How to Control Minds

One of the best movies about mind control that has come out recently is Inception.  Mind control might not be the first connection you make with this action packed blockbuster, but the whole goal of the movie is to direct the mind of the target.  This quest takes the team diving into the world of dreams, building experiences they want the target to go through, and casting illusions they want the target to perceive.  But what was the last straw in the plan?  It was an idea, an idea to be incepted into the mind of the target and, ultimately, an idea to be carried out.

There is a recent debate among philosophers[1], sociologists, linguists[2], and cultural anthropologists around the interaction of thought and language.  In the 19th and 20th centuries came along an idea called linguistic determinism.  What linguistic determinism tries to purport is that language and its structures limit human knowledge and/or thought.  Within linguistic determinism there are varying degrees of belief on the connection between language and thought.  On one end of the spectrum you have belief that holds that a strong connection exists between language and thought so that the limits of language are the limits of cognitive perception.  On the other end, the weaker view holds language and usage simply have an influence over thought[3].  In the movie Inception, the sentence, “my father wants me to be my own man,” was a very powerful thought.

I am not going to try to present a formal case for or against any of these propositions (for I am not qualified to do so), but I do want to entertain the idea that language actually affects us in ways we do not always acknowledge.  I believe we have all experienced the effect.  Do you have a favorite song that has lyrics that resonate with you?  Do you have a favorite author or writer that is able to explain concepts, paint word pictures, and create moments in literature that make sense to you?  Do you have a favorite pastor that you listen to because he is able to make sense of the scripture and give you clear guidance on the application from the text?  Do you have a favorite group of passages that you try to live by because the words make so much sense in your worldview?

There was an old-time horror radio show that I enjoyed on tape with my dad.  In this one episode the protagonists are hired to investigate why a house is supposedly haunted.  Random events occur to the three men separately, but when they reconvene none of them is able to explain what he has experienced, except that it has terrified him to his core.  As a young boy, I laid with my covers pulled over my head, listening to the horrific sounds these terrors made.  The narrator came in after the episode concluded and made the statement that the unknown, the nameless, is always worse because, until we are able to name or properly place something, we are powerless against it.

Is this not how we use language?  As we grow, we are equipped with more and more words to relate our inner thoughts and feelings with reality and to communicate with others.  Words comprise the lens through which we then start to experience the world.  This happens primarily in three areas; identification, discovery, and exploration.

In identification we recognize common things in life and, when we acquire new or different linguistic structures, are able to categorize them.  A perfect example of this is when one becomes a Christian.  You have this growing category called “sin” and the more you find out these things that trespass against the will of God, the more you realized your life before was littered with sin.  You never knew what sin was before!  You may even have known it was wrong, but you did not know the gravity until you were given the new concept, through language, of “sin”.

Language also gives us the tools that we use in discovery.  When we come in contact with something in life that we have never encountered before, someone with good grasp on language will be able to connect the new experiences, feelings, character traits to familiar ones. This process happens until they are able to recognize and classify it in its own unique category.  This is often what happens in the grief cycle, especially when one goes through the loss of a loved one for the first time.  There are complex feelings that are hard to figure out and classify and then to try to appropriately deal with.

Exploration of thoughts and emotions happen because we use language to associate different things.  This is much like discovery, but it is not to find something new but to obtain a deeper understanding of things.  C.S. Lewis in opening A Grief Observed states, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.”  Critical thinking often happens in semantics.  We try to be accurate and precise with our use of language when trying to communicate our feelings or what is occurring in our lives.  We use that critical thinking, accuracy, and precision in language when we reflect on ourselves and situations to try to humbly recognize our situations and ourselves.  This is why some find psychology helpful, for it helps us recognize things in us that we might be going through that we missed and then it helps us name it and own it.

So what does this mean?  How does this help our lives realizing that there is this relationship between our language and our thoughts?  Let us look at some examples.

