Chapter Two: Psychological Power of Imprinted Pictures

Plato’s Cave: An Allegory About Pictures To Represent Christ

Plato’s allegory of the cave illustrates something that happens to children taken to Sunday School and given pictures to represent Christ.

The dwellers in Plato’s cave were chained to face the interior wall. They could not see the sun outside the cave. The cave-dwellers could see only shadows on the wall of their cave, shadows from real objects outside the cave. The cave dwellers accepted the shadows as being the real objects.

If anyone was released from the cave, they needed to learn to see in the sunlight; then they would feel sorry for those still in the cave.

But those who remained chained in the cave stayed convinced that they were observing reality. They scorned those who went out into the light. If any free person tried to release a prisoner and take them out into the light they were in mortal danger. Let the cave dwellers catch them in the act and they would be put to death.

In some such way children taken to Sunday School see shadows on the wall. “Pictures” of Christ illustrate every story about Christ to make the story seem real. The pictures are labeled with the names of Jesus Christ.

Soon the children begin to think the pictures are valid representations of Jesus and they begin to treat the pictures as reality.

Imprinted Pictures Control Development Of Concepts

The first image or definition we accept for any name will then control and delimit any other image and information that we will identify and associate with that name in the future. The first image accepted as the definition of a noun is imprinted as the permanent concept for that noun. Only a willful rejection of the imprinted image can get rid of that image. It is almost never done.

If the educational research into “imprinting” (or “imprintation”) has any significance and application for teaching who Christ is, then the church has cause for alarm. Today Christian Education programs do imprint pictures into the minds of children and of new converts just when they are ready to form their basic concept of Christ and God. Will this imprinted picture lead the future church to fail to recognize the Scriptural Christ and ultimately to reject him (unknowingly) and to follow a false Christ?

Research shows that the imprinted concept controls and delimits the future. The imprinted concept becomes the master key or master plan for determining the future of that imprinted concept. Any development of that concept must conform to the imprinted concept. Any development of the concept can grow only if that imprinted concept allows it to grow.

The importance of starting with a correct concept is shown by imprintation research in the animal and human worlds. Here is some research history that shows that the imprinted concept controls all that follows:

In 1935, Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian behavioral scientist, used the word “imprint” to refer to the rapid learning process that causes a baby chicken or a young animal to recognize its parent. The English word “imprint” is the translation of his German word Pragung, closely related to the English phrase “to stamp in,” or “stamping in” (Sluckin: 6). So imprintation in animals refers to the rapid acquisition of an animal’s primary social bond to its parents; it occurs during a limited time early in the life of the animal.

Imprintation in animals forms the animal’s social and affectional system. It has been called the “approach and following response” (Sluckin: 74). In educational terms it has been called “self-reinforced learning” (Sluckin: 74) because once a duckling is imprinted with the knowledge (correctly or incorrectly) of who its mother is, it needs no further reinforcement from outside. For the same reason it is called “non-reinforced learning”: it needs no reinforcement to learn it.

Imprinting is distinguished from other kinds of learning processes by several of its characteristics:

1. Acquisition occurs only in a brief period of the life of an individual.

2. Once it occurs, the individual acts as though the knowledge was innate, like an instinct.

3. It is not learned on the basis of trial and error.

4. It is not learned on the basis of reward and punishment. “Instead, an exposure to certain stimuli, very limited in time, determines its entire subsequent behavior.” (Sluckin: 8)

This imprinting occurs during a brief period of readiness. Lorenz observed that goslings and ducklings, between their twelfth and forty-eighth hours, adopted and became permanently attached to whatever creature they were with at that time. Imprinted chicks accepted the foster mother (and all of her kind) as one of their own species.

The “ugly duckling” story shows how imprinting works. The baby swan, in those first few hours when it was looking for its “mother,” saw the mother duck—and imprintation occurred. The swan took the duck as its mother.

