CU Boulder alumna Jamie Kreiner shares ‘medieval cognitive practices’ with her students
Jamie Kreiner (Hist/Mus,’04) thinks a lot about thinking. Her new book, The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction, achieved a rare feat for a scholarly work: The Wall Street Journal called it “lucid and vivid.” The New York Times hailed it as “charming and peculiar.” A feature in The New Yorker deemed it “wry and wonderful.”
“That was crazy,” says Kreiner, a historian at the University of Georgia, whose field is late antiquity and the Middle Ages. “Historians of the early Middle Ages like myself usually only expect people in our small area will read our books.”
Far from being masters of meditation, monks suffered from distraction as much as modern mortals, according to Kreiner. For them, failure to focus on self-enlightenment kept them from God.
Some believed “demons deploy[ed] intrusive thoughts … custom-fit to their targets.” Others blamed their lack of will power. Worse, they feared distraction was “primordial .... the result of humanity’s initial separation from God.”
To learn how monks sought to be more mindful, Kreiner studied holy men and women who lived from about 300 to 900 A.D. in areas as far-flung as Ireland and Mesopotamia. Their remedies ranged from fasting and isolation to silence and sleeping standing up.
One monk even nailed a cucumber to the wall to deny himself the pleasure of eating it. Staying on task was often made more difficult because monasteries were often far from airtight. Many ran charities, organized festivals and offered counseling.
Distraction, monks realized, was part of being human. “Because they saw the mind as embedded in all these other systems, there was no single fix,” says Kreiner, who serves as associate dean of humanities.
“They realized they needed to try to do lots of different things simultaneously to thwart distraction. They knew you would never solve the problem permanently. You could only improve your relationship to it.”
To help first-year students study, she has taught them “medieval cognitive practices.” Kreiner borrowed one technique from French monk Hugo of St. Victor, who wrote a book about how to build a mental ark. He imagined that each of its planks, beams and compartments represented specific theological concepts or facts, and each area permitted infinite intellectual storage capacity like hard drive folders.
“For a student, this might mean building a solar system to think about organic chemistry, a city block to think about conjugations in Latin, or a massive hotel for a marketing exam,” she says.
Being focused wasn’t always easy for her. She played clarinet in the University of Colorado Boulder wind ensemble, but working part-time jobs meant she had to struggle to find time to rehearse in practice rooms.
The Denver native credits clarinet professor Daniel Silver with getting her interested in cognitive practices. He taught her how to best manage her time while practicing.
“He was, like, you can get a lot done if you’re watching yourself and notice immediately when you zone out. Then you can make conscious choices about why you’re practicing and respond to your inner feedback right away.”
At CU Boulder, Kreiner majored in history and music, and her career path came by chance. When she was junior, a history class she wanted to take on Nazi Germany was full, but one on the early Middle Ages had plenty of seats.
“I didn’t even think those centuries existed,” she recalls. “I found there was something really appealing about kind of reconstructing something you had no idea about.” She earned her master’s and PhD at Princeton and later received a fellowship at its prestigious Institute for Advanced Study.
Kreiner relishes digging into seemingly off-beat topics. She is working on an article about what monks thought about popular music. Her previous book was Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West.
“I like exploring history through unexpected subjects. It helps people connect better to history because these subjects stand out. They give us access to how people lived, thought, and how they were affected by forces that are maybe less obvious,” she says.
Kreiner says stray thoughts don’t derail her. “I don’t get distracted easily,” she says. “I say ‘No’ to a lot of things, so my plate isn’t too full. I also stick to a schedule pretty closely and do my hardest work in the morning before the day gets cluttered.”