all,
he avoided giving superficial answers, for it was his great aim to
impress on Karl the importance of reasoning closely, of appreciating
relationships and dissimilarities. If the child asked him something to
which he could not respond intelligently, he frankly confessed his
ignorance, but suggested that by working together they might obtain a
satisfactory answer.

Also, in his daily walks and conversations with his son, “baby talk”
had no place. It was part of Pastor Witte’s theory, as it is part of
Doctor Berle’s to-day, that this mode of addressing children, however
it may appeal to the sentimental side of fathers and mothers, is
intellectually enervating to their little ones. The child who would
think correctly, he argued, must be taught to speak correctly.

For this reason he not only drilled Karl in the correct pronunciation
and use of words, but insisted that all who talked with the child
should be careful how they spoke to him. Besides which, with an
intuitive appreciation of the formative value of even the seemingly
most trivial details of the home environment, he arranged the household
furnishings so that they too, by the subtle influence of suggestion,
should contribute powerfully to Karl’s development. As he tells us
in his own account, of which an abridged translation into English has
recently been made by Professor Leo Wiener, of Harvard University:[1]

“I tolerated as far as possible nothing in my house, yard, garden,
etc., that was not tasteful, especially nothing that did not harmonise
with its surroundings. If anything was not harmonious, I was uneasy
about it until it was removed. All my rooms were papered with
wall-paper of one colour, the fields being surrounded by pleasing
borders. In every room there was but little furniture, but such as
there was, was carefully selected. On all the walls hung paintings or
etchings, but none of these was tastelessly glaring in colours, or
represented an unpleasant subject. Our yard and garden were in bloom
from earliest Spring to very late in the Fall. Snowbells and crocuses
started the procession, and winter asters were crushed only by the
snow or a severe frost. We ourselves were always dressed cleanly but

At first, it must be said, Karl’s mother had scant sympathy with her
husband’s enthusiasm. She felt that he was mistaken, that the child was
“too stupid” to be educated, and that nothing would come of the pains
taken with him. This was the general belief of the neighbourhood, but
it gave place to a feeling of astonished incredulity upon the discovery
that in reality the youngster was making extraordinary progress, and
was displaying not only intelligence but a love of knowledge rarely
seen in boys of any age. Before he was six all who talked with him
were amazed at the proofs he gave of the great extent to which he had
profited from his early training.

Most impressive was the accuracy and fulness of the information he even
then possessed regarding a variety of subjects, and his linguistic
proficiency. His study of foreign languages began with French, while
he still was very young, and was conducted in a novel way, his father
giving him French translations of books with which he was already
familiar in German, and telling him to read them for a certain time
each day. No attempt was made to teach him the grammar of the language
as it is commonly taught in the schools, his father’s belief being that
the boy could best pick up the grammar for himself in the course of his
reading, and that he would be able to master the French translations
with comparatively little trouble by reason of his previous training
in the art of observation, analysis, and synthesis. This expectation
was realised so fully that, according to his father’s statement, Karl
within a year was reading French with ease.

Meantime he had begun the study of Italian, and from Italian passed to
Latin. Chance played some part in introducing him to this language.
His father had taken him to a concert in Leipzig, and during an
intermission handed him the libretto. He looked at it casually, then
with some intentness, and exclaimed:

“Why, father, this is not French, nor is it Italian. It must be Latin!”

“Let it be what it may,” said Witte, “if only you can make out what it
means. Try at least.”

The boy, already grounded in two languages derived from Latin,
puzzled out the meaning with considerable success, and declared

“Father, if Latin is such an easy language as this, I should like to
learn it.”

English came next, and then the study of Greek, a language regarding
which the boy’s curiosity was whetted by tales from Homer and Xenophon
told to him by his father. Again the process was chiefly one of
self-education, the father answering—when he could—the questions put to
him by Karl, but always insisting to the latter that the proper way to
learn anything is to overcome its difficulties for oneself. He was now
studying and reading French, Italian, Latin, English, and Greek, in all
of which he made such progress that, we are told, by the time he was
nine he had read Homer, Plutarch, Virgil, Cicero, Fénelon, Florian, and
Metastasio in the original, besides Schiller and other classical German

Naturally the fame of the boy spread abroad, and with its spreading his
father came in for some sharp criticism. Formerly he had been laughed
at as a man who was essaying the impossible in striving to impart
intelligence to a mentally subnormal child. Now that he had succeeded
so well in his undertaking people asserted that he was fanatically
endeavouring to convert the child into a weird thinking machine, and
endangering his health and sanity. Precisely the same objections, in
short, were raised to his educational experiment that were later raised
in the case of the Thomson boys and John Stuart Mill, and that have
recently been raised against the educational methods of the fathers of
the three youths now in Harvard.

All kinds of absurd stories were circulated regarding Karl. He was
pictured quite generally as a pale, anæmic, puny, goggle-eyed “freak,”
who had missed the delights of childhood and was vastly to be pitied.
In reality, he was a happy, joyous youngster, who got as much “fun” out
of life as any boy could. This is the unanimous testimony of those who
“investigated” the lad for themselves. Thus the archæologist Heyne,
in a statement to his friend the famous philosopher and poet Wieland,
frankly admitted:

“I allowed myself to be persuaded to examine young Witte, in order to
be able to form my own opinion of him. I found the boy in body and
mind happy and hale to a greater degree than I had expected. I found,
in testing him with Homer and Virgil, that he had sufficient knowledge
of words and things to translate readily and strike the right meaning,
and that, without exact grammatical and lingual knowledge, he was able
to guess correctly the meaning of a passage from its context. What was
most remarkable to me was that he read with understanding, feeling, and

“Otherwise I found in him no preponderating faculty. Memory,
imagination, reasoning, were about in equilibrium. In other matters
besides those that had been inculcated by education, I found him a
happy, lusty boy, not even averse from mischief, which was to me a
quieting thing.”

At the same time that he was thus instructing Karl in languages and
literature, Witte sought to awaken in him a love of art and science.
Neither artist nor scientist himself, he none the less believed that if
he could only interest his son sufficiently in artistic and scientific
subjects, he would study them enthusiastically. To this end he adopted
a plan which might well be imitated by all parents.

Whenever he went to Halle, Leipzig, or any other German city, he
took Karl with him, and together they visited art galleries, natural
history museums, zoölogical and botanical gardens, and manufacturing
establishments. Not for a moment, however, did he hint to the boy that
he was doing this for educational purposes. When, for example, they
visited a factory, he did not say, “I have brought you here to give
you a lesson in mechanics.” He allowed the boy to think that he simply
wished to entertain him; and in this way, without Karl’s suspecting it,
he was able to impart to him much elementary instruction in zoölogy,
botany, physics, chemistry, etc.

Similarly he taught Karl geography by the pleasing device of first
taking him, on a clear day, to the top of a high tower that happened
to be in Lochau, and asking him to mark on a piece of paper, brought
to the tower for that purpose, the position of the different villages
visible in the surrounding country. This first trip was followed by
others, in which the boy expanded and corrected the markings on his
paper, putting in rivers, lakes, and forests. Witte then bought for him
a set of maps showing, in succession, the part of Germany in which he
lived, all Germany, Europe, and the other continents. These father and
son studied together, not as a study, but as a game, in which the boy
took part with the greatest enthusiasm.

“I never acted,” Witte himself has declared, “as though he had to learn
these things. He would have been surprised if told that he had been
studying geography, physics, chemistry. I avoided the mention of such
terms, so as not to frighten him, and in order not to make him vain.”

Not to make him vain! Be sure, indeed, that Pastor Witte, while
promoting his son’s mental development, would not forget to ground him
in moral principles. He was not, let it be clearly understood, striving
to make an intellectual “prodigy” of his son; he was aiming only to
make him a man in the truest sense, strong physically and morally as
well as mentally. If he believed that the boy’s reasoning powers could
not be properly developed unless he were trained from infancy in the
principles of sound reasoning, he was quite as firmly convinced that
the process of moral education should likewise begin at the earliest
possible moment. To this end, believing as he did in the importance of
early environmental influences and of parental example, he endeavoured
to secure for his son wholly ennobling surroundings.

He even laid down rules to be observed by the maid-of-all-work, a
simple but good-hearted peasant girl, in her dealings with the child.
The whole family life was regulated with a view to “suggesting” to the
little Karl ideas which, sinking into the subconscious region of his
mind, would tend to affect favourably his moral outlook and exercise
a lasting influence on his conduct. In their relations with all who
visited their home—as with each other, with Karl himself, and with the
little serving-maid—both Pastor Witte and his wife were unfailingly
courteous, considerate, and sympathetic. Over and above all this, they
set him a constant example in diligence, of that earnest activity which
is itself a powerful factor in moral discipline.

Important also is it to note that in their daily walks and talks
together, Karl’s father took good care to cultivate in him the gift of
imagination, which means so much to the moral as well as the mental
growth of man. When they went hand in hand across the fields of Lochau,
it was not only in rudiments of science that Witte instructed his
son; he deftly awakened in him an appreciation of the sublimity and
beauty in the workings of Nature. When he narrated to him stories from
history, it was not merely to interest him in the study of history; the
emphasis was on some moral trait exemplified by the particular story.
In familiarising him with the life of Lochau itself, in introducing him
to its shops and cottage-homes, the effort was tactfully made to awaken
and broaden his sympathies. Always it was one of Witte’s chief objects
to keep his son as free as possible from anything that might make for
harshness, narrowness, and intolerance in later years.

Even when Karl was not more than three or four years old, his father
did not deem it too early to attempt by rebuke and admonition to instil
into him the idea that he ought to guard his tongue closely to avoid
hurting the feelings of other people. All children, as is well known,
are inclined to “speak out in meeting,” and frequently their “cute”
comments, which many parents applaud as evidences of keen observational
power, convey a sting to the person commented on. So soon as this
universal trait of childhood appeared in little Karl his father set
about suppressing it, and at the same time sought to utilise it as an
aid in his moral education. The occasion arose following a thoughtless
remark by the child regarding some slight eccentricity in the behaviour
of a certain Herr N., a friend of the family. When father and son were
alone, the former asked:

“Why did you speak of Herr N. as you did?”

“Because what I said was true.”

“I grant that. It was true—it was, indeed, very true. But that is no
reason you should have said it. It was neither good nor kind of you.
Did you not see how disturbed he became? He would say nothing back,
perhaps because of the love he bears for us. But it pained him very
much that a child should say anything so unpleasant to him. If he is
unhappy to-day, the fault is yours.”

Witte tells us that it was not long before Karl acquired the excellent
habit of “putting himself in the other fellow’s place” before uttering
censorious judgments. Similarly, and with equal success, his father
endeavoured to broaden his sympathies so as to include the brute
creation. It happened one day, when Karl was about three years old,
that there were at his home a number of guests, who made much of the
child, naturally to his great delight. While they were talking to
him the family dog came into the room, and Karl, as any child might,
playfully caught it by the tail and drew it to him. As he did so, his
father, putting out his hand, caught Karl himself by his long hair and
pulled it exactly as he was pulling the tail of the dog. Karl turned,
saw his father’s indignant look, blushed crimson, and released the dog.

At once his father released him, and demanded:

“How did you like that?”

“Not at all,” was the embarrassed answer.

“Well, then, do you think the dog liked it? Now go out to the yard.”

“I sent him out,” Witte says, “not only as a punishment, but because I
saw that some of my guests were about to open their lips to take his
part and to blame me—in his presence!—for my treatment of him. But one
of them, speaking suddenly, said:

“‘God bless you, dear friend. If Karl, as I believe he is certain to
do, shall grow to be a good man, he will thank you heartily for this
lesson. I wish to Heaven we thus and always handled our children. Then
they would be sure to learn to treat animals kindly, and by so much the
more to treat their fellow-men kindly!”

And Witte adds, dryly:

“After this, none of those present thought it well to say anything in
criticism of me.”

He had, in fact, taken precisely the course best calculated to impress
on Karl the vitally important principle of kindness to all living
creatures. For he had brought this principle home to him in a way the
child’s mind could readily grasp, and without unnecessary harshness and
“nagging,” which, after all, only arouse those contrariant ideas that
it should be the great aim of education to suppress. And it was thus
that Witte and his wife always acted in the upbringing of their boy
through the critical formative period of early childhood. The moment
any undesirable characteristic made its appearance they hastened
to awaken in him a sense of its extreme undesirability by words and
conduct that appealed forcefully both to his understanding and to his

Particularly did they appeal—and here is a point deserving of special
emphasis—to his sense of filial love. That they were able to make
their appeal unfailingly successful, that the child always found in
it a compelling motive for good behaviour, was due to the fact that
their whole attitude toward him made him realise that he was an object
of devoted, though not over-indulgent, love on their part. Never
rebuked without a sufficient cause, and always more in sorrow than
in anger; given a free hand in all things except those injurious or
detrimental to him; made a companion and a playmate by both parents—he
soon perceived, as any child would, that they had nothing more warmly
at heart than his best interests and his happiness. Loved as he was,
he gave out abundant love in return, and the great ambition of his
childhood became a passionate desire to please his father and mother.

Hence it was that Witte, in carrying out his policy of early
intellectual training, found no more potent spur to incite his boy to
study the subjects given him than the simple statement, “You know, dear
Karl, you must learn all you can, so that you will be able to care for
your mother and me when we are old and feeble.” Hence, too, the child
acquired habits of obedience, self-control, and truthfulness, largely
because of his anxiety not to bring pain to his parents. They, however,
it is to be noted, were careful to discipline him firmly if he did
commit a fault, but always in a way that caused him to appreciate the
reasonableness of the punishment inflicted on him.

Such was the manner of Karl Witte’s education up to the age of nine. By
that time he had learned so much, and was so well trained in the use
of his mental powers, that his father decided to send him to college.
At nine and a half, to the amazement of all Germany, he entered the
University of Leipzig. There, as at the universities of Göttingen,
Giessen, and Heidelberg, where he also prosecuted his studies, his
career was brilliant in the extreme. No subject—and he applied himself
to many subjects—seemed beyond his powers. In 1814, before he had
passed his fourteenth birthday, he was granted the degree of Ph.D. for
a thesis on the “Conchoid of Nicomedes,” a curve of the fourth degree.
Two years later he was made a Doctor of Laws, and appointed to the
teaching staff of the University of Berlin.

Before beginning to teach, however, it was thought best for him to
spend some time in foreign travel, which he was enabled to do, thanks
to the generosity of no less a personage than the King of Prussia, who
had been following his university career with lively interest. Abroad,
therefore, Karl Witte went, chiefly to study law, the teaching of which
he had definitely selected as his profession. But toward the close of
1818 an incident occurred which, while it did not turn him from law,
opened up to him another field of intellectual activity, and the one
in which he ultimately won his greatest fame.

