Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Dangers of Learning to Read

In our modern culture, reading is seen as an unmitigated good -- the source of accumulated knowledge as well as social and economic advancement. However, there appears to be an unexpected dark side. Observing world events, I am often reminded of this other side of reading. In a historical context that may be relevant to our times, we can see that literacy, especially new literacy in a formerly backward group, may be linked to intolerance, radicalism and the worst kinds of violence. Author Leonard Shlain tells us of the original “iconoclasts,” long ago:

“In the eight century, a sect arose from within the ranks of its highly literate clergy that so despised images that its members declared an all-out war against statues and paintings. . . . At first, they sought out only religious images to smash. Church mosaics, painted icons, and stained-glass artistry fell to their savage assaults. Later their targets also included painters, sculptors and craftsmen. They even murdered those whose crime it was to love art. Monks who resisted were blinded and had their tongues torn out. The iconoclasts beheaded the Patriarch of the Eastern Church in 767 for refusing to support their cause. The iconoclast movement never spread to illiterate Western Europe; its madness consumed only the segment of Christendom that boasted the highest literacy rate. Artists fled for their lives from Byzantium, heading for the western court of Charlemagne whose largely illiterate courtiers welcomed them with open arms.”

Re-consecrated Shrines

When we are trying to understand something fundamental about human beings and the human brain, it seems wise to look, as much as possible, to other ages and other cultures to see the full range of what we need to consider. This is effectively what has been provided by Leonard Shlain in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess--The Conflict Between Word and Image.

Shlain, a surgeon from Mill Valley, California, spent seven years drawing together elements from many cultures and thousands of years of history to weave a narrative and an argument about the sometimes catastrophic interplay of image, alphabetic writing, religion, gender relationships and human history. For the vast sweep of the topic, Shlain's achievement is astonishing -- although it is not always entirely convincing. One does not have to accept all of Shlain's argument, however, to be persuaded that he is dealing with a topic that is well worth our attention. His view is bold and he delivers new insights and information that substantially enlarge our understanding of important historical dynamics -- as well as helping us, strangely perhaps, with developing a better understanding of some of the main issues of our own time.

While on a tour of Mediterranean archaeological sites years ago, Shlain was told that many shrines had originally been consecrated to a female deity. Then, later, “for unknown reasons, unknown persons reconsecrated” the shrines to a male deity. After some consideration, Shlain “was struck by the thought that the demise of the Goddess, the plunge in women's status, and the advent of harsh patriarchy and misogyny occurred around the time that people were learning how to read and write.”

He wondered whether “there was something in the way people acquired this new skill that changed the brain's actual structure.” Shlain points out that in the developing brain, “differing kinds of learning will strengthen some neuronal pathways and weaken others.” Applying what is known of the individual brain to that of a whole culture, Shlain “hypothesized that when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric ones. . . .” This change resulted, he proposed, in “a decline in the status of images, women's rights, and goddess worship.”

Using Both Sides

In developing this approach, Shlain points out that his own occupation as surgeon (and as an associate professor of surgery) probably has contributed in significant ways. By selection, training and daily work, it is often observed that surgeons have to move constantly back and forth between right hemisphere and left hemisphere modes of thought. Accordingly, Shlain observes that his “unique perspective led [him] to propose a neuroanatomical hypothesis to explain why goddesses and priestesses disappeared from Western religions.”

The experience of surgeons is thus unlike many scholars and historians. The latter are expected to use mainly one side only -- the left side of the brain, the world (generally) of words, grammar, logic and highly specialized analysis. Less weight is given to the pictures, images and the large-scale, global view so characteristic of the right side of the brain. It is widely recognized in some circles that there is often a trade off between verbal and visual skills. This tradeoff is recognized in the half-serious joke sometimes told by neuroscientists: “Never trust a surgeon who can spell.” If you are too good with the mechanics of writing, perhaps you may not be good enough with the mechanics of visualizing, locating and removing a dangerous tumor. Unlike many other professionals, surgeons cannot avoid being both “bookish” and “hands on.”

Two Hemispheres Through History

Years ago, when I was researching my earlier book, In the Mind's Eye, I found that always in the background, behind and under every story and every neurological observation, was my own awareness of the larger implications of the dual nature of the two hemispheres of the human brain. I was aware that this then relatively new understanding of the brain provided the larger context for most of the things I was writing. (While we have since learned that the roles of the two hemispheres is more complex than previously thought, the contrasting functions are still useful ways of thinking about the brain and cognitive processes.)

