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May 31, 2023

Medieval Monks on Memory, Meditation & Mind-wandering with Dr. Jamie Kreiner (podcast)

Can medieval monks’ efforts to defeat distraction inform our modern-day obsession with staying focused?

By Templeton Staff

Medieval understandings of memory, attention, and thought were — in some ways — remarkably similar to our own. In other ways, they were radically different. This episode, featuring Dr. Jamie Kreiner, Professor of History at the University of Georgia, explores how the efforts of medieval monks to defeat distraction can inform our modern-day obsession with how to use attention wisely.

Dr. Kreiner is the author of a book titled The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell us about Distraction. Her research 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.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"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.

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."

Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.


Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork is by Ben Oldroyd.