While sojourning in Florence he chanced to make the acquaintance of
a talented woman who, discussing with him the masters of Italian
literature, half in jest and half in earnest warned him not to attempt
to read Dante, whom he could never hope to “understand.” Naturally
this roused his curiosity, and he promptly bought an elaborate edition
of the “Divine Comedy.” Reading this through, he then read what the
commentators had to say about it, and was shocked at what he considered
the inadequacy and positive error of their views. “Some day,” said
he to himself, “I will certainly make an effort to promote a better
appreciation of Dante.” This resolution he carried into effect five
years later by the publication, in Germany, of one of the most
important literary essays of the nineteenth century. It was entitled
“On Misunderstanding Dante,” and concerning it a modern authority on
the study of Dante, Philip H. Wicksteed, declares:

“If the history of the revival of interest in Dante which has
characterised this century shall ever be written, Karl Witte will be
the chief hero of the tale. He was little more than a boy when, in
1823, he entered the lists against existing Dante scholars, all and
sundry, demonstrated that there was not one of them that knew his
trade, and announced his readiness to teach it to them. The amazing
thing is that he fully accomplished his vaunt. His essay exercised
a growing influence in Germany, and then in Europe; and after
five-and-forty years of indefatigable and fruitful toil he was able
to look back upon his youthful attempt as containing the germ of all
his subsequent work on Dante. But now, instead of the audacious young
heretic and revolutionist, he was the acknowledged master of the most
prominent Dante scholars in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, England, and

In fact, from the time of the publication of this preliminary
paper, almost to the time of his death, Dante essays, translations,
commentaries, came from the pen of Karl Witte, to delight an
ever-widening circle of Dante scholars, and incidentally to promote
the study of Italian history. To understand Dante, Witte iterated and
reiterated, it is absolutely necessary to have a knowledge of mediæval
Italy. Especially must one study the religious pre-occupation of the
age, as seen in the rise of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, the
Thomist reconstitution of theology and the contemporary consolidation
of the hierarchy, and the attitude of the period toward the Albigenses
and other heretics. This knowledge one must gain if he would fully
appreciate the true significance of the “Divine Comedy” as the
portrayal of man given over to sin and prevented by his lusts from
recovering the path to virtue, till the Christian religion teaches him,
by the light of understanding, to recognise sin and free himself from
it, and then offers to his transported vision the divine revelation of
the secret and bliss of Heaven.

Yet all the while the propagation of his views on Dante and the
fostering of a love for Dante were but an avocation with Karl Witte.
His vocation, his life-work, was the teaching of the principles of law,
both in the class-room and by the pen. It was in 1821, soon after his
return from Italy, that he was established as lecturer on jurisprudence
at the University of Breslau, being appointed to a full professorship
two years later, and transferred to Halle in 1834. There he passed the
remainder of his long and distinguished life, which did not terminate
until March 6, 1883, when he passed away sincerely mourned as “a devout
Christian and elder of the church, a scholar overwhelmed with honours
and distinctions, a tender husband and father.”

Thus the “forcing” process to which his father had subjected him did
not in the least hurt Karl Witte. It is one which any conscientious
and intelligent parent may make use of for his own children if he so
desires. And, to my way of thinking, children reared in this way will
have a far better chance for success and happiness in after years than
would otherwise be theirs.



From what has already been said, it is evident that there are at
least three fundamental principles to be observed by all parents who
would give their children a good start in life. Care must be taken
to set the little ones a really good parental example; they must be
surrounded from the dawn of consciousness by a favourable environment;
and the effort should be made by direct instruction to develop in them
habits of right thinking and acting before wrong habits have time to
get formed. To these three principles a fourth must now be added: the
exercise of constant vigilance to detect and correct any physical
disabilities, no matter how trivial they may seem to be.

As was noted when discussing the case of the boy who “goes wrong,”
even comparatively slight physical defects, by causing neural stress,
may contribute directly to the making of the juvenile delinquent. So,
too, mental development may be hampered by unfavourable conditions
of bodily health. This, of course, has long been recognised in a
general way. But in essential details it still is a fact far too
little appreciated by the majority of parents. Nay, it is ignored or
misunderstood even by some scientific students of the nature of man, as
is shown, for example, by the varying views held to-day regarding that
widespread human frailty, laziness.

Only a short time ago, looking through some scientific works bearing
on a complicated educational problem, I was greatly struck by two
pronouncements concerning laziness. On the one hand I found an eminent
physiologist declaring unreservedly, “The love of work and activity is
an acquired characteristic rather than a natural one; for the human
tendency is toward the line of least effort.” And opposed to this
another authority asserted with equal emphasis, “There never was a
child born into this world who was born into it lazy.”

To reconcile these statements is a manifest impossibility. Yet it is
certain that each of them finds in facts of everyday observation a
strong body of evidence to support it. The average child of tender
years, as every parent knows, is supremely active and energetic. He
is always in motion, always busying himself about something, his
mind alert and inquiring, his hands ceaselessly occupied in testing,
exploring, putting together, and taking to pieces. Left to himself,
he often will display an amazing tenacity of purpose and vigour of

Of one child, less than a year old, a close observer has recorded, “He
would over and over again seem to be trying to solve the problem of the
hinge to his nursery door, patiently and with riveted attention opening
and shutting the door. Day after day saw him at his self-appointed
task.” Another, fourteen months old, while playing with a tin can,
was seen to put the cover on and off “not less than seventy-nine
times without stopping for a moment.” The incessant questioning with
which children bombard their parents is another impressive indication
of their exuberant, irrepressible activity and energy. But, for that
matter, the whole life of the average child goes to corroborate the
dictum that the people of this world come into it free from the taint
of laziness.

When, however, we look at the same child grown to manhood, or even a
few years removed from early youth, more often than not his behaviour
seems to bear out the contrary view that man is naturally lazy and
acquires love of work, if at all, only under strong compulsion. “To get
results from my boys, to induce them to apply themselves to their books
and their studies,” many a despairing school-teacher has lamented, “I
have to be forever watching and driving them.” In college, office,
factory, workshop, and store, one hears the same complaint. There is
perpetual waste of time, dawdling, loitering, gossiping—a seeming
passion for the ways of slothful ease and aversion from sustained
endeavour. To a large extent, too, the history even of those who have
won distinction as leaders of thought and action seemingly justifies
the doctrine that mankind is naturally prone to idleness rather than
to productive activity, and that any tendency in the latter direction
is invariably a characteristic acquired in the course of individual

Thus Charles Darwin, world-famous for his splendid contributions to the
advance of science, was so lazy in boyhood that his father predicted
he would turn out a ne’er-do-well and a disgrace to the family. His
great contemporary, Sir Charles Lyell, similarly had as a boy a
profound dislike for work of any sort. Heinrich Heine, on his own
confession, idled away his time in school, and was “horribly bored”
by the instruction given him at Göttingen. According to an American
psychologist, Edgar James Swift, who has made an extensive study of
the boyhood of great men, Wordsworth up to the age of seventeen was so
lazy as to be “wholly incapable of continued application to prescribed
work.” Of Patrick Henry it is recorded by an early biographer that
in boyhood “he was too idle to gain any solid advantage from the
opportunities which were thrown in his way.” And, after his schooling
was done, indolence caused him to fail dismally in several business
ventures before he took up the study of law.

When James Russell Lowell was a boy his relatives were greatly
distressed by his laziness, and he was suspended by the authorities
of Harvard University “on account of continual neglect of his college
duties.” A boyhood friend who had unusual facilities for observation
is credited with having repeatedly declared that “there never was so
idle a dog as young Humphry,” afterward Sir Humphry Davy of scientific
renown. “My master,” Samuel Johnson once remarked, in speaking of his
school-boy days, “whipped me very hard. Without that, sir, I should
have done nothing.” Balzac, who wrote so many novels, yet did not let
one appear until it had undergone repeated revision, confessed that not
only in boyhood but throughout the years of his literary labours he
was tormented by longings for an existence of pleasure-seeking leisure.
Through the lips of his famous character, Raphael de Valentin, here is
what he says of himself:

“Since the age of reason until the day when I had finished my task,
I observed, read, wrote without ceasing, and my life was like a long
imposition; an effeminate lover of oriental indolence, enamoured of
my dreams, sensual, I have always worked, refusing to allow myself
to taste the joys of Parisian life; gourmand, I have been temperate;
enjoying movement and sea voyages, longing to visit other countries,
still finding pleasure, like a child, in making ducks and drakes on the
water, I remained constantly seated, pen in hand.”

Taking into consideration facts like these, the evidence would
certainly seem to be in favour of the view that, in yielding to a
desire for idleness, men are, after all, only following the dictate of
Nature. But, recalling the intense activity, the abounding energy of
childhood, recalling also the demonstrable truth that in most cases
even the laziest of school-boys has had a past characterised by the
reverse of laziness, just as he may have, like Darwin, Lyell, and the
rest, a future of marvellous accomplishment, the mind must once more
incline to the opposite belief.

It may be, and, as will be shown, it undoubtedly is, somewhat of an
exaggeration to say that there never has been a congenitally lazy
man. But to say this is far nearer the truth than to regard laziness
as something rooted in the constitution of our being, and love of
activity as merely an acquired characteristic. On the contrary, the
sharp contrast between the activity and energy of the average child
and the idling propensities of the average man, points unmistakably to
the development of laziness as a parasitic growth interfering with the
normal processes and tendencies of nature. Laziness, in other words,
must be looked upon as essentially a pathological condition.

Instead, therefore, of condemning the lazy man, as the moralists
would, it is the part of wisdom to view him as a victim of disease and
as standing in need of careful treatment. Nature intended him to be
vigorous, forceful, a being of achievement; circumstances have made
him listless, inert, responsive but in feeble measure to the spur of
honour, ambition, pride, love, or necessity. Sometimes, to be sure,
he is contented with his laziness, and would almost resent an attempt
to rescue him from it; more frequently he writhes in secret over a
defect which he realises exposes him to the contempt and ridicule of
his more virile fellow-men, and renders his life an empty, profitless
existence. As one unhappy victim confessed in a moment of extraordinary

“I begin, but do not finish. When I conceive a work, a feverish
impatience seizes me to reach the desired aim; I should like to attain
it at once. But to accomplish something, patient and continuous efforts
are required. I never accomplish anything.... One dull day, in one
of the suburbs, I saw a large piece of waste land, more covered
with fragments of earthenware than with grass. Three or four houses
had been commenced, charming little dwellings of red brick and white
stone; the walls had been there for two or three years, but the floors
and ceilings were lacking, the roofs had never been tiled, and one
could see across the ever wide-open windows. My mind is in a similar
condition—a rough plain with several pretty houses, the roofs of which
will never be finished.” (_The Fortnightly Review_, vol. lxix, p. 763.)

What, then, is the cause of laziness? How should one proceed in the
attempt to cure it? Still more important in this complex and severely
competitive age, with its incessant demand for vigour and effectiveness
of performance, what are the preventive measures that may be taken in
the interest alike of the individual and society?

Only a few years ago it would have been impossible to answer these
questions in any but the vaguest and most general way. It might
have been said—indeed, it was said—that laziness is essentially an
infirmity of the will. No statement could be more correct, but also
none could be more futile in the absence of any clear appreciation of
the factors determining the weakness or strength of one’s will-power.
For, as somebody has truly said, the will is not an isolated entity,
absolutely independent of, and superior to, the organism through
which it operates. Having a controlling force, it still is, to a
large extent, itself controlled by material as well as by psychical
circumstances, by bodily states and by the impressions the mind absorbs
from the environment. Consequently the solution of the problem of
laziness depends at bottom on the ascertainment of the factors hurtful
to efficient willing.

This task quite recently has been essayed with remarkable success, and,
especially by a little group of French investigators, with immediate
reference to the problem presented by the lazy man. Laziness in all
its phases has been studied with the resourcefulness and painstaking
precision characteristic of the new school of medical psychologists,
to whom we are already so heavily indebted for a better understanding
of the mind of man both in its normal and its abnormal aspects. And
with respect to laziness they have likewise made some interesting and
important discoveries.

What, in particular, they have found is that it is usually associated
with a peculiarly debilitated condition of the nervous system—an
“asthenia” marked by a slow heart-beat, low arterial pressure, and
poor circulation. The consequence of this is, to quote Théodule
Ribot, one of the leaders in the scientific study of laziness, that
“the brain shows not so much an indisposition as a real incapacity
for concentrating attention, and soon, owing to the fact that its
nourishment is at the vanishing-point, becomes exhausted.” A whole
series of idlers, tested scientifically, were shown to be suffering
from this asthenic condition, which led them instinctively to husband
their feeble resources by the simple expedient of exerting themselves
no more than was absolutely necessary. Yet not a few of them were to
all appearance healthy enough, and, until the medical examination had
been made, it was difficult to credit their well-grounded complaint
that they really felt “too tired to work,” and at best could do so
“only by fits and starts.”

This is not to say that they were all of them “born tired.”
Congenitally weak many of them may have been; but the more the
investigators familiarised themselves with the asthenia of the lazy,
the more they found reason for the belief that, as a rule, it was an
acquired and functional rather than an inborn and organic weakness,
although often initiated by local troubles organic in nature. Thus,
studying laziness in children attending school, it was discovered
that quite frequently their inertia is connected with the presence of
adenoid, or abnormal tissue, growths, in the cavity back of the nose.
These growths, by making it extremely hard for the child to breathe
properly, deplete his vitality so that he remains undersized and is
quickly fatigued by intellectual or muscular effort. The natural
consequence is that he becomes more or less of an idler, bringing upon
himself the reproaches and punishments of parents and teachers. What
he actually needs is not scoldings or whippings but a slight surgical

Often a surprising development of both mental and physical power
follows the removal of the adenoids. In one case, reported by Professor
Swift, a girl of fourteen grew three inches taller within six months
after an operation for adenoids, and at the same time showed an
improvement in her school-work that contrasted strikingly with the
apathy and dulness that had preceded it. Another, three years younger,
grew six inches in about four months, and from being a sad idler was
transformed into an unexpectedly attractive and bright pupil. A boy
of twelve, backward both mentally and physically, likewise lost his
dulness and laziness within an astonishingly short time after the
impediment to his breathing had been removed.

Dental defects also contribute materially to the development of
laziness and mental retardation. This has been repeatedly demonstrated
in individual cases, and at least one psychologist—Professor J. E.
Wallace Wallin, of St. Louis—has demonstrated it in the case of a group
of children.

These children, twenty-seven in number, were pupils in a Cleveland
public school; they were afflicted with tooth-decay to a varying
extent, and they were mentally backward, being from one to four years
retarded in their school-work. At Professor Wallin’s direction their
teeth and gums were treated, they were taught to use a tooth-brush
properly, and to chew their food thoroughly. Before the dental
treatment began they were twice given five psychological tests, to
ascertain their memory-power, attention-power, etc.; the same tests
were twice given to them while the treatment was under way; and,
six months after its termination, or just before the close of the
school-year 1910-1911, the tests were again given twice.