Along with this awareness, however, came a quiet but persistent series of questions. If we are now, in fact, moving from a present world largely based on words to an emerging new world increasingly based on images, has this happened before in other periods of history and how did it happen? In the past, were there whole societies and cultures largely based on right-hemisphere kinds of knowledge -- as ours seems to be based largely on left-hemisphere forms of knowledge and understanding? What would be the main consequences of following one approach over the other? What is gained and what is lost in each direction? And what happens to various factions and power groups within these societies when one group takes over from the other and there is a substantial change in one direction or another?

I wondered why certain religions and certain cultures seem to revere the written word and the book so very highly (two relatively new technologies in the long history of the human race)--and seem so ready, from time to time, to explode with a destructive force full of fear and hatred for images and everything linked to them? And what might all this mean for us today if we are, in fact, beginning to go through such a major change once again? I knew just enough of history to suspect that there was a major story to be told. But these questions were outside the scope of my own research--and I had no time to look into them further.

Years later, Shlain's wide-ranging analysis has provided a rich and thought-provoking series of possible answers to these questions. His observations show some of the wonderful possibilities, but also some of the frightening prospects. It is the kind of book that holds your attention long after you have put it down -- turning the evidence and arguments over in your mind, returning to passages, trying to see whether or not the pattern holds -- and trying to sort out what it might mean for our own times. It is a very different picture from what we are usually given. It is full of ideas that many will find very hard to accept. Sometimes he seems to push his material too hard to make it fit his thesis. However, in the end, his perspective may prove to be far more perceptive and pertinent than many more conventional interpretations by specialists and professionals.

In a series of 35 tightly-constructed chapters Shlain surveys an enormously broad territory--“Image/Word,” “Hunters/Gatherers,” “Right Brain/Left Brain,” “Hieroglyphs/Isis,” “Abraham/Moses,” “Athens/Sparta,” “Taoism/Confucianism,” “Jesus/Christ,” “Muslim Veils/Muslim Words,” “Mystic/Scholastic,” “Protestant/Catholic,” “Sorcery/Science,” “Page/Screen.” With example after example, he attempts to show that, in general, the old goddess-linked, polytheistic religions are more concerned with the cycles of life, more tolerant, less given to religious warfare and tended to exhibit the values and perspectives of the right hemisphere. The newer, literacy-linked, monotheistic religions, on the other hand, are more given to single-minded pursuit of narrow group goals, are often intolerant and self-righteous in the extreme, can be extraordinarily savage in extended religious warfare (in spite of peaceful religious teachings they pretend to follow) and tend to exhibit the values and narrow perspectives typical of the left hemisphere of the brain.

Shlain argues that these changes were brought about, remarkably, by learning to use alphabetic writing systems. “Aside from obvious benefits that derived from their ease of use, alphabets produced a subtle change in cognition that redirected human thinking. . . . Alphabets reinforced only half of the dual strategy that humans had evolved to survive. . . .” Each part of this “duality perceived and reacted to the world in a different way; a unified response emerged only when both complementary halves were used.” “All forms of writing increase the left brain's dominance over the right.” Learning to read and write “supplants all-at-once gestalt perception with a new, unnatural, highly abstract one-at-a-time cognition.”

New Thoughts About The New World

Consequently, according to Shlain, the rapid spread of literacy and inexpensive printed materials with Gutenberg's press in 1454 had mixed results. “The rapid rise of literacy rates wrought by the printing press was a boon to European science, literature, poetry, and philosophy. And yet it seemed no country could escape the terrible religious upheaval that inevitably followed the march of the metal letters.” Shlain provides detailed descriptions of the religious wars of this period.

The possibilities inherent in one predisposition versus another is probably most clear in Shlain's speculations about the discovery of the New World. If the Old World discoverers had been more tolerant and less single-minded, he argues, this sad period of history might have been very different. “Had the discovery and invasion of the New World been undertaken by a culture other than sixteenth-century Europeans driven mad by the printing press, a different scenario might have ensued. In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great made peace treaties with Dravidian tribes in India and Scythians in Thrace; people as exotic as any he would have encountered in America.

Unencumbered by the intolerance that comes with alphabet monotheism, Alexander did not feel compelled to eradicate the local religions and enslave the native populations.” Alternatively, “If Julius Caesar had discovered the New World, would he have destroyed the local population, stolen their lands, and rooted out their culture? Likely not. This wise pagan would have forged alliances, fostered trade, and treated the people with respect.” This should be expected, according to Shlain, because this is the policy he actually pursued with the “blue-painted Celts and Pics.”

It is noteworthy that in Shlain's view, the most dangerous historical times appear to be soon after the growth and establishment of widespread literacy. The more people learned to read, the more likely they were going to find good and authoritative reasons to begin slaughtering each other.

