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Monks also suffered from distraction and ‘mind wandering’

12 September 2019 – Dr Katherine Zieman is looking back to pre-modern times to show that smartphones and new technology might not be to blame for our problems with distraction. According to her research, attention has been an issue since the early days of devotional practice and even monks found it difficult to meditate.

Dr Katherine Zieman is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Fellow who has been researching ‘A history of attention in the premodern era’, during her year-long fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with the Manuscripts, Book and Print Cultures research theme.

Katherine ZiemanWith a background in music, Dr Zieman has spent a lot of time thinking about the use of song in the liturgy and about prayer practices more generally. Through her work on religious writing and devotional practice, she began to think about the concept of attention. ‘I came across a reading about monks trying to meditate and having their mind wander. There was a whole elaborate series of practices to combat mind wandering and help them to focus.’

Dr Zieman says we tend to talk about attention and our ability to focus as a distinctly modern problem but looking back to the late Middle Ages shows that distraction is an innately human problem.

Rise of devotional culture

‘The rise of devotional culture is about a widespread practice of cultivating attention’, Dr Zieman explains, referring to the late middle Ages, when the idea spreads that everyone – not just monks – can pray. That’s where we get the Book of Hours, which Dr Zieman defines as the ‘runaway bestseller of the entire late medieval period.’

As part of her research project at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Dr Zieman has been working with the Library manuscripts and speaking to art historians to see how people of the time are engaging with these prayer books.   One of these early Book of Hours in the Library at Trinity is notable for the many striking faces that appear throughout the pages. Dr Zieman says that what’s particularly fascinating is how all of the faces are in profile except for the face of Christ who is looking straight at the reader. This is an example of a clear intention to engage the readers at a certain point and in a certain way. ‘I’ve looked at a lot of Book of Hours and this one is unusual because it’s so early and it is a really beautiful east Anglican example; to see this gesture showing up so early helps put into context the evolution of a lot of these types of images.’


Image: MS94_114_LO: East Anglia. Mid 14th century. 1-157v.

Dr Zieman has also attended a number of workshops at Trinity which have given her food for thought. A communications workshop on storytelling prompted her to think not only about her ability to communicate her research but the power of stories in helping readers focus, something that has endured beyond early devotional culture. A workshop on digital literacy and attention organised as part of the Digital Humanities workshop series showed her the different ways people engage with digital screens as opposed to Manuscript or Codex.

Nowadays, people’s attention is being pulled in many directions, with marketers competing for what is being perceived as a diminished attention span among consumers. But devotional culture was where we see the mind first being thought of as a resource to colonise.  In an early cue to advertising, Dr Zieman says that ‘devotional culture is one of the first places you can talk about an attention economy’, with people being told that they can invest their attention in certain ways and get something back from it. An entire economy is built up around devotional culture. ‘There’s an economy of material objects, of beads and prayer books that insofar as anyone has disposable income in the Middle Ages, that’s what they’re spending it on.’

As with the illustrations in Books of Hours and early manuscripts, Dr Zieman argues that the technologies we invent to deal with our limitations around attention, reveal much about how we understand our relationship to the world, and why we consider a focused mind to be the right mind.


Dr Zieman has carried out comparative research on the ways different cultures talk about mindfulness, because, as she explains, almost every culture has a practice that involves training your mind to focus. ‘From Shamanism, to Taoism, there are many meditative traditions. If you have a meditative tradition, the idea of mind wandering is going to come up.’

Mindfulness promises a series of mental and physical benefits to its followers, acting as an antidote to the impact of technology on our lives, which is said to wreak havoc with our ability to focus.

In medieval times, however, they realised that distraction came from within. According to Dr Zieman, in those times, ‘If you’re having trouble focusing, it’s because you are sinful or allowing yourself to be tempted by the devil; if you can’t control your own mind what can you control?’ She says that now we talk a lot about smartphones, and other external forces which are to blame for our poor focus but medieval thinkers figured out that attention starts inside and even if you take away the stimuli, you’re bound to have just as many attentional problems.

‘A lot of what modern mindfulness teaches is detachment; there’s a sense of rising above your thoughts or recognising them as being just thoughts and not reality.’ But Dr Zieman argues that in early devotional culture, a connection with emotion was central to achieving successful mindfulness. Here she notes the current political and public discourse in the US, and around the world, where a lot of people are engaging with their emotions in really destructive ways.

Poster on Attention

Image: Dr Katherine Zieman speaking to members of the public at TCD about her research poster on 1st May 2019.

One of her next projects will include a study of Bridget of Sweden, during a research and teaching post in Norway over the coming year. What’s interesting about this well-known contemplative figure in England during the late-Medieval period is that she was ‘very outspoken about current political events’, Dr Zieman explains. However, she argues that this is contrary to the message of mindfulness which should see you removing yourself from the worries of politics. Dr Zieman is interested to see what an activist contemplative looks like at this time.

Spontaneous thought

During her time at Trinity, Dr Zieman has also been engaging with researchers in neuroscience to examine how they approach an issue they call ‘spontaneous thought’. It was not an easy disciplinary boundary to cross, Dr Zieman explains, highlighting how the Trinity Long Room Hub was instrumental in facilitating the introduction to neuroscientists. MS94

Image: MS94_049_LO: East Anglia. Mid 14th century. 1-157v.

‘They’re not sure what, as historians, we have to offer and I’m not sure what I want from them, so sometimes it’s hard to start the conversation.’ Opening up this conversation has been particularly fruitful to Dr Zieman’s research. ‘The neuroscientists are really interested in mind wandering right now, a term coined in pre-modern times.’ Although, Dr Zieman explains that neuroscientists are more inclined to refer to it as ‘spontaneous thought’, she has been able to find out more about the origin of spontaneous thought in the brain and it has really informed her thinking on the topic. ‘There’s one network of your brain that organises the stimuli coming in and when it has nothing to do there’s this default mode network that kicks in and will start sending you the jingle from the advertisement you watched when you were five.’

Being able to provide a history to how attention was thought about has also been interesting for the neuroscientists. This type of inter-disciplinary exchange has been one of the key reasons she has found her fellowship here at the Trinity Long Room Hub so rewarding. ‘It’s really useful to be able to talk to people, especially in fields that aren’t the same as yours, it forces you to make that stretch. In some places it’s easier to start these conversations than others; this place has been very easy to start those conversations.’

Katherine Zieman is a scholar of late medieval literature and culture. During her time at Trinity, her mentor was Dr Brendan O'Connell, School of English.  Her first book, Singing the New Song: Literacy and Liturgy in Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) focused on the medieval institution known as the ‘song school’, in which ritual Christian texts and their tunes were taught as entry-level literacy skills. Her second, forthcoming book, Song and Mediation: Richard Rolle and Cultures of Devotional Reading, discusses the varied dissemination of the works of the Yorkshire mystic, Richard Rolle, as a way of examining the explosion in devotional book production that marks fifteenth-century England.

The Trinity College Dublin Neurohumanities Seminar Series 2019 - 2020 is ongoing and has a series of upcoming events open to the public.

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