Comparing the results of the different testings, a progressive and
remarkable improvement was found. In ability to memorise, the average
improvement for the group was 19 per cent.; in attention power, 60 per
cent.; in adding, 35 per cent.; in ability to associate words having an
opposite meaning, 129 per cent.; and in general association ability, 42
per cent. More than this, and testifying incontrovertibly to the direct
influence of the dental treatment in promoting vigour of thought, only
one of the children failed of promotion, six completed thirty-eight
weeks of school-work in twenty-four weeks, and one boy did two years’
work in one year. Yet all of these children, remember, had formerly
been quite unable to keep up with the work of their grades.

How explain this great improvement? Only on the theory that, by
repairing their teeth and drilling them in the rudiments of mouth
hygiene, a stop had been put to a disease-process which involved both
nervous strain and—through the swallowing of the toxic products of
tooth-decay—a poisoning of the supply of blood to the brain, with
consequent lessening of the brain’s ability to function properly.

Eye trouble, particularly in the way of hypermetropia, or
far-sightedness, is another frequent cause of laziness in
school-children, and the correction of the defective vision often is
followed by a marked access of vigour and alertness. In such cases,
however, the laziness is usually manifest only in the school-room, the
child being active enough at play, when no strain is put on the eyes
comparable with that occasioned by reading.

To cite a single instance, a little boy of ten was reported as being
so inattentive at school and so uninterested in his work as to yawn
and become sleepy when required to read. As no amount of scolding
sufficed to turn him from his idle ways, and as he began to complain
of headaches and nervousness, he was finally taken to an oculist. To
the surprise of his parents, who had always believed his vision normal,
he was found to be suffering from latent hypermetropia; and, on being
provided with the proper eye-glasses, he soon demonstrated, by the
rapidity with which he improved in his studies and the interest he now
showed in them, that his laziness had been determined by the condition
of his eyesight.

In fact, any bodily defect that is of such a character as to impose an
excessive strain on the nervous system tends to produce an asthenic
condition, with accompanying apathy and indolence. And, even when the
local trouble is only temporary, its disappearance is not necessarily
followed, as it was in the instances just narrated, by a return to
energetic, effective activity. For, in the meantime, the idler may have
acquired an unconscious—or, to be more precise, a subconscious—belief
that sustained exertion is and always must be beyond his powers. Thus
a vicious circle is established, the belief in his incapacity causing
him to act in such a way as to intensify the asthenic state, and the
resultant increased feeling of debility operating, in its turn, to
confirm and strengthen his erroneous belief. In other words, he is now
suffering chiefly from a “fixed idea,” and his condition is that of any
psycho-neurotic patient.

On this point all who have made a scientific study of laziness are in
substantial agreement. We must, flatly affirms the pioneer investigator
Doctor Maurice de Fleury, “take the indolent for what they nearly
always are—neuropaths; and neurosis for what it always is—bad habits of
cerebral activity.” The longer a man has been an idler, the more deeply
rooted, of course, will be his subconscious conviction that exertion is
impossible to him; but, according to de Fleury and other investigators,
once this conviction is broken down, he will find that he can work, and
work to good purpose.

The effecting of a cure, needless to say, is not always easy.
It requires co-operation on the part of the patient, and on the
physician’s part intelligent and sympathetic use of both physiological
and psychological methods of treatment. Hygienic measures must be
adopted to tone up the nervous system, to improve the circulation, the
digestion, the nutrition—to develop, as far as possible, a general
feeling of well-being. The idler must gradually be trained to occupy
himself usefully—not, perhaps, for many hours at a time, but for
regular stated periods, however short. And to this end, the effort has
to be made, from the outset, to awaken in him an absorbing interest
in the attainment of some one specific aim in life, thereby replacing
his baneful fixed idea of incapacity for work with the opposed and
beneficial obsession of something that he must and can accomplish.

Here we come to what is by far the most important factor in the cure of
laziness—the dynamic, regenerative power of some special interest.[2]
Even your idler, enfeebled by positive organic weakness, may rise
superior to himself and achieve marvels, if only his enthusiasm be
sufficiently aroused to a definite end. It was thus, for example, with
Charles Darwin.

When he was a boy, as was said above, Darwin was colossally lazy.
He neglected his books, and spent his days roaming through the
fields, gun in hand. “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and
rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your
family,” was his father’s bitter reproof. As he grew older, his
propensity for idling seemed only to increase. In spite of this,
hoping against hope that he would yet settle down to serious things,
his father entered him at the University of Glasgow, with the idea
of fitting him for the practice of medicine. “It is no use,” the boy
frankly avowed, after a few months at Glasgow; “I hate the work here,
and I cannot possibly be a physician.” So earnest were his protests
that he was transferred to Cambridge University, on the understanding
that he would study to be a clergyman.

At Cambridge, as good fortune would have it, he entered the natural
history class of an eminent and enlightened scholar, Professor
Henslow, who sent him into the woods and fields to make collections
of plants and insects. Free again to roam under the clear blue skies,
but this time with a lofty purpose set before his mind, a passion for
achievement took possession of him. The boy whom other teachers had
found dull and lazy proved himself, under Professor Henslow’s inspiring
guidance, a marvel of industry and mental vigour. There was no longer
any thought of the “last resort” plan of putting him into the ministry.
He would, he told his delighted father, become a naturalist, and he
would work hard.

And he did work hard. Though his health was permanently impaired by
the hardships of a voyage of exploration, so that “for nearly forty
years he never knew one day of the health of ordinary men,” and “every
day succumbed to the exhaustion brought on by the slightest effort,”
he nevertheless found a way to work with an effectiveness few men of
normal health have equalled.

The establishment of regular hours for work—thus gradually forming a
work habit which itself constituted a sort of fixed idea contrary to
the idea of indolence, and the reinforcement of this work habit by
enthusiastic pre-occupation with an inspiring theme—such was the secret
of Charles Darwin’s mastery over ills more serious than those which
have made countless men lifelong idlers. What he did is precisely what
the medical psychologist of to-day prescribes as fundamental in the
successful treatment of laziness. Listen to the wise Doctor de Fleury:

“Let it be known that it is often possible in the practice of life
to replace an absurd idea by a good fixed one, and to form excellent
habits in the place of deplorable manias. It is precisely in doing this
that the psychological treatment of indolence consists; it is this
patient work that the doctor of misguided minds ought to undertake.

“To induce [a lazy person] to become possessed of a good fixed idea,
is not a superhuman work for those who know how to set about it. In
fact, the means to be employed remind one of a woman who wishes to make
herself loved.

“Let us consider for a moment the means dictated to her by her
infallible instinct concerning love affairs. First of all, she dresses
herself with care, so as to show off her charms to the full; then she
finds opportunities for constantly being seen, increases the number of
meetings; her presence must become habitual—in fact, necessary; he must
suffer when she is no longer near. She kindles the flame of jealousy,
to make it understood that she is an incomparable treasure, and that
another will grasp her if he does not stretch forth his arm in time.

“Imitate her, you who wish to learn the marvellous art of reclaiming
the indolent. Help your patient to choose a work really suited to his
abilities; embellish the idea [of it] with all the hope that it is
possible to raise—self-content, worldly importance, glory, and fortune
to be conquered. Talk about it without ceasing; like a Wagnerian
motive, repeat it again and again, and soon you will find that the
brain seizes the idea, and can no longer exist without this good
obsession. Finally, when the idea becomes cherished, when the brain
loves it as one loves and desires a woman, make it to be understood
that it belongs to all, that it is in the air, that another, braver and
more manly, may step in and carry it off....

“Naturally, it is necessary to vary one’s advice according to the
character and profession of each patient. I have had the opportunity of
treating—for nervous affections and at the same time for indolence—men
occupying the most varied social positions: students, composers,
military officers, men of letters, lawyers, financiers, politicians,
poor workmen, and idle, rich people. For each one of them it was
necessary to choose a ruling idea, suited to his occupation and in
proportion to his strength.”

Treatment by suggestion, then, plus careful preliminary physiological,
and if necessary medical, treatment to ameliorate the asthenic
condition common to idlers—that is the proper course to pursue in
dealing with all cases of laziness. And it is also the course to pursue
in the more important matter of prevention, a matter which, as the case
of Charles Darwin strikingly suggests, rests chiefly with fathers and

Everybody knows that, as things now stand, young men and women choose
vocations in a haphazard way, and too often choose vocations for which
Nature has not intended them. What it is equally important to recognise
is that even when they do happen to hit on a vocation fitted to them,
it is only the exceptional man or woman who works anywhere near the
limit of his or her capacity. The great majority fritter away much of
their time, and may justly be accused of idleness.

The surprising thing about this is that, as has already been pointed
out, it is seldom one sees anything like real laziness in early
childhood. What causes the sharp contrast between the activity of
childhood and the frequent apathy of later years? Unfavourable physical
conditions cannot be held wholly responsible, especially when it is
observed that there always are some people who, like Darwin, contrive
to work effectively despite serious physical shortcomings. One must
look a little deeper, and, looking deeper, one finds, as medical
psychologists have lately found, that the trouble lies mostly with the
parental attitude in childhood and youth.

Too many parents discourage the ceaseless questioning of their
children, and thereby deaden that great stimulus to effort—curiosity.
Too many fail to direct their children’s thoughts into really worth
while channels. Too many daily give them an example, not of industrious
activity, but of half-hearted endeavour. All this goes to create
in the child habits inimical to real work; and in proportion as he
is afterward, by parent or teacher, forced to work, he finds work
burdensome and exhausting. Under this condition, whether or no he is
suffering from adenoids, eye trouble, or any other physical cause of
nervous strain, he is likely to develop the asthenic state of the true
idler, with the result of soon or late feeling that sustained effort is
beyond him.

On parents, therefore, ultimately rests the blame for the prevalence of
laziness; and for its prevention we must likewise look to parents. As
a friend, a prominent American medical psychologist, once said to me

“There would be far fewer lazy men in the world if parents only
appreciated the possibility of so influencing their children in early
youth as to confirm them in the tendencies to energetic action and
fruitful thinking which they usually display in the first years of
life. Instead of neglecting or repressing these tendencies, as so
many parents unfortunately do, they should encourage their children
in the active use of their minds, should train them in habits of
systematic and effective thinking, and especially, by observing just
what aptitudes they most clearly show, should take pains to cultivate
in them an abiding interest in the subjects for which they seem to have
greatest talent.

“If they would only do this, and would at the same time keep a close
watch for any symptoms of nerve-strain due to organic or functional
disturbances, correcting these at the earliest possible moment, we
should hear much less than we do now of the indolence of the average
child of school age; and we certainly should be taking a great forward
step in the lessening of laziness among grown men and women. For,
obviously, a child habituated from infancy to the fullest and freest
use of his natural powers, will be likely to continue thinking and
acting energetically in later life. In this, as in everything else, the
law is the same—as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”



Picture to yourself a familiar scene—the interior of a theatre crowded
with people. On the stage the persons of the play move to and fro,
speaking their lines. Presently a slight change is made in the current
of the dialogue, and, presto! the spectators who have been so quietly
listening and watching become weirdly agitated. Their features are
distorted in strange grimaces, they throw back their heads, and give
utterance to abrupt, explosive, unmelodious noises. Even their bodies
take part in the amazing commotion.

Something “funny” has just been said by one of the actors, and those
who have heard it are responding by an outburst of “laughter.”

Recall likewise the equally familiar picture of a huge circus tent with
its bewildering array of equipment for the performance of feats of
strength and daring, surrounded by tier upon tier of seats filled with
expectant holiday-makers. The entertainment is about to begin; from an
entrance come the blaring strains of a brass band, and a long, gaily
bedecked procession circles slowly before the gaping throng. At the
end of the procession are half a dozen men of uncouth gait and bizarre
appearance, their faces whitened and spotted, queer conical caps on
their heads, and wearing enormous, shapeless garments as white and
spotted as their faces.

These men say nothing—they simply go through all sorts of foolish
antics. But at the mere sight of them the same uproar of discordant
sounds fills the air, the spectators, like those of the theatre and
with even greater vehemence, uniting in a very bedlam of guffaws.

Pass, finally, to the open street, alive with men and women hurrying
to their work. Some one has carelessly dropped on the sidewalk the
slippery skin of a fruit. The first man to step on it feels his legs
give way beneath him, strives frantically to keep his balance, waves
his arms about, and ends by plumping to the ground with a heavy thud.
At once he is beset by the “smiles” and “chuckles” of those who have
witnessed his fall; and, hurt and annoyed, he scrambles to his feet,
gives himself a hasty brush, and disappears as rapidly as possible.

Now, just what is this singular phenomenon of laughter, so readily
induced and from such a variety of causes? What is there in the words
of an actor, the antics of a clown, or the misfortune of another
person, to provoke, under the circumstances mentioned, the peculiar
reaction of bodily and facial contortion and inarticulate vocal
utterance that, regarded dispassionately, seems almost repulsive?
What useful purpose can be served by such behaviour, such an obvious
departure from the well-ordered ways of the reasoning life? In a word,
why do we laugh?

It is a question far more easily asked than answered, as every one has
discovered who has really pondered it. The answer that immediately
comes to mind—“We laugh because we are amused”—not only is hopelessly
inadequate, but to a large extent is incorrect. It can readily be shown
that people sometimes laugh in situations where their mental state is
anything but that of amusement. In one well-authenticated instance a
frontiersman, on returning to his home and finding it in ruins, with
his wife and children mutilated corpses, began to laugh and continued
laughing until he died from the rupture of a blood-vessel. In another
case, cited among the responses to a questionnaire on laughter issued
by that well-known American psychologist, President G. Stanley Hall of
Clark University, a number of young people from nineteen to twenty-four
years of age were sitting together when the death of a friend was
announced. “They looked at each other for a second, and then all began
to laugh, and it was some time before they could become serious.”

A young woman, replying to the same questionnaire, confessed that she
often laughed when hearing people speak of the death of their friends,
“not because it is funny or pleases her, but because she cannot help
it.” Another young woman reported that on hearing of the death of a
former school-mate she felt deeply grieved, yet “laughed as heartily
as she had ever done in her life,” and, in spite of every effort to
control herself, “had to break out into a laugh repeatedly.” A third
“must always laugh when she hears of a death, and has had to leave the
church at a funeral because she must giggle.”

Even the shock of a severe physical pain is known to provoke
occasionally, not tears but laughter. “A young man,” says C. G. Lange,
“whom I was treating with a powerful caustic for an ulceration of the
tongue, invariably, at the moment when the pain was at its highest, was
attacked by a violent outburst of laughter.”

One has only to think also of the laughter caused by tickling to
realise that it is not always true to say that we laugh because we
are amused. And when it is true, this answer, instead of solving the
problem of laughter, merely raises it in another form, since it then
becomes necessary to explain why we are amused by the sayings and
happenings at which we laugh. Most students of laughter have indeed
felt that the important thing to do is to determine the nature of
the laughable, a task itself of considerable difficulty and leading
to the most diverse conclusions in the numerous explanatory formulas
which have been advanced from time to time, but which, when closely
scrutinised, are chiefly noteworthy for their incompleteness.