It is doubtful whether this will be a popular view among the growing numbers of well-intentioned literacy programs. However, perhaps we can be grateful that in the US and other advanced economies we are now mostly working on the last few percentage points -- rather than the first burst of broad-spread literacy, as in other parts of the world, especially certain developing countries. For the advanced economies, the dangerous period has largely passed; for the newly developing, the dangerous period has just begun (giving us a new and troubling perspective on the raising militancy of fundamentalist religions in a number of countries). Not being aware of this pattern, our leaders and their advisors are puzzled by world events as they unfold.

Hoping For A New Balance

Shlain gives us an unsettling picture of what can happen with the rapid spread and deep effects of a powerful technology -- reading, writing and the book. In his Epilogue, however, he apologizes for his criticism of the books he loves so dearly. “Throughout, as a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends.” However, he felt that he had to point out the “pernicious side effect” of literacy that “has gone essentially unnoticed.”

What is most important is finding a new balance once again. He notes that “even when we become aware that literacy has a downside, no reasonable person would . . . recommend that people not become literate. Instead, we seek a renewed respect for iconic information, which in conjunction with the ability to read, can bring our two hemispheres into greater equilibrium and allow both individuals and cultures to become more balanced.”

The promise of this new balance leads Shlain to foresee a brighter future. “I am convinced,” he asserts, “we are entering a new Golden Age -- one in which the right-hemispheric values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature will begin to ameliorate the conditions that have prevailed for the too-long periods during which left-hemispheric values were dominant. Images, of any kind, are the balm bringing about this worldwide healing.”

(It is worth noting, parenthetically, a possible alternative variation of Shlain’s theory. As we have seen, Shlain argues that the new development of literacy has a strong tendency to change people’s brains, emphasizing left-hemisphere modes of thought. Such effects may be subject to debate. However, there is an alternative dynamic that Shlain does not mention which is implicit in his argument and may be an important contributing factor. Just as individual brains might be changed, so whole populations might be changed as well. Perhaps it is not so much that the brains of individuals are changed (so quickly) but that with the spread of reading those individuals (and factions) with a certain skill and talent mix suddenly achieve, because of the new importance of reading, a status and power that they never had before -- bringing along their mainly left-hemisphere (one dimensional and single minded) view of the world. In other words, in a new reading-based culture and power structure, those with natural inclinations toward reading proficiency come to prosper, rising quickly to the top ranks. As a consequence, left hemisphere values and views of the world become an increasingly dominant part of this new culture. At the same time, right hemisphere values of balance and tolerance are overwhelmed, at least for a time. Thus, alternatively, it may not be that all brains are quickly changed, but rather that the whole population comes to be dominated by those with a certain kind of brain -- who find their new power that they did not have before because of a broad ascendancy of a new technology -- that is, reading, writing and the making of books that speak with magical and unassailable authority.)

As a group of people interested in the image in its many forms, we may hope that Shlain is correct in his future expectation of a new balance. However, we may also hope that we will not see a revival of those who are single-minded in their love only for the written word, smashing images on every side in their passionate intensity.

Passion Over “The Passion”

A relatively short time ago we might have wondered whether the actions of historically distant Christian reformers or Islamic fundamentalists would ever bear on our near interests today. However, it has become increasingly clear that these issues are becoming more relevant with each passing month. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether we may be going through one of those portentous periods where world events and mass media will be dramatically shaped once again by the age-old battle between the image haters and the image lovers.

It is clear that images still stir deep passions--now, however, with a curious reverse twist of which many seem to be unaware. Some years ago, in an article on Mel Gibson’s then new film, “The Passion,” art critic Paul Richard points out (“Irony in Passion”) that the film depends heavily on the literal and bloody depictions of the crucifixion of Christ characteristic of the Counter-Reformation art from within the Catholic Church.

Indeed, Richard observes that the great irony here is that the avowed target audience for the film, evangelical Christians, seems to be attracted to the same literal and bloody depictions that were used as a weapon against their own theological ancestors long ago. Such images were hated by the early reformation, yet their theological descendents have come to embrace them with enthusiasm.

How did all this come to be? In Richard’s words, “Martin Luther’s Reformation was a theological rebellion. No longer would the rebels accept the pope in Rome, or the hierarchy he led, or the Latin of the Mass and of the Vulgate Bible, which most of them could neither read nor understand.” They wanted their own Bible, in their own language so they could understand and interpret the scriptures for themselves. “They didn’t need the pope, they didn’t need his saints, they didn’t need his priests, and -- as some began insisting -- they didn’t need his art.” [1] They realized that the art of the Catholic Church, and especially the art of the Counter-Reformation, was a counter attack on their own call for an end to all image making (as they believed was required by their reading of scripture) and for extreme simplicity in all things. As Richard notes, this desire for simplicity is still evident among American Protestant buildings. “That plainness is still seen in the clean, white clapboard churches scattered through New England, in the Quaker meeting houses of Pennsylvania, all the way to the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, Calif. No Catholic paintings taint these sanctuaries.”

