12/04/2019

How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks

"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.

Say that you wanted to learn the sequence of the zodiac. Thomas Bradwardine (a 14th-century university master, theologian and advisor to Edward III of England) suggests that you imagine a gleaming white ram with golden horns, kicking a bright red bull in the testicles. While the bull bleeds profusely, imagine that there’s a woman in front of it, giving birth to twins, in a gory labour that seems to split her up to her chest. As her twins burst forth, they’re playing with an awful red crab, which is pinching them and making them cry. And so on."