Michael Metzger

We are all primed. Primers help paint adhere better to a surface. We are primed by various cultures that few recognize. The result is we adhere to all sorts of bad ideas.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes a process psychologists refer to as priming. For instance, if you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite happens if you had just seen WASH. This is called a priming effect. The word EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and WASH primes SOAP.

Priming effects act like ripples on a pond, activating vast networks of associated ideas. If you are primed for the idea of soup, you’re also primed for a multitude of food-related ideas, including fork, hungry, and so on. Neuroimaging researchers map these ripples.

One of their most fascinating discoveries is that individuals cannot know on their own what they’re primed for. Upwards of 95 percent of our behaviors are non-conscious, primed by experiences of which we are not aware. Researchers observed this in a recent experiment at New York University.

NYU students were asked to assemble sentences from a set of five words (e.g., ‘finds he it yellow instantly’). Half the group was asked to write sentences containing words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray. Afterward, students walked down the hall to do another experiment. Researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took for them to get from one end to the other. Students who had fashioned an elderly theme sentence walked more slowly than the others. But when questioned afterward, the slower students all insisted they were not influenced by what they had written.

They were mistaken. Their resistance, however, is evidence of being primed by the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers assume autonomous individuals can be consciously aware of all that shapes them. No need for an outside view, or spiritual guide.

This is misguided. Andy and Larry Wachowski made a film about this, calling it The Matrix. The Enlightenment is The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” What truth? That we’re trapped inside a prison in our mind. Unfortunately, you can’t explain to someone what the Enlightenment has primed us to believe. You have to take the red pill and follow a guide, a Morpheus. He shows you how deep the rabbit-hole of the Enlightenment goes.

The churches in America are some of the main carriers of the Enlightenment. It doesn’t matter if the church is Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Independent, or whatever. It is primed by the Enlightenment in unseen ways. Discovering this requires a mentor, what Kahneman calls “the outside view.” In King Arthur’s court, that was Merlin the wise sage as well as Dagonet the court jester. In “The Matrix,” it’s Morpheus.

Andrew Garfield recently discovered how deeply he’s been primed. He plays a Jesuit missionary in the new film Silence, the story of two Catholic missionaries who endure great suffering when they travel to Japan at a time when Catholicism was outlawed and their presence forbidden. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for cinematography. In preparation for his role, Garfield practiced Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises for one year, under the guidance of a spiritual director, an outsider.

If you happened to see Garfield at the Golden Globes, his visage was a bit remote, as if was seeing more deeply into what primes the entertainment industry. He looks like a changed man. He is. Practicing the Exercises, Garfield said he learned how to “get underneath all the noise.” But that wasn’t all. In one interview, when was asked what most stood out, he said: “What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ.  That was the most surprising thing.”

You don’t have to be Catholic to practice the Exercises. But you do have to have a spiritual director—a Morpheus or Merlin—as well as a Dagonet. It is the only way to discover how deeply the Enlightenment has primed us all. Otherwise, you’re trapped inside a prison in your mind.



Morning Mike Check


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.

One Comment

  1. Well said, Mike. For us evangelicals this is a hard idea to get our heads around. It is encouraging too see more and more evangelicals thinking and talking about spiritual disciplines and spiritual directors, such as your thoughtful post. I also recommend the good work being done at Talbot School of Theology’s Institute for Spiritual Formation (including the insightful writings of its director, Dr. John Coe).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *