008: “25 Words” Through a Glass Darkly

hat have you stored in your mind?
    What images and assumptions are rattling around up there?
    In all that we’re doing here at ReadTheSpirit, we’re focused on making helpful spiritual connections. But that effort doesn’t make much of a difference if our minds already are jammed full of media debris.
    Today, I’m going to share with you a popular experiment that I developed during a University of Michigan Journalism Fellowship in 2001-2002. I spent that year in research on faith, culture and media. As I studied these issues, I kept running into the problem of strong assumptions – including vivid visual images – that people already have stored in their minds about many of the most common concepts in our culture.
    To inventory some of the common images in our minds, I developed this list of  “25 Words” that summon 25 images from our minds.

    I’ve used this experiment with thousands of people in dozens of programs in recent years and I used it again on Saturday during a keynote talk at a “Religions in America” conference at Wayne County Community College in Michigan.

    As usual, people were fascinated by what they experienced in this simple process, so I’m sharing it with you today.
    Do it yourself.
    Then, test the 25 Words by reading them to someone you know.
    Use it with a class or a discussion group.

    Here’s how it works: You’ll find 25 Words in the second half of this article. They’re waiting for you when you click on the link at the end of this portion of the story.
    Now, WAIT before clicking on the link. Get ready with a piece of paper and a pen to write down your responses. When you click over to the list, and as you read each word, jot down a note to yourself about the first visual image that pops into your mind.
    This isn’t a “word association” process. It’s an inventory of the images that pop up in your mind the moment you read these words.

Ready with pen and paper?
So, CLICK on the link and: GO!


1.)    Home
2.)    Tree
3.)    School
4.)    Dog
5.)    Firefighter
6.)    Tornado
7.)    Mountain
8.)    Skyscraper
9.)    Airplane
10.)    Soldier
11.)    Agent
12.)    Patriot
13.)    Police
14.)    Alien
15.)    Gangster
16.)    Freedom
17.)    Terror
18.)    Race
19.)    Investigate
20.)    Pirate
21.)    Danger
22.)    Homeland
23.)    Gun
24.)    Enemy
25.)    Safety

    What’s the point of this?
    Well, there are a number of ways to analyze your list of images, but here’s the most common instruction that I give to groups: Count how many of the 25 images that flashed in your mind represent things that you’ve actually seen “in person.” Then, count up those images that actually came from media you’ve seen (images from movies, TV, the Internet, newspapers or magazines).
    In dozens of experiments with this list, I’ve found that the portion of media-produced images is very high among people under age 25, sometimes as high as 80 percent of the list!
    The reverse is true for many people over age 65 and I’ve met a handful of people over the past few years, all of whom were in their 70s or 80s and don’t watch TV, who claim that they’ve personally seen all 25 images that flashed in their minds.
    These folks have seen a lot in their lives. They don’t watch TV and their visual associations are drawn from personal experience.

Do you see the problem?
    If the mere reading of a single word flashes a media image in your mind, then media moguls potentially can play our minds like pipe organs – pushing various verbal keys to play visual notes in our memories.
    Now, that’s a troubling realization.
    On Saturday, a woman came up to me after the experiment and said, “Thank you for that experience!”
    Then she told me about someone she knows, “and I realize that he’s got all kinds of things filling his mind that he’s always trying to associate with whatever he happens to hear. He’s got all this negative stuff stored up there, all these memories and ideas that are so negative. And I can see it happen. Someone will talk about something that’s happening today and, right away, I can tell that he starts associating what he’s hearing with all this stuff that’s been up there in his mind for years.”
    I nodded. “I understand,” I said.
    She shook her head. “I wish he could clear out all of that and start fresh.”
    “It’s very very hard,” I said. “But you understand the problem. You understand what’s happening.”

    Perhaps this isn’t a problem for you.
    But I’ll bet that, after reading the list –- if you were careful and honest about your visual associations –- you’re asking yourself right now: Who put all that stuff into my head? How can single words summon up media images so easily? And, can I regain control of the associations I’ve stored in my brain?

    I’ll leave you with those questions today.

    Whenever I do this experiment, I’m always eager to hear what people have to say about the experience – and I’m eager to hear responses to the questions I just raised.
    Sprinkled through today’s article, I’ve placed the covers of a few helpful books that may help you sort out some of the most powerful images in American media. They’re all books by Westminster John Knox Press, a leading religious publisher in trying to help people make sense of the often bewildering array of media images showering all around us.
    Obviously, many of the troubling images in our minds are not covered in these books. Most of the troubling images come from news media, TV shows or perhaps from advertising campaigns. But WJK Press is making a very promising start at helping us to sort out the spiritual issues in media.

    CLICK HERE to email me with your thoughts – or click to leave a Comment below that all of our readers can see.

COME BACK throughout the week for these stories:

TOMORROW: 009 A Conversation With Frederick Buechner
THURSDAY: 010 The Gifts of Aging
FRIDAY: 011 Teach Us To Pray

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