After forty-eight hours it becomes increasingly difficult to imprint baby chicks. Their minds quickly imprint and close to any new ideas of who the real mother might be. After a week it becomes impossible for them to change: older chicks can no longer identify themselves with any new mother, foster or real. (Crile, 11)

Tracing the concept further, Spalding (in 1873) observed that there is a critical time in the life of an animal for acquiring certain behaviors. Some behavior must be learned during that critical time or it will not be learned at all, he concluded. (Sluckin: 4)

William James (in Principles of Psychology speaks of what he called the law of transitoriness: “Many instincts ripen at a certain age and then fade away”. (Sluckin: 4-5) James saw that the tendency of chickens and calves to follow and to become attached will then fade out after a few days.

The crucial time for imprinting, says Crile, is when a baby first becomes capable of following a mother or escaping an enemy just before the time it begins to fear strangers. Lambs and fawns (which like ducklings are born fully developed and capable of following) are imprinted almost immediately at birth. Raccoons and foxes, born helpless (like most baby birds), cannot be imprinted until they are ready to move around and to follow their mothers. (Crile, 12)

The crucial period for man is the period from birth to age four or five (the time of “childhood amnesia”), says Crile. A child’s brain is different from an adult’s: the temporal cortex is still in the process of development. Although the higher centers are undeveloped, some things are being written into the lower centers of the brain.

During early childhood only a few conscious memories carry over to the adult years, yet it is a time when behavior patterns are inexorably being established. Sluckin says that “the sensitive period of imprinting tends to continue so long as no firm imprinting has taken place” (Sluckin: 82). Then comes an instinct of flight—flight from anything that is not imprinted.

When does imprinting end? Imprinting is complete when it leads to rejection of things not already imprinted. As soon as imprinting occurs in animals the process is closed to further imprinting. Imprinting leads to fear of things not imprinted: “imprinting ends as the result of imprinting.” (Sluckin: 91). Fearfulness, flight, or “making strange” are indications that the infant has been imprinted and so is rejecting anything else.

Applications to Religious Education

Questions for Christian Education
Do human minds acquire their concept of God similarly to the way animals are imprinted to identify their mothers? Is a person’s Christ-concept imprinted by the first concept that person accepts for Christ? Is there a critical time of readiness for receiving a concept of Christ? Does the image we accept for Christ control all future concepts that we will permit ourselves to have of Him?

Obviously, the most formative time (critical time) for any concept is that time when the mind is open to receive it. This is when the concept is grasped. A person who has curiosity and questions is a person who learns more rapidly than the person who has no questions. When the person asks a question he opens his mind to receive new information or new concepts.

For instance, when a person becomes aware of the existence of the name of another person and asks “Who is that? To whom does that name belong?” the inquirer is opening his mind to receive a new concept.

The image he receives at that time (as being the answer to his question) will remain unchallenged from that time forth, unless he is confronted with a major reason to doubt the validity of that image. The concept may grow immensely, but only in very unusual cases will it later be rejected as invalid. It is stamped on the mind as the basic identifying image for recognizing and knowing that person. If the image happens to be an erroneous picture, it will cause the person whose mind is imprinted with it to overlook and not recognize the real person who belongs to that name. Nothing inconsistent with that imprinted image will be recognized as belonging to it.

Indelibly Imprinted
Similar principles apply to Christian education. People imprinted with a picture as their concept of Christ soon come to the time that they will not separate that picture from anything they believe about Christ. On a functional level, the picture is “Christ” for their thought processes.

Yet the modern church uses “pictures of Christ” to give small children a concept of Christ. (The rationale is: “We think in pictures. We need pictures to be able to think.”) This picture is given during the small child’s time of readiness; it answers the child’s question, “Who is Christ?” The picture is imprinted as the answer to the child’s curiosity about who Jesus is.

“This is Jesus.” If a false or erroneous picture is given, the child does not know the difference. If the picture is idolatrous, the child does not recognize this fact. He receives the picture as his frame of reference for Christ just as readily as he would receive a legitimate frame of reference. It is “Jesus” to him, especially if it is given by people he or she trusts.

From that time onward, will the child reject any concept of Christ (consciously or unconsciously) that does not correspond to this picture? “Give us a child until he six, and he will (always) be ours,” is the old saying.