To mention only a few of the theories of the comic finding place
in psychological works, it is affirmed by some authorities that
the essence of the laughable is that it induces a sudden sense of
superiority in the person moved to laughter. This is the “sudden glory”
theory of Thomas Hobbes, and in support of it is cited more especially
the familiar fact that nobody likes to be laughed at. It also finds
support in the undoubted feeling of contempt which so often accompanies
the laughter provoked by the buffooneries of a mountebank, the dialogue
and action of a farce comedy, and the so-called “comic pictures” now
to be found in such lamentable profusion in many of our newspapers. In
some slight degree, too, there may be a “sudden glory” in the laughter
at the awkwardness and groundless fears of a child, or at his naïve
remarks, and in the laughter occasioned by mischances to other people.
But certainly there is much that is laughable—notably the kindly banter
between friends—that cannot reasonably be said to engender any feeling
of superiority. And, more than this, we are all of us, every day of our
lives, witnessing things that do suddenly arouse in us a lively feeling
of superiority, but without moving us to laughter—moving us, rather, to
pity and perhaps tears.

Even as amended by the psychologist Bain, the “sudden glory” theory
remains inadequate. Bain defines “the occasion of the ludicrous” as
“the degradation of some person or interest possessing dignity in
circumstances that excite no other strong emotion.” This is a decided
improvement, because it clearly recognises that the laughable must be
devoid of elements awakening counteracting emotions. But it is open
to the criticism that laughter is frequently excited by objects and
occurrences in which, unless the imagination be severely wrenched, it
is impossible to assume that ideas of degradation are dominant or even

When, for example, we laugh at the spectacle of a child half hidden
in his grandfather’s hat, what do we think of as degraded? Is it the
child, the hat, or the absent grandfather? In such an instance can the
idea of degradation properly be said to enter at all? So, likewise, it
is difficult to conceive the presence of any idea either of degradation
or superiority in the ringing laughter of a child at his puppy’s
gambols or at the frisking of his kitten. And how explain on such a
principle the laughter at non-malicious witticism?

Appreciating the inapplicability of the Hobbesian doctrine in any form
as explanatory of all sources of laughter, other investigators have
emphasised the principle of contrast and incongruity, but to scarcely
more satisfactory effect. “Laughter,” says Herbert Spencer, “naturally
results only when consciousness is unawares transferred from great
things to small—when there is what we call a descending incongruity.”
The manifest insufficiency of this theory is avoided in the more
extensive one, to which Darwin inclines, defining the laughable as that
which is queer, unusual, disagreeing with or contrary to our mental
habits or the normal order of affairs. Assuredly there is almost always
an element of queerness in the things at which we laugh. Yet it is
also certain that the queer does not always make us laugh. As Camille
Mélinaud has pointed out:

“There are things contrary to the normal order that have nothing
ludicrous about them; and if the view were true that queerness is the
laughable element, those things that are strangest and most unusual
should be the ones most certain by their very nature to excite
laughter. But we do not laugh at the dancing horses, the jumping pigs,
the musicians playing on bottles, of the circus, all of which are most
contradictory of what we are accustomed to. If we laugh at the circus,
it is at the accessory jokes and incidents in the detail. A conjurer’s
tricks, seemingly contradictory as they are of all our experiences and
notions, do not make us laugh. We laugh at his jokes and his funny
ways of proceeding, but we wonder at his tricks.” (_Popular Science
Monthly_, vol. liii, p. 398.)

Mélinaud’s own view, oddly enough, is about as unconvincing as any that
has ever been formulated, for, while laying stress on the principle
of incongruity, he insists that laughter comes only when the laugher,
“by a rapid process of thought,” submits the object of his mirth to a
reflective analysis and arrives at the laugh-provoking conclusion that
what seems absurd is really quite natural from the point of view of
the person or thing laughed at. Then, and not until then, do we feel
amused. On such a theory one might well wonder that children ever find
it possible to laugh, and that laughter is so prevalent among adults
who are not accustomed to any very high degree of logical thinking.

Altogether different from any of the foregoing is the more recent
theory of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, as presented in a
special treatise on laughter, of which an excellent translation by C.
Brereton and F. Rothwell has lately been published in this country.
Bergson recognises, as not every investigator has done, the essentially
spontaneous character of laughter, and he insists with Darwin on
postulating queerness as an indispensable element in the laughable.
But, as he sees it, the queerness must be of a specific sort in order
to excite laughter—must consist, in fine, in an automatic inelasticity,
whether of form, action, or thought, which is in sharp contrast to
the wonted mobility of life. It is our immediate recognition of this
automatism and rigidity that moves us to laughter.

When, Bergson affirms, we laugh at a man who stumbles and falls in the
street, our laughter is caused, not by his sudden change of attitude,
but by the involuntary element in this change. “Perhaps there was
a stone on the road. He should have altered his pace or avoided
the obstacle. Instead of that, through lack of elasticity, through
absent-mindedness and a kind of physical obstinacy—as a result, in
fact, of rigidity or of momentum—the muscles continued to perform the
same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something
else. That is the reason of the man’s fall, and also of the people’s
laughter.” So with our laughter at the appearance and horseplay of a
clown. We laugh at his painted face because we immediately recognise in
it “something mechanical encrusted upon the living,” and we laugh at
his antics because of their automatic, machine-like character.

In fact, “We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being
a thing. We laugh at Sancho Panza tumbled into a bed-quilt and tossed
into the air like a foot-ball. We laugh at Baron Munchausen turned
into a cannon-ball and travelling through space.” In laughter caused
by puns, jests, and witticisms, the same principles of automatism and
inelasticity obtain, though of course in much subtler form. Analyse
closely all varieties of the comic and you always get back to the
basic idea of “something mechanical in something living.” Or, Bergson
concludes, “The comic is that side of a person which reveals his
likeness to a thing, that aspect of human events which, through its
peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure mechanism, of
automatism, of movement without life.”

Really to appreciate both the plausibility and the shortcomings of
this novel theory of the laughable one must read Professor Bergson’s
book. It is there elaborated so ingeniously that one finds it
difficult to give instances of the comic to which it cannot in some
way be applied. Even the laughter of children at the bobbing up of
their jack-in-the-box, the fall of their house of cards, or the
tail-chasing gyrations of their kitten, may conceivably be explained
on the assumption that what the children laugh at is the automatic
character of the bobbing, the falling, and the whirling. On the other
hand, these very examples irresistibly suggest that the Bergsonian
explanation is, after all, rather strained and far-fetched, and that,
in common with its less thorough-going predecessors, it overlooks
the elusive something fundamental to the laughable. This impression
is deepened when we recall the extent to which automatism, rigidity,
inelasticity, prevail in the affairs of men without exciting so much as
a smile.

“The attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body,” says
Professor Bergson, in stating one of his many subsidiary laws of the
comic, “are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us
of a mere machine.” Why, then, do we not laugh when we observe the
machine-like precision with which a company of soldiers march on parade
or execute the evolutions of drill? Surely one could not find a better
example of “something mechanical in something living.” And, again,
“any arrangement of acts and events is comic which gives us, in a
single combination, the illusion of life and the distinct impression
of a mechanical arrangement.” The bobbing of the jack-in-the-box meets
this formula, and we do laugh at the jack-in-the-box. But it is met
equally well by the strangely lifelike movements of such devices as the
automatic chess-player and the type-setting machine, yet these do not
ordinarily elicit any appreciable manifestation of mirth.

It is, however, when we turn to Bergson’s deductions from his theory
of the comic that we are most strongly impelled to question its
soundness. Emphasizing as he does the element of automatism in the
laughable, he logically enough infers that the function of laughter
is to serve as a social corrective. “The rigid, the ready-made, the
mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing, and the
living, absent-mindedness in contrast with attention, in a word,
automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that
laughter singles out and would fain correct.” We laugh, that is to say,
only at imperfections in our fellow-men, or at things which remind
us of imperfections, and the reason we laugh is that, consciously
or unconsciously, we wish to call attention to them by way of, in
Bergson’s own words, “a kind of social ragging.”

Stated thus baldly, the underlying defect of such an explanation of
laughter becomes plainly apparent.[3] What has happened is that its
author has read into the phenomenon of laughter a meaning applicable
only under special circumstances. If it were true that we laugh
only at what is imperfect and therefore ugly, however attenuated in
ugliness, it would be impossible to understand the well-nigh universal
eagerness for laughter; an eagerness which has led mankind to reward
lavishly, even extravagantly, those who make it their business to
provide occasions for laughter—the writers of farces and comedies,
the fun-making actors and clowns, the producers of “comic pictures.”
The egregious falsity of this “deformity” theory, as it may fairly be
called, becomes still more manifest when we endeavour to apply it to
account for the laughter of childhood, the period of life when laughter
is most free and exuberant, but precisely when it is incredible to
assume that it is motivated by any corrective impulse, conscious or

To tell the truth, the attempt to reach a wholly satisfactory solution
of the problem of laughter by striving to define the characteristics
of the laughable seems foredoomed to failure. For, after all, the
laughable must always remain a more or less uncertain quantity, if
only for the reason that, as shown by facts of everyday observation,
what makes one person laugh may not be in the least laugh-provoking to
another. Yet everybody, or almost everybody, does laugh to some extent,
and therefore the proper point of approach would rather seem to be
through a study of the act of laughter itself and of its consequences
with regard, not to the person or thing or phrase laughed at, but to
the person doing the laughing.

Attacking the problem from this altogether different angle, one is
soon in a position to discern several facts of real helpfulness in
an explanatory way. By no means the least important is the extreme
exuberance of laughter in childhood, to which reference has just been
made. Once the child has begun to laugh—usually during the fourth or
fifth month after birth, although occasional outbursts of a shadowy
sort of laughter have been observed before the fourth month—it laughs
with a truly amazing spontaneity and frequency. There seems to be
nothing which may not become an object of laughter to a child, and,
more than this, in direct contradiction to all theories postulating a
reflective element at the bottom of every laugh, as often as not the
laughter of childhood is conspicuously devoid of such an element.

For example, to cite a few observations from the record of a lady,
Miss Milicent Shinn, whose painstaking study of the infancy of her
niece Ruth is among the most stimulating of contributions to the modern
science of child psychology, it appears that toward the end of the
fifth month this little girl “habitually laughed with glee when any
one smiled or spoke to her.” And when, two months later, she was taken
into the open and allowed to roll about on a quilt, “the wooing of
the passing freshness, the play of sun and shadow, the large stir of
life in moving and sounding things, all this possessed her and made
her ‘laugh and ejaculate with pleasure.’” Also, like almost every
child of her age, little Ruth would be moved to hilarious mirth by
being given a ride on somebody’s foot, or tossed and jumped about in
one’s arms. Laughter, again, followed the successful accomplishment of
any intellectual or muscular feat, such as pointing out pictures she
had been asked to identify, climbing stairs, or deliberately letting
herself fall “so as to come down sitting with a thud.”

The same tendency to excessive, even seemingly causeless laughter in
the opening years of life has been noted by other close students of
the emotions and their expression. Some have attempted, with the usual
futile results, to explain it by an analysis of the things at which
the child laughs. Others, more cautiously and more accurately, content
themselves with describing it as a means whereby Nature provides a
salutary outlet for surplus nervous energy.

It is undoubtedly this. Ask any child who has learned to talk—or,
better, ask a grown person who has retained to a marked degree the
faculty for hearty laughter—and the chances are you will be told that,
while in any given instance the laugher may be far from clear as to
why he has laughed, he does know that the involuntary movements of the
laughter to which he yielded were preceded by peculiarly compelling
sensations, variously expressed in such phrases as, “I had to laugh
or burst,” “I had to do something to relieve the strain,” “I felt
bubbling over,” “I felt a quiver, a thrill, a creepy feeling passing
from my stomach to my mouth.”

That is to say, the evidence from the abounding laughter of
childhood—pre-eminently a period of rapid physical growth and of the
accumulation of a large store of nervous energy—as also the evidence
from the laughter of unusually mirthful adults, who are, as a rule,
persons of large build and of corresponding nervous force, suggests
irresistibly the conception of laughter as an instinct implanted in
us for the performance of an important physiological function. This
view finds additional support in the familiar “giggling silliness”
of the adolescent period, that strange period of unusual growth and
stress, and the one in which are most likely to occur those singular
attacks of untimely hilarity at funerals and on other solemn occasions,
as mentioned among the responses to President Hall’s questionnaire.
No more than the little child or your friend the jolly man does the
adolescent always know at what he is laughing. He simply knows that he
is impelled to laugh by forces latent in his being and over which he
has no control.

Nor is it only as a relief from neural tension that laughter benefits
the one who laughs. In the studies of laughter in childhood made by
such investigators as Preyer, Sully, and Miss Shinn, one finds frequent
allusion to occasions when laughter is obviously a reaction from a
state of mental strain, and has a specifically useful effect in easing
the mind. There is reason to believe that this is actually one of
its constant ends—that it is a device for lightening the burden of
mentation by temporary interruption of the thought process.

As all educators are well aware, the first years of life and the
adolescent period are not only the years of greatest physical growth,
but the years when the severest demands are made on the mind, both
by the task of acquiring knowledge and by the perturbations of
adolescence. They are the years when the mind, in its immaturity, is
most in need of some protective mechanism to enable it automatically
and at frequent intervals to take a holiday as it were. Such a
mechanism is admirably provided in laughter, which, as every laugher
will at once appreciate, when not unduly prolonged leaves behind it
a pleasurable feeling of exhilaration and greater mental as well as
physical well-being.

We laugh, then, in infancy and adolescence, not primarily because we
are “light-hearted” or “amused,” but to satisfy a natural instinct
of both physiological and psychological utility. We laugh less in
maturity, partly because we have not, as a rule, the same necessity
of getting rid of surplus nervous energy, partly because our minds
have passed the tender formative age, and partly because widening
experience has developed sentiments and ideas tending to inhibit
laughter. Nevertheless we do still need to a certain extent the relief
which laughter brings; we feel in some degree the old hunger for it,
and consequently, often at very slight provocation, we yield, and
even cultivate opportunities for yielding, to the impulse which was
so conspicuously operant in the years of our youth. As with every
instinct, moreover, the laughing process may, and occasionally does,
become perverted, as in the laughter of cynicism and contempt, and in
the abnormal laughter of the overwrought—itself, however, the modern
medical psychologist assures us, a medium of relief from an unbearable

As to the things at which we commonly laugh—the “laughable” whose
nature has so perplexed philosophers—all that may safely be said is
that their laugh-provoking power depends not so much on an inherent
“comicality” as on the circumstances under which they occur to us, and
our point of view toward them as determined by previous training and
experience. Certainly, for instance, we cannot laugh at a subtle bit
of wit until we have had education in the appreciation of the skilful
use of language. The instincts of imitation and of sympathy, further,
have a share in determining on many an occasion the functioning of
the laughing instinct. Time and again we laugh merely because we see
other people laughing. Personally I am inclined to think also that
much at which we laugh as adults is laughable to us only by reason of
subconscious association with similar occurrences which chanced to move
us to laughter in our childhood. But on this point nothing positive
should be asserted pending psychological investigation which has yet to
be made.

