cover image The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction

The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction

Jamie Kreiner. Liveright, $30 (304p) ISBN 978-1-631-49805-3

University of Georgia history professor Kreiner (Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West) examines how medieval Christian monks dealt with distraction in this fascinating history. Kreiner proposes that monks, like members of modern society, also struggled with boredom, overstimulation, and intrusive thoughts. While today’s sufferers may no longer believe “the urge to take a nap might be a demon’s doing,” Kreiner shows how other monastic suspicions—for example, that it is “impossible to make progress... among the multiplicities which drag the soul about” (in other words, one can’t focus on two things at once)—have been borne out by modern neuroscience (which has shown the brain unable to multitask when performing complex, decision-making work). Though readers may associate distraction with today’s fast-paced, technological culture, monks too saw distraction as a “structural feature of their societies” (citing “family, friends, property, work, and daily routines” and more) that only a “return to god” would fix. Kreiner interprets this to mean that, at some level, “distraction is inherent in the experience of being human,” even if the content of those distractions is culturally specific. Meticulously detailed and surprisingly accessible, this lends new insight into one of the oldest human preoccupations. Readers will be enlightened. (Jan.)