... conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm

Alphabet Tyranny

You are under a spell if you are reading this. The sorcerer? The alphabet from which words are constructed, according to Leonard Shlain. But that thralldom is passing, he contends. The flood of images in which we now live is restoring a long-lost balance between our linear left brain hemispheres and the visual right ones. That's big news: Today's enormous advances in image technology -- from graphic advertising to the Internet to films and television -- are bringing to an end a 5,000 year reign of misogyny. They are changing culture itself.

Alphabets fostered the ascendancy of the linear left brain. That's where reading/writing/'rithmetic are processed. Shlain makes a powerful argument that with that ascendancy there were three big losers: women, goddesses and images. Now, he believes, photography has done for images what the printing press did for words. Both technologies affected the ways our brains work, Dr. Shlain believes.

Images are driving enormous changes in our brains as well as our cultures, Shlain contends. Everyone's right brains -- men's and women's alike -- are stimulated when we use computers. Where writing typically required the right hand and the left brain, keyboards and screens engage both, like a musical instrument. (Yes, music lives predominantly on the right lobe of the brain.) Relationships -- formerly associated with the right brain and women -- are being reinforced by e-mail, cell phones, and beepers. Get the idea?

While Dr. Shlain details a sobering and bloody history of cultures embracing literacy in his book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, he is equally quick to laud the powerful good generated by words, writing and books. It is balance for which he pleads. Don't rely on a single communication technology.

The left brain has had pride of place for 5,000 years, with often devastating results: dualistic and egocentric ways of looking at the world, humans divorced from nature, a constrained way of seeing time and space, of thinking about reality. It will take time and perhaps pain for those who have exercised left-brain-based power to adjust. But Dr. Shlain assures us there is no turning back. Our image-happy right brains are here to stay. And the world will be better for it.

[This Program was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]




Leonard Shlain

    ... Leonard Shlainis an author, thinker and surgeon. Dr. Shlain believes the arrival of alphabet literacy in cultures worldwide unbalanced humans' right and left brains. Women, goddesses and images all suffered as cultures went mad. He explores these ideas in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. Dr. Shlain is chief of laproscopic surgery at San Francisco's California-Pacific Medical Center. He also wrote Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, Sex, Time and Power and Leonardo's Brain.


Sadly, Dr. Shlain died in May, 2009 of brain cancer. The world is diminished by his absence.

Conversation 1

Leonard Shlain describes how a human child's brain learns. He relates that physiology to Western education (reading, writing and arithmetic,) three linear/sequential functions best performed by the left hemisphere of right-handed people. He explains how both hemispheres are required to speak and listen.


Conversation 2

Building on the dramatic functional differences between right and left human brain lobes, Dr. Shlain contends that when reading and writing were introduced, the left hemisphere was reinforced at the expense of the right. He suggests there were three cultural results: goddesses disappeared, women's rights were taken away and images became abhorrent. Crediting writing as one of humankind's most important technological revolutions, Dr. Shlain offers his theory of the cultural consequence of the arrival of the West's three alphabet-based texts. He starts with the world's first alphabet-based text -- the Old Testament -- drawing on its First and Second Commandments for vivid examples of how cultures that become enthralled by alphabet literacy denigrate the right hemispheric way of knowing.



Conversation 3

Before writing, Dr. Shlain contends, we had a much greater balance between intuitive/holistic ways of thinking and linear/sequential ones. He cites what happened to women, images and goddesses in the Roman Empire and among followers of Jesus of Nazareth when this gentle prophet's exceedingly wise words were transcribed into the West's second alphabet text. Dr. Shlain compares the resulting misogyny to the chivalry, courtly love and cathedrals to Notre Dame evident when Europe emerged from the (illiterate) Dark Ages. Dr. Shlain suggests we've overlooked the way brains process information as we've concentrated on the influence of a child's family and culture. He describes the enormous impact in the West of the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent.


Conversation 4

Dr. Shlain links the printing press and the Age of Reason to Europe's murderous religious excesses. He recalls 15th and 16th century mass murders of wise women -- witch hunts -- suggesting they were most virulent at the time and in those countries that had the steepest rise in literacy rates. The effects of linear logic are explored. Dr. Shlain appeals for better balance between left and right hemispheric ways of knowing. He describes cultural shifts he associates with the 19th century invention of photography and discovery of electromagnetism, confident photography did for images what the printing press did for the written word. He characterizes the brain's beta waves (generated when one reads) as associated with concentration, contrasting them to the alpha and theta waves (generated when one watches television) which he associates with contemplation.



Conversation 5

Within 10 years of the introduction of movies, film attendance surpassed church attendance, Dr. Shlain tells us, one of his examples of the "iconic revolution" he believes we're experiencing. He emphasizes the astonishing simultaneous come-back of women's rights and changes in men's values and behavior. Using examples, Dr. Shlain contends that any time a culture depends too much on one form of communication, it unbalances itself. He suggests ways he believes computers and the Internet are feminizing culture and reintroducing the voice of the right hemisphere. He defends television, contrasting the first 50 years of the 20th century to the second 50, the first drenched in blood, the second in images.



Conversation 6

Dr. Shlain links his own search for a triggering event which led humans to kill each other over religion to the profound impression newsreel images of concentration camps made on him as a child. He reminds us that all men and women have both a masculine and a feminine side and summarizes his contention that we're witnessing the end of 5,000 years of patriarchal misogyny, the result of our enormous advances in image technology.




Related Links:

Dr. Shlain has a website where you can explore his ideas further.

Dr. Shlain's national bestseller, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess:The Conflict Between Word and Image is published by Penguin/Arkana.

The timeline Dr. Shlain published on his website is a revealing view of human history.

We recorded a second program with Dr. Shlain focused on Sex, Time and Power near the end of 2003.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.



Not only was Dr. Shlain an imaginative and creative thinker, he was also a generous and compassionate soul. It was a please to have spent time with him on two occasions. His support for our work was very helpful to us.


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