Conceding, however, that the laughable is and must always remain
elusive, baffling, uncertain, there need be no uncertainty as to
our view of laughter itself. To laugh—to laugh spontaneously and
heartily—is under nearly every circumstance a good thing both for
the body and for the mind. Like sleep, it refreshes; like food,
it strengthens. Humanity in truth would be the poorer—and the
shorter-lived—were it ever to lose this splendid heritage of the power
to laugh.

This is why I have said so much about laughter in the present book. To
parents in especial knowledge of its true significance is important.
They will not then fall into the mistake, too often made at present,
of curbing their children’s instinctive tendency to laugh. Rather, they
should deliberately seek to cultivate in them a keen sense of humour,
and encourage them in merriment—not because it is a thing pleasing in
itself, but because of its positive developmental value. Directly or
indirectly to repress this basic instinct is always dangerous, leading
to warpings of character, and at times undoubtedly contributing to the
causation of that strangest and most misunderstood of human maladies,
hysteria, to which we must now give some consideration.



A little girl, a pupil in a German school, made her appearance in class
one morning with a bandage about her head. In answer to her teacher’s
questions, she said she had been operated upon for ear trouble at
a local hospital the day before. She described every detail of the
operation, which, it seemed, had been exceedingly painful.

For some time she wore the bandage to school every day, and frequently
complained that her ear was still troubling her. Her teacher was
properly sympathetic, and, chancing to meet one of the girl’s
relatives, expressed her anxiety for the child, and the hope that she
would soon be completely cured.

“Cured?” repeated the relative. “Cured of what?”

“Why, her ear trouble—the disease that has made it necessary for her to
keep her head bandaged.”

“But,” said the other, obviously puzzled, “I do not understand you. I
did not know she had any ear trouble, and I have never seen her with a

It was the teacher’s turn to be astonished. She could not believe
that the girl had been deceiving her; but, to get at the truth, she
decided to take her immediately to the hospital where the operation was
supposed to have been performed. There the child made her way about as
if perfectly familiar with the place, and greeted in a friendly manner
the surgeon in charge. He, however, did not seem to recognise her, and
when told the circumstances by the teacher, said:

“I can assure you I have never operated upon this girl.”

He then made a thorough examination of her ear, and found it to be
quite sound. After which, careful investigation developed the fact
that her sole knowledge of the hospital was derived from detailed
information given her by a friend, a lady who, curiously enough, had
been operated upon a little while previously for precisely the trouble
that the girl had attributed to herself.

In other words, no doubt remained that she had for weeks been acting a
lie, from what motive neither her teacher nor her parents could fathom.

Again, a clergyman writing to the Society for Psychical Research from
a little English village named Ham, urgently requested the despatch of
a skilled investigator to look into certain strange occurrences in the
house of a Mr. Turner. This house, the clergyman asserted, was haunted
by a “veritable ghost,” which amused itself by playing all sorts of
mischievous and annoying pranks.

Remaining invisible, it hurled boots, shoes, and other small objects
through the air, upset chairs and tables, and on at least one
occasion it had pitched the family cat into the fire. All this was
done, according to both the clergyman and several other intelligent
eye-witnesses, under circumstances that rendered it impossible that the
“manifestations” could be the work of any human agency.

“No one can explain it,” the clergyman declared. “It is quite a
mystery, and is causing great excitement through the countryside.”

The task of laying this “poltergeist,” or troublesome ghost, was
assigned to Mr. Ernest Westlake, an able psychical researcher.
Proceeding to Ham, he found that the Turner family consisted of Mr.
Turner, his wife, one son, and a deformed little daughter, Polly, not
quite twelve years old. So impressed was he with what he heard that
his first report indicated a belief that the phenomena witnessed might
be genuine evidences of some mysterious and unknown force. But, after
a few hours of watchful scrutiny, he sent word that “the Ham ghost is
a humbug _now_, whatever it may have been.” In detail Mr. Westlake
afterward added:

“After posting my first letter, I went to the Turners’ and sat on a
bench in front of the fire. No one else was present besides the child.
She sat on a low stool in the chimney on the right of the fire. On
the other side of the hearth there was a brick oven in which, much
to Polly’s interest, I placed a dish of flour, arguing that a power
capable of discharging the contents of the oven (one of the first
disturbances) might be able to impress the flour. After a time I went
to the oven to see how the flour was getting on, stooping slightly to
look in; but I kept my eye on the child’s hands, looking at them under
my right arm. I saw her hand stealing down toward a stick that was
projecting from the fire; I moved slightly, and the hand was withdrawn.
Next time I was careful to make no movement, and saw her hand jerk the
brand out on to the floor. She cried out. I expressed interest and
astonishment; and her mother came in and cleared up the debris.

“This was repeated several times, and one or two large sticks ready for
burning, which stood near the child, was thrown down. Then a kettle
that was hanging on a hook and chain was jerked off the hook on to the
coals. This was repeated. As the kettle refused to stay on its hook,
the mother placed it on the hearth; but it was soon overturned on to
the floor. After this, I was sitting on the bench that stood facing the
fire in front of the table. I had placed my hat on the table behind me.
The little girl was standing near me on my right hand. Presently the
hat was thrown down on to the ground. I did not on the first occasion
see the girl’s movements; but later, by seeming to look in another
direction, I saw her hand sweep the hat off on to the floor. This I
saw at least twice. A Windsor chair near the girl was then upset more
than once, falling away from her. On one occasion I saw her push the
chair over with both hands. As she was looking away from me, I got a
nearly complete view. After one of these performances, the mother came
in and asked the child if she had done it; but the latter denied it.”
(_Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research_, vol. xii.)

Unquestionably, Mr. Westlake concluded, Polly was the “ghost.” Yet
he found it difficult to conjecture why she should have assumed so
singular a rôle. Neither she nor her parents—whom he exonerated from
all complicity—had profited a penny’s worth from her exploits. Indeed,
her parents had been put out of pocket by the damage to the household
furniture and utensils.

Consider, also, the case of a little Chicago boy who had fallen out of
a play-wagon and hurt one of his arms. The injury was in reality very
slight; but his mother, becoming greatly alarmed, declared her belief
that the doctor would say the arm was broken. What the doctor—D’Orsay
Hecht, of Northwestern University Medical School—did say was that a few
applications of witch-hazel would speedily remedy matters.

The mother, nevertheless, insisted on bandaging the arm, talked of
having an X-ray examination, and broadly hinted that a wrong diagnosis
had been made. Within a few days, as Doctor Hecht had expected, all
signs of injury disappeared. But now the boy complained that the hand
of the injured arm felt stiff; and, in a day or so, his mother reported
that both hand and arm were paralysed.

This was the situation when, passing along the street one day, Doctor
Hecht was astonished and amused to see his “paralysed” patient romping
with a number of children, quite as if nothing were the matter with
him. He used his injured arm freely, pushed and pulled his playmates,
and was pushed and pulled around by them.

“Ah,” thought the physician, with a feeling of relief, “evidently this
youngster is going to give no more trouble.”

He was mistaken. Within a week the mother sent for him, reporting that
her boy was suffering agonies, that he could not eat, and that his arm
had become contracted at the elbow. In fact, on visiting the boy he
found that at every attempt to flex the arm the little fellow screamed
with pain.

But on his next visit, when the child chanced to be asleep, Doctor
Hecht noticed that there was then no contracture of the arm, and that
he could move it without disturbing the boy in the slightest. So soon,
however, as he awoke, the contracture returned, and he wailed and
shrieked when his arm was touched. To the astonished mother, the doctor

“I see what the trouble is. Your son needs a certain kind of treatment
that I can administer only at my office. Bring him there as soon as

The treatment in question consisted in the application of a succession
of slight electrical shocks, just painful enough to be felt. These, the
doctor assured the boy, would cure him completely.

“If they do not,” said he, “your mother must bring you back, and I will
give you a stronger treatment next time. I don’t think, though, that
that will be necessary, do you?”

And, in point of fact, no second treatment was needed. From that moment
the boy ceased complaining of his arm, the contracture and paralysis
entirely disappeared, and he was like any normal, healthy child.

I have cited these three cases, not because of their singularity, but
because they afford concrete illustration of some little known facts
with which every parent ought to be acquainted. In each case, it will
be observed, an element of deception was present; and, moreover,
in each case the deception was seemingly motiveless. The child who
pretended that she had been operated upon had apparently nothing to
gain from the deceit practised by her; neither had the little girl
who played the part of a “poltergeist,” nor the boy with the sham
contracture and paralysis. Besides which, in two of the three cases the
children subjected themselves to considerable inconvenience and even
pain; and, in all three cases, they ran the risk of severe punishment.
None the less, they systematically and persistently kept up their
deceptions until discovery ensued.

Now, why did they do it?

They did it, as recent medical and psychological investigation into the
inner life of childhood has conclusively demonstrated, because they
were so constituted that they could not help doing it. And for the
same reason, hundreds—nay, thousands—of children, before and since,
have been doing much the same thing. It is not that they are merely
“naughty.” The ordinary naughty child will, to be sure, lie and cheat
and otherwise deceive; but only from readily ascertainable motives, and
never in the way of an elaborately sustained deception. When a child’s
“naughtiness” takes this latter form, medical authorities are to-day
agreed, it is in reality indicative of the presence of a really serious

Than this disease—of which most people, unfortunately, have next to
no exact knowledge, mistakenly confusing it with, and confining it
to, uncontrollable attacks of weeping or laughing—there is no malady
more insidious, peculiar, or dangerous in the variety of its possible
consequences. Its peculiarity lies in the fact—discovered only within
recent years—that it is always rooted in an extreme “suggestibility”
on the part of its victims; and that the symptoms it develops
are invariably conditioned by the character of the suggestions
received from the environment. Hysteria is, to put the case briefly,
pre-eminently a mental trouble; and this although, not infrequently,
its only outward manifestations are wholly physical.

A child with a hysterical tendency—that is to say, an unusually
sensitive, impressionable child, of undisciplined will, and quickly
overwhelmed by whatever it sees, hears, or feels—is always liable,
when brought into contact with a person suffering from any serious
ailment of picturesque symptomatology, to manifest in some degree the
symptoms of that particular ailment. Or, more commonly, such a child
may manifest grave physical disabilities simply as a result of hearing
or reading about them.

It does not do this voluntarily; there is no conscious intention to
deceive; for the matter of that, the child itself is as much deceived
as are its parents and friends. The trouble is that in its state of
abnormal suggestibility, it is irresistibly impelled by the strange
power of self-suggestion to imitate the symptoms of disease.

Or, instead of simulating disease symptoms, a hysterical child
may enter on a course of seemingly deliberate chicanery like that
practised by little “poltergeist” Polly Turner, whose case is typical
of a species of behaviour indulged in by hysterical children in all
countries and all ages. Here, likewise, abnormal suggestibility is
in evidence, the resultant hysterical manifestations differing only
because the suggestions received and acted on are different.

In cases like Polly Turner’s, it has been found, the hysterical child
usually lives with people more or less superstitious and credulous.
They are people inclined to attribute to some spiritistic agency any
occurrence they cannot easily explain. In this environment the child
gradually becomes obsessed—though quite unconsciously—with a desire
to provide “marvels” for their edification and mystification, and,
yielding to the desire, is soon in full career as a “poltergeist,”
the hysterical obsession becoming intensified in proportion as the
gullibility of those deceived increases, and also in proportion to the
amount of attention paid to the little deceiver.

For—and this is a point to be borne well in mind—it is not alone
abnormal suggestibility that characterises the hysterical child. There
is also present an abnormal craving to attract attention, to be a
centre of interest. Of this craving, as of the deceits carried out to
attain its realisation, the child itself is unconscious. But it may
be stated with assurance that it invariably exists as a concomitant
of hysteria. Ordinarily it is the family and intimate friends whose
interest and sympathy the child wishes to arouse, though this is
not always the case. There may be special reasons for desiring to
impress mere acquaintances, or even absolute strangers. Then we have
the odd spectacle of children, like the pupil in the German school,
whose hysterical obsessions appear chiefly or only in the presence of
outsiders, while the parents remain in partial or total ignorance of

And, speaking of this type of hysteria, I may say that I am acquainted
with a young New York woman who, since the age of fifteen, has led many
an unsuspecting physician a merry dance by reason of her extraordinary
hysterical simulations. In early girlhood she began to complain of
various ailments, which on examination proved to be of no moment. Not
unnaturally her family lost patience with her “whims,” as they called
them, and regarded her as a wholly imaginary invalid. Like most people
similarly situated, they utterly failed to appreciate that, as has
been well said by Doctor Pierre Janet, one of the world’s foremost
authorities on hysteria, “When a person is so ill that he says he is
ill when he is not ill at all, then he must be very ill indeed.” They
scolded the girl, they argued with her; but they made no attempt to
give her the treatment she really needed.

What was the consequence? One day she mysteriously disappeared from
home, and some time passed before she was located in a hospital,
where preparations were making to perform an operation upon her for
appendicitis. A little later she wandered off again, and turned up at
another hospital with symptoms so closely resembling a tumorous growth
that a diagnosis to that effect was made, and an immediate operation
advised. Still later an eminent specialist was misled into crediting
her with a serious spinal disease.

After this it was decided that she was insane, and the family had her
committed to an asylum. Before her release she developed symptoms of
ear trouble so pronounced that the dangerous mastoid operation would
have been performed had not the superintendent of the asylum been
informed of her previous adventures as a hospital visitant.

Manifestly, a disease that both impels and enables its victims to mimic
the symptoms of grave organic affections, with such verisimilitude as
to deceive even physicians, is an extremely serious affair. And one has
only to inquire of doctors with an extensive hospital experience to
learn that hysteria, in one form or another, is a widespread trouble
among both children and adults. But it is no longer the bugbear of
the medical profession that it used to be. Following the discovery
of its essentially mental character, methods have been devised and
perfected for handling it. Some of these seem absurdly simple, but even
the simplest have been proved efficacious, especially in the case of
children. Differing in detail, they have one feature in common. They
directly attack the hysterical symptoms by the employment of the same
agency that was provocative of them—namely, suggestion.

In the case of the boy with the pseudo paralysis, reported above, it
was not any therapeutic virtue inherent in the electrical treatment
that brought about his rapid restoration to health. It was simply the
suggestive efficacy of the way in which the treatment was administered
to him. The truth of this, however, may be made clearer by the citation
of one or two other cases, that are also of interest as illustrating
the ingenious devices by which hysterical attacks in the period of
childhood are nowadays overcome.