What is the relationship between thought and bad words?  I am under the thought that offensive words are not necessarily sin.  I am not condoning the usage of these words because I do believe they indicate a serious deficiency in the user’s vocabulary.  When a person is only able to describe something using offensive words in nominal, verbal, adjectival, and adverbial categories it is often hard to understand and sympathize where they land on a matter other than general anger or fear.  The profuse use of offensive words may indicate an inability to express with precision what one is feeling.  We become unable to clearly communicate, even within ourselves.

Proverbs 26:28 states, “a lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.”[4]  If language affects thought and perception, what do you think lying does?  It distorts.  Was what caused Eve to take of the fruit really pride?  Or was Eve deceived into action by the serpent?  Peter Rollins in his book Insurrection has a section entitled “Our Practices Do Not Fall Short of Our Beliefs; They Are Our Beliefs.”  In this section he makes the statement that if we confess with our mouth but we act contrary to the confession that our action is actually speaking to the reality of our belief, not our words[5].  So if we believe a lie, we will live under the perception contrary to reality.  Is this not what we try to accomplish when we lie?  We are trying to keep the approval of those we lie too so they will still think of us, or of a situation, in a desirable way.  This is why even exaggeration falls under the category of deception.  Lying is a direct attempt at mind control.

But what if you believe a lie?  What if you are a victim of your own lying tongue?  Is this why James is so adamant in chapter 1 of his epistle begging the audience “do not be deceived, my beloved brothers”[6] and warning against being deceived[7]?  Is it also what motivates the strong opinion of the tongue in chapter 3?  When we lie to ourselves we skew our own perception and then are forced to correct something we have based our lives on.

But there are some positive examples of how we can use this view in our lives.  In Proverbs and Psalms, the speaker repeatedly asks the listener to listen to his words, to keep his words in their heart, to meditate on the words of wisdom and instruction day and night.  In instruction and education the teacher’s words will give the learner the ability to interact with the concepts and applications being taught.  This is why James warns teachers in James 3:2.

What does this make out of encouragement?  Encouragement used rightly can be a powerful use of language because at the same time we use language to comfort, empathize, motivate, and show appreciation all within a few phrases.  Maybe this is why we are pushed to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”[8] or to “encourage one another and build one another up”[9].

But one of the things that we need to take most importantly with our use of language is how we praise God, specifically in the songs we sing to Him.  For the words we use to worship Him start to frame our perception of Him and also our interaction with Him.  We end up vicariously living our spiritual lives through songs and Christian maxims.  But this can be a beautiful thing!  It may just be me, but when I find a song that resonates with my life it is one of the most powerful moments.  This happens when you are trying to endure heartbreak and loneliness and you stumble upon a Psalm that you are able to connect with and it leads you to resolution by its final couplets.

What I hope you gained from this article is the importance of the words you choose to communicate and how you create thoughts for the people you communicate too.  I hope you realized that there are deeper consequences to the many ways we choose to craft our communication and that this may be a powerfully effective tool or an equally damaging weapon.  In Inception the sentence that birthed the idea, “my father wants me to be my own man,” had lasting effects on the targeted person as well as the powerhouse company he chose to dissolve.  This is a powerful example of how language is inextricably tied to thought.  May this give us pause before we speak and may we humbly and prayerfully present our words to ourselves, others, and God.


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus in which he had the following propositions; Proposition 5.6: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Proposition 5.632: “The subject does not belong to the world, but it is a limit of the world”. Proposition 7: “About what one can not speak, one must remain silent”.

[2] C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man is a critique of a certain language textbook that Lewis saw dangerous lessons leading to a weak worldview.  Although, not directly speaking to the idea of linguistic determinism, it does deal with language and it’s effect on a person’s perspective.

[3] Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, known for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  In this hypothesis came the term linguistic relativity, closely related to linguistic determinism.  There are two forms of linguistic relativity; strong and weak.

[4] ESV

[5] p. 102-3

[6] 1:16, ESV

[7] v. 22, 26

[8] Ephesians 5:19

[9] 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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