May 17, 2023
You know the feeling. You're trying to read or write or think through a project, maybe even just respond to an email, when your attention starts to drift. You may not even notice it until you've already picked up your phone or jumped tabs, until your mind has already wandered way off-piste. This problem of distraction has become a bit of a modern-day obsession. We now fret about how to stay focused, how to avoid time-sucks, how to use our attention wisely. But it turns out this fixation of ours—contemporary as it may seem—is really not so new.
My guest today is Dr. Jamie Kreiner, Professor of History at the University of Georgia. Jamie is the author of a new book titled The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell us about Distraction. In the book, Jamie shows that Christian monks in late antiquity and the early middle ages were—like us—a bit obsessed with attention. And their understanding of attention fit within a broad and often remarkably detailed understanding of the mind.
In this conversation, Jamie and I talk about why monks in this era cared so much about distraction. We discuss how they understood the relationship between mind and body; how they conceptualized memory, meditation, and mind-wandering. We discuss some of the mnemonic techniques they used, some of the graphical and textual devices that helped keep them focused, and some of the metaphors and visualization techniques they innovated. Along the way we also touch on fasting, sleep, demons and angels, the problem of discernment, the state of pure prayer, the Six Wings mnemonic device, metacognitive maneuvering, and much more.
I’ll just say I really enjoyed The Wandering Mind. As Jamie and I chat about here, the book illuminates an earlier understanding of human psychology that feels deeply familiar in some ways, and delightfully strange in others. I think you definitely get a sense of that in this conversation.
Alright friends, on to my chat with Dr. Jamie Kreiner. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
4:00 – A webpage devoted to the Ark of Hugh of Saint Victor.
6:30 – For a detailed (and positive) review essay about The Wandering Mind, see here.
18:30 – For more on how the body was understood in the early Christian world, see The Burden of the Flesh.
26:30 – Text written continuously is known as scripta continua.
53:00 – On the idea of “pure prayer,” see the book, The Ladder of Prayer and the Ship of Stirrings.
57:30 – Dr. Kreiner’s next book, which comes out in January 2024, is a translation of some of John Cassian’s work on distraction.
Dr. Kreiner’s book recommendations can be found in a recent article here.
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd. Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala.
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