Visual Images Sway “Truthiness”

Another in a series of posts from Neil about what the Brain Research can tell us about our faith and teaching.

Colbert Nation fans will recognize the word “truthiness” from the cultural and political juggernaut which is Steven Colbert’s “Colbert Report” (one of my favorite shows).

So imagine my surprise when my favorite political-comedian quoted brain research from the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review about the IMPACT OF VISUALS on our PERCEPTION OF  the “TRUTHINESS” of a speaker’s words.  Researchers have confirmed that our perception of a person’s words can be markedly swayed by the IMAGES associated with their words.  Being that Sunday morning is a highly visual environment, the implications of this research cannot be understated. (see the original research quoted below)

“Truthiness” is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.  And the research says our gut response is impacted by visual images.

Faith could be a synonym for “truthiness”.   Hebrews 11 suggests as much. Faith is a visceral feeling of the truth of something. And if images convey a truth beyond words, as the research indicates, then it comes as no surprise that God has put the IMAGE of the CROSS and Empty Tomb at the center of his truth. They are indelible visuals that almost need no words, or are too deep for words. They explain the heart of God in a dramatic scene that defies logic. On sight, they evoke response before our intellectual neurons even have a chance.

Once again, the Brain research illuminates the importance of using VISUAL-MEDIA in our teaching and worship, and the central importance of story.

It’s not because we need to be “entertained”.

It’s because God built us this way.

A point among many that could be made:
Multi-media software, media-infused teaching for our kids, and media in our worship should be the norm, not the exception.

Properly used, visuals IMPROVE the reception, perception, and memory of the message.  Images not only impact our perception of the truth of what’s being taught, but as the research below points out, images make the storage/retrieval of memories much easier.

Word Study:
VISceral and VISual share “vis” -which is the Indo-European root meaning “power, life, light”.  The Greeks picked it up as “phos” (same them together: vis, fis, phos). The Romans coined the word “VIdeo” …meaning visual, -something you could see.  “VISceral” in antiquity, referred to your inner “gut” feeling, -your inner sense of “truthiness”.
When Jesus said he was the “Light of the World” he was speaking not just to the metaphor of illumination, but of power, life. Jesus is “THE VIS” of the World. Jesus is the VIDEO, the VISUAL.  The image of God. The PHOS of God. Jesus is Truth…THE INSIGHT.

The research cuts both ways. It tells us that visual images can also sway us in the WRONG direction. Take for example, the visual image of your typical boring Sunday School classroom, or a dour teacher seat in a folding chair, or a half-dead-looking preacher. Consider how your front door and sanctuary looks, especially to the seeker. They are sending messages that sway the validity of what you will also say.  And don’t stop there! Consider how it smells -because the brain research also tells us that smells evoke visual and emotional memories.

In our new church here in Florida, we meet in a conference room that has three large projection screens –which make up for the lack of “sanctuary-like” surroundings. The visual images displayed throughout the service are often startling, frequently beautiful, and rarely detracting.  Last Sunday, they brought in a bread-machine to bake the communion bread just before the service.  They get it.

For more on what the Brain research is telling us in the Church, go to

I’ve devoted my ministry to helping church revitalize the look and feel of their children’s ministry. For more about how Bible software attempts to “sway” our children in the way they should go, go to To learn more about an visually awesome Sunday School experience, read my articles about the Rotation model at

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Quotes from the “Psychonomic” Bulletin Article:

“We wanted to examine how the kinds of photos people see every day—the ones that  decorate newspaper or TV headlines, for example—might produce “truthiness,” said lead investigator Eryn J. Newman of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. “We were really surprised by what we found.”

In a series of four experiments in both New Zealand and Canada, Newman and colleagues showed people a series of claims such as, “The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium” and asked them to agree or disagree that each claim was true. In some cases, the claim appeared with a decorative photograph that didn’t reveal if the claim was actually true—such as a thermometer. Other claims appeared alone. When a decorative photograph appeared with the claim, people were more likely to agree that the claim was true, regardless of whether it was actually true.

Across all the experiments, the findings fit with the idea that images help people conjure up images and ideas about the claim more easily than if the claim appeared by itself. “We know that when it’s easy for people to bring information to mind, it ‘feels’ right,” said Newman.

The research has important implications for situations in which people encounter decorative photos, such as in the media or in education. “Decorative photos grab people’s attention,” Newman said. “Our research suggests that these photos might have unintended consequences, leading people to accept information because of their feelings rather than the facts.”

Newman EJ et al (2012). Nonprobative photographs (or words) inflate truthiness. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review; DOI 10.3758/s13423-012-0292-0. Quoted from, the bulletin’s publisher.

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 Neil’s main ministry is developing software for Christian education.
Why does he do it? Because of the research and the experience!






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