Love it or hate it, we live in the digital age and there’s no going back. But today’s tsunami of digital distractions can pose challenges to the neural networks that regulate attention.
According to Jamie Kreiner, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, here is what the medieval monks did to train their minds into focus.
Part of monastic education involved learning how to form cartoonish cognitive figures, to help sharpen one’s mnemonic and meditative skills. The mind loves stimuli such as color, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations. The challenge was to ignore its delights and preferences in order to stay focused. If a nun wanted to really learn something she’d read or heard, she would do this work herself, by rendering the material as a series of bizarre animations in her mind. The weirder the mnemonic devices the better – strangeness would make them easier to retrieve, and more captivating to think with when she ‘returned’ to look them over.
A more advanced method for concentrating was to build elaborate mental structures in the course of reading and thinking. Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualize the material they were processing.
The point wasn’t to paint these pictures on parchment. It was to give the mind something to draw, to indulge its appetite for aesthetically interesting forms while sorting its ideas into some logical structure. Constructing complex mental apparatuses gives us a way to organize – and, in the process, analyze –the material we need to learn. The process also keeps our minds occupied with something that feels palpable and riveting. Concentration and critical thinking, in this mode, feel less like a slog and more like a game.
So practice the medieval monk methods the next time your mind wanders anywhere. To your best work.