There was brought to a New England neurologist a little girl of ten,
suffering from a curious physical abnormality. As long as she was
seated, there seemed to be little the matter with her; but the moment
she attempted to stand her feet bent under her so that they would not
support her weight. When left alone she swayed backward and forward,
and then fell on her hands and knees. In addition to this, there was a
complete paralysis of the left arm, the child thus being deprived of
the use of three of her four limbs.

Questioned by the physician, her mother explained that these muscular
troubles had first set in six months before, following an attack of
measles, and that her condition had grown progressively worse. This
pointed to an organic and incurable malady; and, indeed, the mother
was firmly convinced that nothing could be done. But, on making some
delicate diagnostic tests, no signs of true organic trouble were to be
found; whereas there were some indications that the disability might
be wholly functional, the result of hysteria. In verification of his
suspicion the physician made a few experiments which proved that the
child was extremely suggestible. Turning to her mother, he said:

“You are quite wrong in supposing that your daughter cannot be cured.
She is ill, it is true; but her illness is of such a nature that it
will quickly respond to the right kind of treatment.”

“But,” protested the mother, incredulous, “she cannot use her legs, she
cannot move her arm.”

“No matter. I have something here that will enable her to use her legs
and move her arm.”

He took up a large magnet and showed it to the little girl. She watched
him with the keenest interest, while he used it to lift several pieces
of iron.

“Now look,” said he.

Holding it over his left hand, he slowly raised that hand until it
touched the magnet, pretending that it had been drawn up exactly as the
pieces of iron had been.

“You see the power of this instrument,” he said, to the wondering
child. “It can move your arm, and give strength to your legs and feet,
in the very same way.”

For three weeks the magnet was applied to the different muscles, with
the suggestion that the limbs would thereby regain their power. Nine
treatments in all were given. After the ninth treatment the girl walked
into the doctor’s office unaided.

“Yesterday,” her mother explained, “she told me that she thought her
arm felt better, and she found that she could raise it. Then she said
she believed she could walk; and, getting out of bed, she crossed the
room without the least assistance, and without her feet clubbing under
her. Can it be, Doctor, that she is cured?”

In fact, she was cured; although, of course, the magnet itself had had
no power to cure her, but was used merely as an agent for an efficient
“counter-suggestion” to dislodge and uproot the symptom-producing
suggestions in the girl’s own mind.

Excellent results have also been obtained in many cases of hysterical
paralysis among children by the use of what is known as the “method
of surprise,” the invention of a German specialist named Bruns. As
employed by Doctor Bruns and his followers, this method has undoubtedly
a certain aspect of brutality; but this is more than compensated by its
effectiveness. Having determined, by a searching medical examination,
that the paralysis in any given case is functional and not organic,
what Bruns does is to place the paralysed child in a bath-tub, turn on
the cold water faucet, and watch the youngster climb out and scamper

“You see,” he then says to him, at this psychological moment, “you can
walk very well, after all. Now let us hear no more from you about being
unable to walk.”

If for any reason he deems the bath-tub device inadvisable, his plan is
to put the child to bed, keep it entirely isolated, and deprive it of
all food for a day or so. An appetising meal is then brought into the
room, and left some distance from the child’s bed. Frequently this is
all that is needed to effect a cure. The suggestion of food overcoming
the suggestion of paralysis, the child gets out of bed and starts
across the room, being encountered midway by Bruns, who—of course by
accident—enters the room at that precise instant, and makes use of
verbal suggestion to reinforce and maintain the “miraculous” recovery.

In contrast with this method of surprise is the “method of disregard,”
also originated by Bruns and used by him in cases of hysteria other
than those involving muscular paralysis—cases, for example, of
obsessions, facial “tics,” spasms, or convulsive seizures. In employing
the method of disregard the little patient is carefully watched by
doctor and nurses but in such a manner that he is led to believe they
are paying scarcely any attention to him. As a result the idea that,
despite his own conviction, his malady must be most insignificant,
gradually takes increasing possession of him, and in proportion as it
does so the hysterical symptoms disappear.

But, the reader may ask, does this truly mean that the hysteria itself
has been cured? Do not these methods, one and all, achieve merely the
removal of symptoms? Is not the child still suggestible enough to
develop a new variety of hysterical disturbances should occasion arise?

Such objections are not without force, though in practice it has been
observed that the cure of the symptoms by suggestion does actually
seem to weaken the tendency to future hysterical outbreaks of any
kind. To be on the safe side, however, it is always well to institute
environmental changes of a sort that will make for a constantly closer
approach by the child to a normal life.

With this, we come to the point that is of supreme interest to parents.

Almost without exception it is in the home that the seeds are sown
which may afterward bear the bitter fruit of hysteria, whether bearing
it in childhood or not until some critical period comes in later
years. It is the child who is “spoiled,” or kept by unwise parents
in a state of nervous tension and excitement; the child whose sense
of moral responsibility is not properly developed, and whose natural
suggestibility is unduly heightened by the superstitions, fears, and
eccentricities of its elders; it is such a child who, soon or late, may
be counted on to manifest some hysterical taint, perhaps not of the
extreme type illustrated by the cases narrated above, but nevertheless
of a sort making against happiness, usefulness, and success in the
world of active effort. Or, to state the situation in more detail in
the words of a physician of my acquaintance:

“Hysterical children, it has been my observation, usually have neurotic
parents. At first I was disposed to see in this another evidence of the
dread workings of heredity. But I am now inclined to the belief that
it illustrates rather the influence of environment. All children, as
you know, are highly imitative. They tend to copy, with exaggerations,
whatever models are placed before them, and instinctively they take
their parents as their chief models. If, then, the parents are
flighty, excitable, passing rapidly from extreme to extreme of mood,
it is only natural that the children should be likewise. Their minds
undisciplined, their will-power undeveloped, they easily fall a prey
to the baneful, hysteria-producing suggestions of their unhealthy

“To make matters worse, there is often, even among well-educated
persons, an amazing disregard of the hygienic and dietetic requirements
for neural stability. Children are allowed to sit up to unreasonable
hours; they are permitted altogether too frequent attendance at
parties, theatres, moving-picture shows, and similar places of
entertainment, where they receive impressions too vivid and varied for
them to absorb easily. Then, too, there is a tendency to give them at
their meals an undue allowance of meat, and to permit them to drink
tea, coffee, and other stimulants making for nerve disturbance.

“All the while they are living in an atmosphere of parental uneasiness
and unrest. Their mothers—and perhaps their fathers also—fuss and fume
over them. They delight, it may be, in ‘showing them off’ to admiring
visitors, thus suggesting to the already over-impressionable little
ones undue ideas of their own importance. Presently signs of trouble
appear—restless sleep, ‘night terrors,’ facial ‘tics,’ possibly even
full-blown attacks of hysterical convulsions, paralysis, deafness, or
what not—and the neurologist has another patient on his hands.”

Surely the duty of parents is plain. To set before their children from
earliest infancy examples of placidity and strength of character, to
educate their will no less than their intellect, to guard them as
far as possible from all harmful suggestions, to love them without
idolising them, to study carefully their physical as well as their
mental and moral needs—in this way, and in this way alone, can
safety be had against the dread evil of hysteria and allied nervous
troubles. Especially is such a course indispensable in view of the
now well-demonstrated fact that a faulty upbringing may be primarily
responsible for mental and nervous maladies, not of childhood but of
adult life, and of a character to challenge the utmost skill of the
best trained physicians. Of this, more in our next chapter.



I have no intention of describing the ordinary, familiar phenomena
of fear. These, in both their psychological and physiological
manifestations, will be found adequately treated in any good text-book
on the emotions. What I wish to do, rather, is to call attention to
some little-known facts which find scant mention in the text-books for
the excellent reason that it is only within the past few years that
they have been made part of organised knowledge. Yet they are facts of
the utmost significance from both a theoretical and a practical point
of view; and, indeed, an understanding of them is of no less importance
to the layman than to the scientist. Their discovery has made
possible for the first time what may be called an applied psychology
of fear—that is to say, a statement of principles the application
of which will go far toward solving the problem of how to avert the
evil consequences of fear without the loss of its really beneficial

That there is a certain virtue in fear requires no scientific
demonstration. Fear, as everybody ought to be aware, is intrinsically
one of the most useful of emotions. It is an instinct implanted in us
as a prime aid in the struggle for existence. Doubtless for this reason
it is, as compared with the other emotions, the earliest to make its
appearance in the newborn child. Preyer, whose book, “The Mind of the
Child,” is not nearly so well known in this country as it should be,
puts the first manifestation of fear in an infant at the twenty-third
day after birth. Other observers, including Charles Darwin, have found
no indications of it until somewhat later than this. But all agree that
it is the first emotion, properly so called, to show itself, and that
its normal function is to instil caution and prudence in relation to
objects and actions that might have destructive effects.

The trouble is that fear has a great tendency to function to excess,
especially in the years of childhood, that formative period which means
so much to future development. There is scarcely one of us who, looking
back, cannot recall some youthful fear, abnormal in its intensity. Nor
are such abnormal fears confined to the young. With many people they
persist in one form or another throughout life; it may be as fear of
thunder, fear of mice, fear of snakes. Moreover, they sometimes do not
appear with full force until the period of youth is long past. At the
age of thirty or forty—at any age—there may develop, with irresistible
power, and seemingly for no reason, a paralysing, appalling fear of
doing some trivial, everyday act, or of coming into contact with some
familiar and entirely harmless object. When fear becomes as extreme as
this it amounts to a disease, and is recognised as such by the medical
profession, being technically known as a “phobia.” It is through
scientific study of these phobias, as recently carried out by medical
specialists with a psychological training, that full realisation has
been gained of the tremendous rôle played by fear in the life of man,
and the need for its proper control and direction.

The two commonest phobias are direct opposites of one another—namely,
fear of open places (agoraphobia) and fear of being in a closed place
(claustrophobia). The victim of agoraphobia can with difficulty be
persuaded to trust himself outdoors. He fears that if he goes out some
catastrophe will overwhelm him. His state of mind is one of absolute
panic, and when obliged to cross any open space, such as a public park,
he displays all the symptoms of extreme fear. The person troubled
with abnormal fear of closed places experiences no difficulty of this
sort. He is, on the contrary, never so happy as when in the open. His
troubles begin when he is asked to take, say, a drive in a cab or a
journey in a railway car. He dare not attend the theatre, or any indoor
public entertainment. Whence comes his aversion from closed places he
cannot say. He only knows that the mere thought of being in any place
from which he cannot escape at a moment’s notice fills him with a
torturing dread.

In accounting for phobias like these psychologists have, as a usual
thing, fallen back on pure theory, and—especially when strongly
influenced by the evolutionary doctrine—have been wont to attribute
them to the emergence of ancestral traits and instincts once of real
biological value. But recent investigation has made it certain that
this ancestral revival theory is both superfluous and erroneous, and
tends to hinder rather than help an understanding of the mechanism and
consequences of fear. For one thing, there is the fact that agoraphobia
and claustrophobia are not the only irrational fears. There may be a
phobia for any conceivable act or object, and to explain all these in
terms of the revival of ancestral instincts is surely beyond the power
of the most vivid scientific imagination. Further than this, so far as
abnormal fear of open or closed spaces is concerned, the researches
of the medical specialists have rendered possible a satisfactory
explanation—and an explanation that has much practical value—without
harking back to the feelings and doings of primitive man.

It has been found in every case scientifically studied that there is
indeed a memory revival of past experiences, but that it is invariably
a revival of experiences in the life of the victim himself, not of his
remote ancestors. This is true of every kind of phobia. The sufferer
may honestly declare his inability to recall any antecedent happening
of a fear-inducing character. But it is found that, subconsciously
at any rate, he always carries with him a vivid memory-image of some
occurrence that at the time shocked him greatly; and that his phobia
is due to the ceaseless presentation in his subconsciousness of this
vivid memory-image. In proof of which may be cited the experiences of
any medical man accustomed, in treating patients for nervous and mental
troubles, to make use of modern methods—hypnotism, hynoidisation, and
so forth—for exploring the obscurer workings of the human mind.

Take, by way of illustration, a case of abnormal fear of open places
successfully treated by Doctor Isador H. Coriat, a Boston neurologist
of my acquaintance. The patient was a young man who for nearly two
years had been tormented by an irrational fear of fields, parks, and
public squares. His relatives and friends had argued with him, he had
tried to conquer the phobia by force of will, but all to no purpose.
Nor could he give any reason for his abnormal dread.

Put into the hypnotic state, however, and questioned again, he recalled
an incident that at once revealed its source. Two years previously, it
appeared, he had been taking a horseback ride, when he unexpectedly
galloped into an open field.

“I became terribly frightened,” said he, “as the ground was rough, and
I thought I should certainly fall off the horse. I felt faint, my heart
beat rapidly, I broke into a cold perspiration and trembled all over.
It seemed as if the end of the world was coming. Since then, whenever
I see a field or a park I am reminded of this, and feel the same
agonising fear.”

In the case of another patient suffering from fear of closed spaces
the abnormal fear was traced to an occasion when, visiting a friend
in a small, close room, the patient had a fainting attack. In a third
patient, a young woman, there developed a fear of crowds because, some
time previously, at a crowded school celebration, she had been slightly
overcome by heat, and had “felt like screaming.” Another young woman
was afflicted with pyrophobia, or fear of fire, in such an extreme form
that she could not remain in a room where an open fire was burning, and
every night made the rounds of her house to satisfy herself there was
nothing that could start a conflagration. Inquiry showed that all this
morbid anxiety was an outgrowth of a previous experience with fire.

Sometimes memory of the antecedent causal experience is not entirely
blotted out of the upper consciousness. The sufferer may even entertain
a clear recollection of it and still be unable to conquer his phobia;
which, however, under these circumstances is not nearly so severe as
when the process is entirely one of subconscious mentation. In either
case, of course, the problem of the development of the phobia still
requires explanation. Only partial enlightenment is gained, after all,
when we recognise the causal action of some specific occurrence, such
as a fall, a fainting-fit, or the sight of a fire. Thousands of persons
experience these things without thereby becoming victims of a phobia.
When a phobia does result, some exceptional circumstances must be
operative, and it is manifestly desirable to learn, if possible, what
these are.

It is the more desirable since, as investigation is daily revealing
more and more clearly, abnormal dread is not the only malady resulting
from a fear-occasioning event. Where one man, as the result of a
sudden fright, may in course of time become a phobiac, another may
develop symptoms, not of mental trouble, but of bodily disease. A most
instructive instance is afforded by the experiences of a young Russian
immigrant in this country who had the good fortune to come under the
observation of those two eminent specialists in the treatment of
mentally-caused disorders, Doctors Morton Prince and Boris Sidis.