Smashing of Images and Restoration

Reminding his readers of the historical events, Richard gives some detail about the Reformation’s role in destroying many works of art through a hatred of images of all kinds. “On Aug., 10, 1566, at Steenvoorde in Flanders, a Calvinist preacher named Sebastian Matte told his listeners to go and smash the art of the Catholic churches. Ten days afterward, the cathedral at Antwerp was methodically trashed.” Although Richards does point out that “later, under Catholic rule, Rubens was commissioned to re-do [the cathedral’s] splendor,” the fate of most churches and cathedrals in Protestant areas was grim indeed. “Such spasms of enthusiastic image-breaking erupted in the British Isles for most of the next century. ‘Lord, what work was here!’ lamented the Bishop of Norwich in 1647. ‘What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls!’ ”

Eventually, after years of civil war, the image haters came to be in full control of England and in time found reason to chop off the head of their king, Charles I. Later, after years of puritanical and repressive rule by Oliver Cromwell and his supporters, the English people had had enough of it. They then brought back the king’s son and restored him to the throne -- releasing a rebirth of creativity and vitality rarely seen before or since. As art historian Kenneth Clark observed (Civilization) , the restoration of Charles II in 1660, “ended the isolation and austerity which had afflicted England for almost fifteen years. As so often happens, a new freedom of movement led to an outburst of pent-up energy. There are usually men of genius waiting for these moments of expansion, like ships waiting for high tide. . . .” So came a rebirth of English accomplishment in art, architecture and science. Sometimes such extreme measures led to a new restoration of balance and a new burst of creativity.

A More Ancient and Kindly Islam

The surprisingly central role of image haters in current world events is strikingly evident in a recent book about problems of democracy by Fareed Zakaria (Future of Freedom). Zakaria argues that “If there is one great cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it is the total failure of political institutions in the Arab world. Islamic fundamentalism got a tremendous boost in 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the staunchly pro-American shah of Iran. The Iranian Revolution demonstrated that a powerful ruler could be taken on by groups within society. It also revealed how in a developing society even seemingly benign forces of progress -- for example, education -- can add to the turmoil.”

Zakaria observes that over past centuries Islam was more adaptable and flexible than what we see today. “Until the 1970s most Muslims in the Middle East were illiterate and lived in villages and towns. They practiced a kind of village Islam that had adapted itself to local cultures and to normal human desires. Pluralistic and tolerant, these villagers often worshiped saints, went to shrines, sang religious hymns, and cherished art -- all technically disallowed in Islam.”

All this was changed by more recent historical forces (of course, in some measure not unlike the Protestant Reformation in the West hundreds of years before): “By the 1970s, however, these societies were being urbanized. People had begun moving out of their villages to search for jobs in towns and cities. Their religious experience was no longer rooted in a specific place with local customs and traditions. At the same time they were learning to read and they discovered that a new Islam was being preached by a new generation of writers, preachers, and teachers. This was an abstract faith not rooted in historical experience but literal and puritanical -- Islam of the high church as opposed to Islam of the street fair.”

It is striking how well this brief aside in Zakaria’s book seems to fit Shlain’s main argument. (For emphasis, I have added the italics.) It is fair to assume that Zakaria knows little or nothing about Shlain’s book and argument. Yet, amazingly, there is a persuasive convergence. Whether Taliban or Al Qaeda, Islam’s puritanical fundamentalists are intent upon destroying images in all forms, just as they are intent upon destroying all tolerant and progressive institutions -- in a manner strikingly similar to the puritanical Protestant Christian fundamentalists of long ago. It is remarkable how this passage reveals how much these patterns still dominate our times and how modern political commentators, however well informed, seem to be unaware of a larger pattern of which their current concerns are, apparently, but the most recent manifestation.

We might hope that over the longer term, unfolding conditions might be more favorable to image lovers, as well as greater tolerance in general. However, in the short run, it would appear that the image haters and image smashers will be shaping world events in the familiar age-old pattern. And we can wonder how long it will go on before people will have had enough of it -- and will want to restore a former balance once again.

Adapted from chapter 6, Thinking Like Einstein by Thomas G. West (Prometheus Books). This book is based on a series of columns (“Images and Reversals”) written over several years for the quarterly journal Computer Graphics, a publication of ACM SIGGRAPH, the international professional association for computer graphic artists and technologists. During these years, the journal editor was Gordon Cameron who now makes software tools at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.


  1. Bravo for making the connections! I don't think the owners of either left- or right-dominated brains should give up on the other half. We now know that with use, comes neuronal growth, can can change our brains by using them in new ways....

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