Does your mind ever behave as if you weren’t getting enough fibre in your diet? Does it ever seem to plug up with loge -or whatever the noun form of logy is? Mine does that whenever it doesn’t get sufficient exercise, I find -not enough thinking perhaps. On the other hand, even when I think of something to think, keeping it on track is more like trying to keep a cat on a trail: every time something passes by or rustles in the bushes, it’s off. I love the adventure, mind you, and yet I can’t help but wonder if it’s supposed to wander like that. I mean, is it a design flaw, or a sign of trouble in the pipes somewhere -a detour around a badly maintained section of road? Frankly I’m tired of trying to balance loge with rogue.
Of course, although it’s sometimes a problem in the dead of night when my eyes are unable to distract it, by and large it doesn’t care what’s going on around it, or in what direction it was originally pointed. My mind has a mind of its own.
But maybe all minds are like that; maybe we all have a naughty homunculus (or perhaps, a gynuncula) that sits at the steering wheel somewhere inside and veers from road to road with merry abandon. An insightful essay by Jamie Kreiner, from the University of Georgia, pointed out that the problem was also common amongst medieval monks: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-to-reduce-digital-distractions-advice-from-medieval-monks Who would have guessed?
‘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… 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… The ideal was a mens intentus, a mind that was always and actively reaching out to its target.’
Of course, even with the best intent, their minds strayed; something had to be done about it. ‘When the mind wanders, the monastic theorists observed, it usually veers off into recent events. Cut back your commitments to serious stuff, and you’ll have fewer thoughts competing for your attention… Most Christians agreed that the body was a needy creature whose bottomless appetite for food, sex and comfort held back the mind from what mattered most.’ You can see where they’re going with this.
But there is a limit to the extent to which you can deprive a body, and so, ever mindful of the goal, they decided to turn the problems into solutions -well, sort of… ‘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.’ So, ‘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.’
The act of producing these memory aides was supposed to enable concentration and avoid distracting thoughts. Of course, as Kreiner points out, ‘caveat cogitator: the problem of concentration is recursive. Any strategy for sidestepping distraction calls for strategies on sidestepping distraction.’ I used to hate cleaning my teeth when I was a child, so my mother, no doubt fearful of the dental bills she would have to pay, asked me to try not to think of a puppy while I was brushing them. The idea was so bizarre, I’d end up inadvertently finishing the trip around my mouth while trying desperately to forget about the puppy… Uhmm, well maybe the medieval monks were not supposed to use distractions to fight distractions, but then again, my mother wasn’t running a religious institution, just a bathroom.
Anyway, as Kreiner also describes, ‘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 visualise the material they were processing. A branchy tree or a finely feathered angel… 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.’
Kreiner even teaches these medieval cognitive techniques to her students. She thinks that ‘Constructing complex mental apparatuses gives them a way to organise – and, in the process, analyse – material they need to learn for other classes. The process also keeps their 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, I thought I’d give it a try. I’m currently trying to learn coding -computer programming- and my mind, not understanding a thing about what I’m reading, tends to wander off. The whole thing seems so alien to an older person like me who was brought up on the words and metaphor of poetry that I despaired of ever being able to create stick-figures in it, let alone finely feathered angels -even from the Coding for Kids book I eventually digressed into.
There is, however, an ever-repeating figure that sticks with me from the book. The code I’m learning is called Python and helpfully, the figure that keeps greeting me is a smiley snake wearing a baseball cap. Just thinking about the smile and the cap, helps me to relax -makes me smile- even though if I saw it slithering across the table, my concentration would likely refocus on my legs, not its cap. But safely confined to the book, I find it centers me. It holds my attention like that puppy I had to try to forget. And when it’s hiding somewhere, I can hardly wait for it to reappear, because you never know with snakes, eh?
As for helping me focus on the code, well I can remember it’s called Python, at least… I mean, that’s something, right?