The trouble for which this young man sought relief was, to all
appearance, purely physical. It consisted of periodic convulsive
attacks that racked the right half of his body, and had led to a
diagnosis of epilepsy. Since sundry delicate symptoms characteristic
of epilepsy were absent, however, the specialists, after a careful
study of the case, came to the conclusion that the spasms from which
their patient suffered might involve no true organic disease, and might
be nothing more than the outward manifestation of some deep-seated
psychical disturbance. With this possibility in mind they questioned
him both in the normal waking state and in hypnosis, and brought to
light some interesting facts.

The first attack, he told them, had set in five years before, when he
was sixteen years old and living in Russia. After returning from a
dance one evening, he went back to look for a ring lost by the young
lady whom he had escorted home. It was past midnight, and his way lay
over a country road by a cemetery. Nearing the cemetery, he thought he
heard somebody or something running after him. He turned to flee, fell,
and lost consciousness. He still was unconscious when found on the
road. After he had been brought to, it was seen that he was afflicted
with a spasmodic, uncontrollable shaking of the right side, involving
his head, arm, and leg. This lasted almost a week, when he seemed as
well as ever. But every year thereafter, at about the same time, he had
had an attack similar in all respects to the first one, excepting only
that he did not become unconscious.

He further declared, while in the hypnotic state, that throughout the
period of the attacks he had unpleasant dreams, all relating to the
fright and fall of five years before. In these dreams he lived over and
over again the experience from which his trouble dated.

“I find myself,” said he, “on the lonely road in my little native town.
I am hurrying along the road near the cemetery. It is very dark. I
imagine somebody—a robber, or a ghost—is running after me. I become
frightened, call for help, and fall. Then I wake up with a start, and
remember nothing about the dream. I no longer am afraid, but I have
these terrible spasms.”

It was even found possible to produce the convulsive attacks
experimentally by simply reminding him, while hypnotised, of the
incident on the road. To Doctors Prince and Sidis it now seemed
certain that his malady was due to nothing else than the persistence
of an intensely vivid subconscious memory-image of the fright he had
experienced; and that he would no longer be troubled by it if the
memory-image were destroyed by psychotherapeutic treatment. Suggestions
to this effect were accordingly given him, when awake as well as when
hypnotised. The outcome was all that could be desired, for a speedy and
permanent cure was brought about.

Paralysis, muscular contractures, symptoms mimicking tuberculosis,
kidney disease, and other dread organic maladies, are also recognised
to-day as possible after-effects, through the power of subconscious
mental action, of happenings that give rise to a profound feeling of
fear. Sometimes more than one symptom is thus occasioned in the same
patient. Again, for the purpose of concrete illustration, I cite a
typical case from real life—the case of a Pole, a man of twenty-five,
treated for a weird combination of mental and physical disturbances.

Physically, he suffered from severe and frequent attacks of headache,
setting in gradually, and preceded by a feeling of depression and
dizziness. During the attacks his body became cold, his head throbbed
violently, he shivered incessantly. To keep warm, he was obliged to
wrap himself in many blankets. Mentally, he was tormented by many
phobias. He was afraid of closed places, and still more afraid of being
obliged to remain alone, especially at night. He had a morbid fear of
the dead, and would on no account enter a room with a corpse in it or
attend a funeral. Nothing could induce him to visit a cemetery, even in
company with other people. Fear of dogs was also a conspicuous feature
of his case, as was fear of fire.

Through psychological exploration of his subconsciousness, every one
of these symptoms was traced to actual experiences that had given him
great emotional shocks, and in almost every instance to experiences
that had occurred in his childhood. The fear of dogs had its origin in
an exciting episode he had had with some dogs when he was only three.
The pyrophobia was connected with the fact that at four years of age he
had been hastily carried from a burning building, shivering with fright
and cold, into the open air of a frosty night. His dread of cemeteries
and of the dead was rooted in a subconscious recollection of terrors
inspired in him, while a child, by hearing “all kinds of ghost stories
and tales of wandering lost souls, and of spirits of dead people
hovering about churchyards.”

In addition to this, his mother, a very superstitious woman, when he
was nine, placed the cold hand of a corpse on his naked chest as a
“cure” for some trifling ailment. Hence his special fear of corpses.
As to the headaches and the sensations of cold, they were the result
partly of this “dead hand” memory, and partly of the memory of a still
more severe experience, occurring at about the same time, when he was
forced to spend an entire night in a barn in mid-winter, to escape a
party of drunken soldiers who had beaten his father unmercifully and
had killed one of his little brothers. His fear of closed spaces and
his fear of being alone were associated with the same experience.

As he grew older much of all this faded from his conscious
recollection. But, by analysing his dreams and questioning him in
hypnosis, it was found that subconsciously he had forgotten none of it.
Evidence also was forthcoming indicating that from time to time, owing
to the occurrence of later experiences of a less sinister nature but
disquieting enough, there had been exceptionally vivid revivals of the
earlier memories; and that it was in this way that they had been able
to acquire such tremendous disease-producing power.

Here, I am confident, we have the answer to the question raised
in connection with the development of phobias in adult life from
seemingly trivial occurrences. Heredity, no doubt, plays some part.
But assuredly a far greater influence is exercised by the presence of
baneful memory-images that need only an appropriate stimulus to excite
them into pernicious activity. The mechanism of fear-caused diseases,
to put it briefly, is probably much the same as that operating in the
production of the familiar phenomenon of dreaming.

When we dream of anything, we do so because an incident of the waking
life has, through association of ideas, roused some dormant emotional
“complex,” some group of subconscious ideas relating to matters which
are, or once were, of great significance to us, and our dream is a
symbolic expression of this dormant complex.[4] So is it with the man
who suffers from a fear-induced malady, whether it take the form of a
mental or of a physical disorder.

Perhaps of a neurotic tendency by inheritance, perhaps of a good
heredity, but temporarily weakened by grief, worry, etc., something
occurs that gives this person a sudden fright, and, by association of
ideas, reminds him, if only subconsciously, of earlier fear-inspiring
episodes in his life. Ordinarily there would be no unpleasant
after-effect, except possibly a few nights of bad dreams. But in his
condition dreaming is not sufficient to give vent to the subconscious
emotions. Some other channel of discharge must be found, and it is
found in the production of disease-symptoms—whether mental or physical,
or both mental and physical—symbolising the emotional complex or
complexes stimulated by the happening that frightened him.

Indeed, there is reason for suspecting that all functional nervous and
mental troubles, no matter what their immediate cause, are traceable
to fear-memories of remote occurrence, dating usually from the days
of childhood. Certainly it is possible to detail from recent medical
practice innumerable cases in support of this view. Not to be tedious,
I will give only one or two, selecting first a case of Doctor Coriat’s,
in which the patient, a middle-aged woman, had for years been tormented
by an increasing fear that she would go insane, and that, if insane,
she would inevitably injure some member of her family. The poor woman
had worn herself out brooding over this, and was gradually qualifying
for commitment to some institution. But Doctor Coriat could not find,
either in her physical condition or in the facts of her family history,
anything to warrant her belief that she was doomed to become insane.

Suspecting, therefore, that this belief was merely a hysterical
outgrowth of some forgotten shock in her previous life, and knowing
that in sleep such latent memories have a tendency to emerge
momentarily into the field of consciousness, he questioned her
regarding the frequency and content of her dreams.

“I dream a great deal,” she told him, “but I never have a clear
remembrance of what I have dreamed about.”

Yet, when hypnotised and again questioned regarding the dreams, she
was able to detail many of them. One in particular interested Doctor
Coriat. It was of a recurrent character, and was identified by the
patient as having first been dreamed at the time she began to worry
over her condition. It was, in fact, a dream in which she saw herself

“Had anything unpleasant happened to you the day before you first had
that dream?” Doctor Coriat now inquired of his hypnotised patient.

“Nothing that I can remember, except that I went to a friend’s funeral.”

“The funeral of a very dear friend?”

“Not exactly—just a friend.”

“But that should not have had such a disturbing effect on your mind.
Did anything happen at the funeral?”

“I saw a woman there whose eyes frightened me.”

“And why did they frighten you?”

“Because they reminded me of a preacher I used to know when I was a
little girl. He was a revivalist, and I always thought he was crazy. I
went to his meetings, and got terribly worked up, and it frightened me
very much. I thought I would go crazy too, just like the preacher.”

To Doctor Coriat it seemed unnecessary to ask any more questions.
As he saw it, the haunting dread of insanity was nothing but the
continuation in consciousness of the forgotten memory of the childhood
fright, revived by subconscious association of the woman at the funeral
with the preacher whose rabid exhortations had inspired the patient
with such terror. On this theory he utilised the resources of medical
psychology to deprive the baneful memory-image of its power to harm,
and soon had the satisfaction of being able to record a perfect cure.

In another case, successfully treated by Doctor Sidis, the subconscious
persistence of childhood fears actually threatened a young woman with
perhaps lifelong confinement in an asylum for the insane. She had, in
fact, been placed in a New York hospital for observation, and it was
there that Doctor Sidis treated her. According to her relatives, who
did not doubt that she had lost her reason, she suffered from strange
hallucinations, particularly of constantly hearing voices call to her,
and of being killed. She even imagined at times that she was dead, and
would lie in a cataleptic condition, rigidly motionless. At other times
she complained of a painful stiffness in her arms, and of difficulty
in walking.

Testing her psychologically, Doctor Sidis found cause for thinking
that her trouble was hysterical rather than a true insanity involving
brain lesions, and he promptly questioned her relatives regarding her
previous history. She had had, he learned, some exceedingly unpleasant
experiences with a brother-in-law, a rough, brutal fellow, but they
did not seem adequate to account for her various symptoms. These, he
suspected, had their roots farther back in her life, and, although she
professed a total inability to recall any severe fright or worry other
than those associated with her brother-in-law, he remained unshaken in
his suspicion.

“What do you dream about?” he asked her.

“I don’t exactly know,” she replied. “I am sure I dream a good deal,
though, for when I wake I always seem to have been dreaming, and to
have had horrid dreams. All I can say is that I dimly remember seeing
in them many ugly faces.”

“Is your brother-in-law’s face among them?”

“Yes, and other people’s faces. But I’m sure I don’t know who they are.”

Subjected to a special process of “mind tunneling” of Doctor Sidis’s
own invention, the patient recalled a number of dreams in vivid detail.
Most of them showed a strong resemblance to one another, in that
they had as their setting a forest, and as their chief actors men of
repulsive aspect, usually dressed in the roughest of clothing, and
usually intent on capturing the dreamer. Only the night before, she
declared, she had dreamed that a man was trying to choke her, and she
had awakened panic-stricken, and so drenched with perspiration that her
nurse—who corroborated her statement—had had to change her night-gown.

“Can you identify the men of your dreams—the men dressed in rough
clothing who pursue you so fiercely?” Doctor Sidis asked, while she
still was in the artificial state into which he had put her.

“Yes, yes,” she answered, much agitated. “I know them only too well.”

Now, for the first time, she related to him two most significant
episodes of her girlhood. Once, it appeared, when she was hardly nine
years old, she was walking along a country road, past a forest, when a
wood-cutter—“a big man, with big arms and hands projecting from short
sleeves”—tried to catch her and carry her into the forest. “He ran
after me with outstretched arms. I screamed, and ran from him as fast
as I could, calling for help all the time.” And, on another occasion,
when she was even younger—only six—on her way to school through the
woods, a man met her, gave her candy, talked to her nicely, and all at
once seized her so roughly that she began to scream with fright and
pain. At that moment somebody came along, and the man released her and

These were the men whom she chiefly saw in her dreams; these were
the shocks which, aggravated by the more recent experiences of a not
dissimilar sort with her brother-in-law, were the true determinants
of her hysteria—as was proved by the fact that upon psychological
disintegration of her subconscious memories of them, a speedy and
lasting return to health resulted.

In like manner the seemingly epileptic attacks of a nineteen-year-old
New York “street arab” were found to be nothing more than the external
manifestation of subconscious memory-images, dating back to early
childhood, of nights passed in a dark, damp, terror-inspiring cellar.
The sight of the discoloured corpse of a man who had died from cholera
left in the mind of a sensitive girl of ten such a painful impression
that years afterward, quite unaccountably as it seemed, she developed
an abnormal fear of contracting some deadly disease; and had she not
fortunately been taken to a skilled medical psychologist (Doctor Pierre
Janet) she would almost certainly have ended her days in an asylum. In
the case of an over-worked Boston young man, thought to be suffering
from “dementia praecox,” it was found that his morbid notion that he
had committed an “unpardonable sin” was only a hysterical product
of subconsciously remembered fears of childhood. The victim himself
eventually recognised this, declaring, in an autobiographical statement
made at his physician’s request:

“My abnormal fear certainly originated from doctrines of hell which I
heard in early childhood, particularly from a rather ignorant elderly
woman who taught Sunday-school. My early religious thought was chiefly
concerned with the direful eternity of torture that might be awaiting
me if I was not good enough to be saved.”

Whether or no all cases of functional nervous and mental disease
are thus rooted in emotional stresses of youth, certainly this is
often enough the fact to constitute a serious warning to all who
have anything to do with the upbringing of the young. If fears of
childhood can persist throughout life and can affect adult development
so profoundly as to be causal agents in the production of disease,
it is obvious that parents and educators should adopt every means in
their power to prevent the growth of unreasonable fears in the little
ones in their care. Yet, as matters are to-day, and not least in the
home, most children are subject to influences that tend to foster, not
inhibit, such fears.

In their presence, as was noted on a previous page, parents often
discuss accidents, crimes, sensational doings of all sorts; they betray
a fretfulness, an anxiety, an unrest, that cannot but react on the
sensitive mind of the child, filling it with fears of it knows not
what; they even utilise the fear impulse as a means of coercing the
child into good behaviour; and, what is perhaps worst of all, many
parents intrust their children to ignorant and superstitious nurses,
who take a strange pleasure in “scaring them half to death” with tales
of demons, ghosts and goblins.

Fortunately the majority of people, as a result of later training and
experience, or by the exercise of will-power, are able to suppress the
fears of childhood; but often only at the cost of great mental torture.
Not so long ago I received a letter from a Detroit business man, Mr.
John J. Mitchell, that may well be quoted in this connection. He wrote:

“As a child, as far back as memory goes, I was ‘afraid of the dark,’
intensely afraid.... At about eleven years of age I got a place in a
country store, and perhaps two years later changed to the largest store
in town. This concern did a large, old-fashioned country business,
buying produce and selling all manner of merchandise in exchange or on
credit. This involved the use of two old-time buildings (frame) with
three stories each and a cellar under all. Owing to the character of
the business and location, there were doors opening to the street and
area on each side and rear from every floor, including the cellar,
seven or eight in all, and widely apart, besides windows. It was my
duty at dusk to see that all these doors were properly closed and
barred for the night.... With my childish fear of the dark this daily
task was an ordeal—at times a terrible ordeal.

“I never made complaint or confided my fears to a soul. But for some
reason, the source of which was, and is, as obscure as my intangible
fears, I resolved to cure myself of this terror.... My plan, adopted
and unflinchingly carried out, was to compel myself—a slender, timid
little kid—to go that round daily, in the shadowy dusk, without a light
(which I was privileged to have, a lantern). I can only remember now
the _pain_ of dread and unreasoning apprehension, and the resolution to
‘have it over and done with.’

“I cannot now fix the time when it was accomplished, but in the end I
was completely cured, so that, at least since my majority, I have not
only been relieved of this dread, but I often welcome the folds of
darkness (of night), as if wrapped about with a comforting garment. It
will be a certain qualification to state that, at very long intervals,
and always after some physical or mental strain, I feel momentarily a
fear of return of old impressions in ‘uncanny’ surroundings.”

And, beyond any question, no matter how effectually one may suppress
such youthful fears, so far as relates to their survival in the upper
consciousness, there will always be a subconscious remnant, a buried
complex, ready to emerge and work mischief in one way or another. There
is a world of truth in Professor Angelo Mosso’s emphatic declaration:

“Every ugly thing told to the child, every shock, every fright given
him, will remain like minute splinters in the flesh, to torture him all
his life long.”

If not in such an extreme form as a phobia, or other functional
disease, the early fears will nevertheless make their presence felt in
later life. In some men they may engender lack of self-confidence, and
even a despicable cowardice; in others they may breed superstitious
terrors and usages. Always, in some way, one may depend on it, they
will affect the character, the intellect, the whole moral and mental

Nor will their influence be confined to the individual. Fear, as every
psychologist knows, is one of the most contagious of the emotions.
Socially, as well as individually, it has a useful function to
perform. The presence in all civilised communities of police and fire
departments, boards of health, and the like, testifies impressively to
the influence of social fear working normally as a conserving agent.
But there may be, and frequently is, social as well as individual
abnormality of fear; as in panics, massacres, lynchings. In order to
deal with this effectually, in order to keep social fear within the
bounds of reason, it will always be necessary to recognise that, after
all, society is made up of a mass of individuals, and can only think
and feel and act as individuals think and feel and act. Train the
individual properly, and society will be sane and healthy and efficient



We have now reviewed in some detail the principal results of recent
psychological research and observation, so far as these bear directly
on man’s mental and moral growth. Varied as is the mass of information
thus brought together, we have found it pointing uniformly to one
conclusion—the transcendent significance of the environmental
influences of early life.

Again and again we have found confirmation of the view that what a man
is and does depends, as a rule, not so much on the gifts or defects of
his heredity as on the excellences or shortcomings of his childhood’s
training and surroundings. If these are favourable, even the dead hand
of a bad inheritance may be arrested, and he may develop surprising
strength of intellect and character; if unfavourable, mental and moral
inferiority may be looked for, no matter how good the heredity.

This, of course, emphasises the responsibilities of parenthood, chief
among which, as would appear from the facts surveyed, are the beginning
of formal education in the home, the providing of a carefully planned
material environment, and the setting of a really good example.
There can be no doubt, to return for a moment to the superlatively
instructive case of Karl Witte, that by all odds the greatest force
in the moral development of that splendid scholar and gentleman, was
the unceasing inspiration he unconsciously drew from the lives of
his father and mother—from their integrity, unselfishness, patience,
sincerity, and courage. Parents cannot too soon learn that, to quote a
cardinal clause in the elder Witte’s educational creed:

“Our children are what we are. They are good when we are good, and bad
when we are bad. I would extend this assertion. With full conviction I
would say, they become clever, magnanimous, modest, witty, agreeable,
amiable, if these are our qualities. They become the opposite if we
precede them with the opposite.”

Or, as Doctor Dubois has so admirably put it in one of his University
of Berne addresses on moral education:

“You, madam, who complain of the irritability of your little girl,
could you not suppress your own, which I have seen break out, in a
few words exchanged with your dear husband, immediately afterward?
You, sir, who bitterly reproach your son for his impulsiveness and
instability of temper, have you not these faults yourself?... Remember
the proverb, ‘The fruit does not fall far from the tree.’” (“Reason and
Sentiment,” pp. 53-54.)

Personally, also, I am of Witte’s belief that intellectual training
along the lines followed by him in his son’s upbringing is of itself an
important adjunct to moral growth. Certainly, by developing the powers
of observation, analysis, and inference, it makes it easier for the
child to appreciate the force of any arguments advanced by the parent
in the way of direct moral instruction. Besides this, by keeping the
child’s mind occupied with wholesome and profitable matters, it saves
him from the idleness and waste of energy which, in childhood as much
as in adult life, favour the formation of bad habits. And assuredly the
methods by which his mental education may best be carried on in the
first years of existence are such that they may be readily applied by
all parents.

It is by no means a difficult thing to begin, as Witte did, by naming
to the little one various small objects in and about the home. These
should be named over and over to him, slowly, clearly, impressively;
and the attempt should next be made to convey to him a notion of their
properties, by teaching him, for example, to detect differences in
colour and in such qualities as hot and cold, round and square, hard
and soft, rough and smooth. This can be done in any one of several
ways, but the best method, it seems to me, is that developed within
recent years by the noted Italian educator of little children, Maria

Her plan with every child whose education is intrusted to her is to
start by teaching it to distinguish between various touch sensations;
and she does this so successfully that her pupils, aged from three to
seven, are able, blindfolded, to state the differences in extremely
fine gradations of cloths, papers, coins, and seeds. Any parent can
do the same thing, beginning by drilling the child in distinguishing
between massive sensations, and gradually developing delicacy of touch.

Two cards, one rough, one smooth, afford an excellent starting-point.
The child touches the smooth card. “Smooth,” says the parent, and
“Smooth” responds the child. The little fingers are then placed on the
card with the rough surface. “Rough,” the child is told, and “Rough”
he repeats. Only a few lessons of this sort will be found necessary
to enable him to select at request the smooth or the rough card and
hand it to the parent. Ideas of shape, size, etc., may be similarly
imparted, with the triple advantage that the child will daily, and
without mental stress, acquire a more and more retentive muscular
memory, a more intimate acquaintance with the facts of the world in
which he lives, and greater observational and reasoning ability.

Meanwhile, of course, the fertilisation of the child’s mind should
also be continued by other educative measures—as the maintenance of an
inspiring environment, ready and intelligent response to the child’s
innumerable questions, and skilful guidance of his thoughts to subjects
which it is especially desirable for him to study. The system of walks
and talks, utilised alike by James Thomson, James Mill, and Pastor
Witte, is particularly to be recommended in this connection, as also
Witte’s practice of propounding to his son interesting problems, and
then taking him to places—factories, mills, etc.—where he could observe
for himself different stages in their solution.

Something of the same sort is possible to every parent, who can
include in such voyages of discovery, if he be a city dweller, visits
to botanical and zoölogical gardens, art and industrial museums, and
similar institutions where his child can obtain entertainment, some
insight into the workings of natural laws, and elementary instruction
in subjects which will inevitably form part of his school curriculum at
a later day.

But, it may be objected, does not all this mean that in order to make
sure of results the father and mother will have to give the greater
part of their time to the child’s education? Not at all. One hour or
so a day will be quite enough in the way of direct, personal tuition.
And even if the task of instruction were really burdensome, surely,
in view of the findings of modern science, parents will do well to
keep in mind, and recognize the profound truth of, Rousseau’s stern

“He who cannot fulfil the duties of a father has no right to be a
father. Not poverty, nor severe labour, nor human respect can release
him from the duty of supporting his children and of educating them
himself. Readers, you may believe my words. I prophesy to any one who
has natural feeling and neglects these sacred duties—that he will long
shed bitter tears over this fault, and that for these tears he will
find no consolation.”


[1] The passages quoted by me from Witte’s book have been made partly
from Professor Wiener’s translation, and partly from the original.

[2] It is to the development of some vital interest—whether by parental
training or the accident of a favourable environment—that is due the
often observed absence of laziness in children that are handicapped by
adenoids, eye trouble, etc. This does not mean that the parent should
neglect to have such handicaps removed as soon as possible; no matter
how “interested” a child may be, the correction of remediable physical
defects is of importance to his welfare and progress.

[3] Since these lines were written Doctor Boris Sidis, in his
“Psychology of Laughter,” has criticised the Bergson theory in more
detail but on somewhat different grounds. Doctor Sidis’s own theory,
briefly, is that the laughable is not the “mechanical” but the
“stupid.” Or, as he himself expresses it, “Allusion to human stupidity
is at the root of all comic.”

[4] The psychology of dreams and their practical significance will
be dealt with in some detail in my forthcoming book on “Sleep and


  Adenoids, and delinquency, 27;
    and laziness, 173-174.

  Ampère, A., 84.

  Baby talk, dangers of, 49-51, 136.

  Bain, A., 199.

  Balzac, H. de, 99, 166-167.

  Berle, A. A., 49-50, 136.

  Bidder, G., 84.

  Binet, A., 62.

  Boccacio, 99.

  Brady, J. G., 16-18.

  Bruns, Doctor, 241-242.

  Burke, A. H., 15-16.

  Buxton, J., 84, 85.

  Chabaneix, P., 89.

  Childhood, impressionability of, 30-35, 41-45, 60-63;
    mental activity in, 163-164;
    hysteria in, 221-245;
    results of fear in, 258-274.

  Children’s Aid Society, 13-18.

  Cicero, 106.

  Colburn, Z., 82-84.

  Coleridge, S. T., 78.

  Colours, psychology of, 57-59.

  Condillac, 79.

  Coriat, I. H., 255-256, 266-268.

  Coulter, E. K., 11.

  Dante, 88, 99.

  Darwin, C., 91, 165, 168, 180-183, 186, 201, 203, 250.

  Dase, Z., 84.

  Davy, H., 166.

  Delinquency, chief factors in, 5-19;
    physical defects and, 19-27, 162.

  Dental defects, and delinquency, 22-27;
    and laziness, 174-176.

  Diderot, D., 89.

  Dreams, and genius, 75-81;
    and disease, 260, 265, 267-268, 270-272.

  Dubois, P., 28, 285.

  Dugdale, R. L., 7, 10.

  Education, suggestion in, 39-68;
    importance of early, 67-68, 114-117;
    instances of early, 119-157;
    helps in early, 286-289.

  Eliot, C. W., 64-65.

  Ellis, H., 57, 106.

  Environment, and crime, 5-19;
    and ill-health, 52-55;
    and mental development, 60, 109, 136-137;
    and hysteria, 232-234;
    and general welfare, 283-284.

  Eugenics, 5-6.

  Eye trouble, and delinquency, 21-23;
    and laziness, 177-178.

  Fear, function of, 250;
    abnormal, 251-256;
    as cause of nervous diseases, 257-274.

  Fénelon, 106.

  Fleury., M. de, 179, 183-185.

  Franklin, B., 79.

  Galileo, 91, 106.

  Gauss, K., 84.

  Genius, contrasting theories of, 71-75;
    and dreams, 75-81;
    the subconscious in, 86-94;
    and hard work, 95-101;
    interest and, 102;
    precocity of, 105-107;
    longevity of, 107-108.

  Goethe, 87-88.

  Gourmont, R. de, 89.

  Habits, formation of, 42-43.

  Hall, G. S., 196, 213.

  Hallam, H., 106.

  Hecht, D’O., 227-229.

  Heine, H., 165.

  Henry, P., 166.

  Heredity, and delinquency, 5-19;
    and genius, 71;
    and hysteria, 264.

  Heyne, C. G., 142.

  Hobbes, T., 105-106, 198-199.

  Holmes, A., 24.

  Hysteria, in childhood, 221-247;
    characteristics of, 231-234;
    treatment, 237-243, 261, 269;
    prevention, 243-246, 274-278;
    as result of fear, 251-274.

  Inaudi, J., 84.

  Indy, V. d’, 89.

  Interest, and intellectual development, 102-105;
    and longevity, 108;
    as antidote to laziness, 183-189.

  Janet, P., 235, 273.

  Johnson, S., 166.

  Juke family, 6-11.

  Keller, H., 32-34.

  Kelvin, Lord, education of, 119-126.

  King, E., 121.

  Kirk, E. C., 23.

  Lamartine, A., 88.

  Lange, C. G., 197.

  Languages, teaching foreign, 138-140.

  Laughter, abnormal, 196-197;
    Hobbes’s theory, 198-199;
    Bain’s theory, 199;
    Spencer’s theory, 201;
    Mélinaud’s theory, 202;
    Bergson’s theory, 203-208;
    problem re-stated, 209-210;
    in childhood, 210-215;
    function of, 212-216;
    importance to parents, 217-218.

  Laziness, contrasting theories of, 162-168;
    a pathological condition, 168-169;
    physical defects and, 172-178;
    treatment, 179-186;
    prevention, 187-189.

  Left-handedness, 43-45.

  Lightning calculators, 82-86.

  Lombroso, C., 8, 71.

  Lowell, J. R., 166.

  Lyell, C., 165, 168.

  Mangiamele, V., 84.

  Mélinaud, C., 201-202.

  Mill, J. S., education of, 126-132.

  Minto, W., 131-132.

  Mitchell, J. J., 276-277.

  Mondeux, H., 84.

  Montessori, M., 287.

  Moral training, Witte’s method of, 145-152.

  Mosso, A., 278.

  Mozart, 89, 100-101.

  Myers, F. W. H., 72, 74.

  Napoleon, 90, 100, 105.

  Newton, I., 90-91, 101.

  Parsons, F. A., 53-54.

  Perez, B., 43.

  Phobias, 251-256, 261-263, 278.

  Poltergeist, 223-227, 233-234.

  Preyer, W., 214, 230.

  Prince, M., 258-261.

  Public school system, criticisms of, 64-66.

  Ribot, T., 172.

  Rousseau, J. J., 289-290.

  Safford, T., 84.

  Schiller, 88, 101.

  Schoff, H. K., 12.

  Sidis, B., 115, 208 _n_, 260-261, 269-272.

  Shinn, M., 210, 214.

  Stevenson, R. L., 79-81, 96-98.

  Subconscious, nature of the, 73;
    memory, 31-35;
    perception, 40-41;
    in sleep, 75-81;
    in lightning calculation, 84-85;
    in genius, 86-94;
    in hysteria, 233.

  Suggestion, characteristics of, 39, 41;
    in child training, 45-51;
    experiments in, 40-41, 61-63;
    in treatment of laziness, 185;
    as cause of hysteria, 231-234;
    in treatment of hysteria, 237-242, 261.

  Sully, J., 214.

  Swift, E. J., 165, 174.

  Tartini, G., 78-79.

  Thorndike, E. L., 102-104.

  Upson, H. S., 26.

  Voltaire, 89.

  Waldstein, L., 32, 34, 43-44.

  Wallace, A. R., 91-94.

  Wallin, J. E. W., 175.

  Westlake, E., 224-226.

  Wickstead, P. H., 154-155.

  Wiener, L., 137 and _n_.

  Witmer, L., 19-22, 65.

  Witte, K., education of, 133-153;
    career of, 154-157.

  Wordsworth, W., 165.

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