While small children sing the songs and hear the stories about Jesus, the teachers direct the children’s inquisitive eyes toward these pictures. A child’s questioning mind quickly observes that when he hears the name of Christ he should think of those pictures. The pictures satisfy the child’s curiosity and become their normative concept for Christ.

Once a person’s mind is imprinted with his concept of Christ he feels prepared and equipped to make his decisions for or against Christ. Even if his concept of Christ should happen to be false and idolatrous, he is not aware of that error. He believes that his concept of Christ is the valid concept of Christ, and he does not consider the possibility that it may be a false concept. Possessing his image, he feels equipped to distinguish between what is Christ and what is not Christ. When he chooses to believe in Christ he is choosing to believe in the “Christ” that corresponds to his imprinted mental image, whether that image corresponds to reality or not. Likewise, when he chooses to reject “Christ” he may be rejecting a true or a false Christ, depending upon the validity of his imprinted mental image. To him, it is “Christ.”

The master imprinted mental image tells him whether to accept or reject other concepts that may be advanced to him as part of the concept of Christ. Things dissimilar to his image will be rejected automatically as false and inappropriate for addition to his Christ-concept. Even Biblical data that does not conform to the imprinted Christ-concept will be rejected. Some rationale will be developed to reinterpret and dismiss the data that does not fit the imprinted image.

We may well ask again, Will a child imprinted with a substitute image for Christ ever be able to recognize and comprehend that fact if the image is false and idolatrous? If the true Christ should later appear at an unexpected time, would the child be able to recognize him? It would be most tragic to be looking for “Christ” and yet reject the true Christ because the true Christ did not correspond to the substitute image or idol. Could this really happen?

Such a tragedy did happen in the Bible. Many pages of the Bible focus on the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Christ. The Jewish leaders rejected Christ because he did not conform to their imprinted expectations of what the Christ would be like. More pages of the Gospels are devoted to the crucifixion of Christ than to almost any other subject.

The Pharisees and other Jewish leaders were imprinted with an erroneous mental concept of “Christ.” They were committed to their erroneously-imprinted “picture” of “Christ.” They were sure they believed in Messiah (Christ) and they eagerly awaited his advent to deliver them from their ungodly enemies, but they had the wrong mental picture of him.

They knew what they expected Christ to be like. This image was vivid and clear in their minds. They were sure that it was a valid image because they had Scriptures that seemed to support it: they could quote the Scriptures to prove their concept was right.

The Pharisees were not aware that their imprinted mental image of the “Christ” was causing them to overlook the presence of the true Christ in their presence. They had failed to read the Scriptures correctly. A wrong image of Christ had become imprinted in their minds and they could not accept the fact that their mental image was wrong. Nor would their erroneous mental image allow their mental image to be corrected.

The world since their day knows the supreme tragedy of those men who fixed their concept of “Christ” on the wrong image: they were the ones who ignorantly crucified the one they said they awaited.

Summary and Conclusion

Sunday Schools today imprint on the minds of their students the concept that a picture is the correct image for the name of Christ: the true master concept of Christ.

The first concept provides the form into which development of that concept must fit. Educational research into imprinting, if it has any bearing on Christian Education, shows the church how “pictures of Christ” (as the basic concept of Christ) form the first concept of Christ into the permanent concept of Christ. This concept is of permanent duration for imprinted individuals. Pictures to represent Christ, once they are imprinted in a person’s mind, have great power to influence and limit any future concept of Christ.

It is not likely that a person will ever seriously question the validity of his imprinted Christ-concept, even if the person becomes a lifelong student of the Bible. Everything the Bible says about Christ will be mentally filtered through that imprinted, first picture-image and will be accepted or rejected—or reinterpreted—to make it conform to the imprinted image. Thus, pictures given as the first Christ-concept are imprinted in the mind and are powerful: they have eternal consequences.

Bibliographic References and Notes

Geo. E. Crile, A Naturalistic View of Man; (New York: The World Publishing Co. 1969).

James, William. Principles of Psychology, Vol. 2, Chapter 24.

Sluckin, Wladyslaw. Imprinting and Early Learning (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1973).