In today’s modern world, we are constantly bombarded by distraction.
Phone notifications, emails, Slack messages and news alerts.
It almost feels impossible to focus on any particular task.
In fact, research has shown that simply having your phone in the same room as you, even if it is not sending you any notifications, can make you less able to complete a task.
So in order to concentrate and not be distracted, is the solution to get rid of all our technology?
Apparently, the answer is no.
Because history now tells us that a group of people whose entire existence should be devoted to focus often complained about getting distracted too.
I am talking about medieval monks, who lived over 1600 years ago.
According to an article by Jamie Kreiner, associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, monks were just as prone to getting distracted with no technology as we are today.
Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work!
Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else.
They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.
If a monk from more than a thousand years ago feels like they have information overload, imagine how they would react to having access to Wikipedia!
What is interesting though is that the monks were not annoyed because they were trying to clear their mind.
They were annoyed because they were trying to focus on learning as much as possible to become closer to god:
Their job, more than anything else, was to focus on divine communication: to read, to pray and sing, and to work to understand God, in order to improve the health of their souls and the souls of the people who supported them.
It was this distraction from focus on learning that they felt so challenging.
And their solution was interesting: they tried to improve their ability to learn by using their imagination more.
If they could control their wandering mind through creative thoughts, they could keep it focused on what they wanted.
There were also solutions that might strike people today as strange, which depended on imaginary pictures. 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 colour, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations. The challenge was to accept its delights and preferences, in order to take advantage of them.
Authors and artists might do some of the legwork here, by writing vivid narratives or sculpting grotesque figures that embodied the ideas they wanted to communicate.
But 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.
So the imagination can help us focus on what we want, instead of becoming completely distracted.
And the more creative and original an idea we produce, the more memorable it is likely to be.
Just don’t forget, there can be value in getting distracted as well.
We all have our mind wander from time to time. This is when our default mode network of the brain is most active. And research has shown that moments of distraction can give the mind time to come up with creative solutions to challenges.
So while you need to focus, find a way of engaging your imagination.
But then make sure you allow your mind to wander every now and again as well.
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