Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘gender’

17 APRIL, 2014

I Can Fly: A Heartening Vintage Gem by Ruth Krauss, with Illustrations by Celebrated Disney Artist Mary Blair


Simple verses with a thoughtful message.

Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) is one of the most inspired and imaginative children’s storytellers of the twentieth century. Under the great Ursula Nordstrom‘s wing — who had a special gift for nurturing young talent — Krauss went on to write nearly fifty books, including two tender collaborations with young Maurice Sendak. Among her loveliest is I Can Fly (public library), originally published in 1951 as part of the beloved Little Golden Book series. A seemingly simple, wonderfully uplifting rhyme by Krauss, with illustrations by the celebrated Disney artist Mary Blair (who developed the concept art for such Disney classics as Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland) the book was mercifully resurrected from the cemetery of out-of-print treasures and republished in a crisp new edition, which is even available in digital form.

A bird can fly.
So can I.

A cow can moo.
I can too.

Underneath the light verses is a playful but profound reminder of our connection with the natural world and the notion that we aren’t so different from our fellow nonhuman beings, with whom we share a reality in an intricate mesh of belonging.

I’m merrier
than a terrier.

Pitter pitter pat
I can walk like a cat.

But Krauss’s most important message wasn’t an overt one. In fact, what makes her books especially exceptional is that she frequently featured female protagonists — far from the norm at the time and, sadly, still an exception half a century later when only 31% of books feature female lead characters. It may seem like a simple thing — the seemingly benign choice of hero or heroine in a children’s story — but to offer a quietly dissenting alternative to a fragment of hegemonic culture is no small gift. Krauss was a generous gift-giver.

Howl howl howl
I’m an old screech owl.

Short as it may be, I Can Fly is infinitely delightful in its entirety. Complement it with Open House for Butterflies, Krauss’s final and loveliest collaboration with Sendak.

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09 APRIL, 2014

The Hidden Brain: How Ocean Currents Explain Our Unconscious Social Biases


“Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”

Biases often work in surreptitious ways — they sneak in through the backdoor of our conscience, our good-personhood, and our highest rational convictions, and lodge themselves between us and the world, between our imperfect humanity and our aspirational selves, between who we believe we are and how we behave. Those stealthy inner workings of bias are precisely what NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explores in The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives (public library) — a sweeping, eye-opening, uncomfortable yet necessary account of how our imperceptible prejudices sneak past our conscious selves and produce “subtle cognitive errors that lay beneath the rim of awareness,” making our actions stand at odds with our intentions and resulting in everything from financial errors based on misjudging risk to voter manipulation to protracted conflicts between people, nations, and groups.

In the introduction, Vedantam contextualizes why this phenomenon isn’t new but bears greater urgency than ever:

Unconscious biases have always dogged us, but multiple factors made them especially dangerous today. Globalization and technology, and the intersecting faultlines of religious extremism, economic upheaval, demographic change, and mass migration have amplified the effects of hidden biases. Our mental errors once affected only ourselves and those in our vicinity. Today, they affect people in distant lands and generations yet unborn. The flapping butterfly that caused a hurricane halfway around the world was a theoretical construct; today, subtle biases in faraway minds produce real storms in our lives.

Underpinning his exploration isn’t a pointed finger but a compassionate understanding that our flaws make us not bad but human — and give us the opportunity to be better humans. Vedantam puts it beautifully:

Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish. Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.

One of the most pernicious and prevalent unconscious biases Vedantam explores has to do with gender. Some may roll their eyes and consider the plight for gender equality dated or irrelevant or solved — but, of course, one quick glance at our alive-and-well cultural gender bias renders such eye-rolling the worst kind of apathy. What, then, perpetuates such persistent prejudice?

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Vedantam cites the case of a woman who sued her employer for pay discrimination after finding out through a tip from an anonymous colleague that male managers who held the same position as her were paid significantly more. She was earning 79 cents to the dollar of her male peers, a difference that had consequences not only on her annual salary but also on how much she got paid for overtime, how much she could set aside in her 401K, and even how much pension she would one day receive. It was estimated that if she had been compensated fairly, her income in retirement would be double her actual one.

What made the case extraordinary wasn’t just that it made it to the Supreme Court, but that it was ultimately dismissed, despite the blatant evidence. In fact, the ruling was so controversial that it elicited a historic incident: Legendary Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the time the only woman on the court, issued a vocal dissent along with three other Justices — a rather unusual move. Ginsberg stated:

In our view, this court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.

Ginsberg herself should know more than most about the issue at stake. Her personal history in light of the case ruling, Vedantam reminds us, is both a testament to how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go:

When the Supreme Court justice went to law school at Columbia in the 1950s, there were no women’s bathrooms in the building. “If nature called, you had to make a mad dash to another building that had a women’s bathroom,” she recalled… It was “even worse if you were in the middle of an exam. We never complained; it never occurred to us to complain.”

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Vedantam traces this back to our ongoing predicament and one cultural area where these issues persist most prominently — leadership:

When a woman assumes a leadership role, our unconscious stereotypes about leadership come into conflict with our unconscious stereotypes about women… Our hidden brain makes women leaders appear ruthless and dislikeable for no better reason than that they happen to be women leaders.

More than cultural mythology and proverbial anecdotes, however, these biases have shown up again and again in experimental settings. Vedantam cites one particularly striking study:

Madeline Heilman at New York University once conducted an experiment in which she told volunteers about a manager. Some were told, “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough, yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximize employees’ creativity.” Other volunteers were told, “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough, yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximize employees’ creativity.” The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to guesstimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters of the volunteers thought James was more likeable than Andrea. Using a clever experimental design, Heilman determined which manager each volunteer preferred: Four in five volunteers preferred to have James be their boss. Andrea seemed less likeable merely because she was a woman who happened to be a leader.

But perhaps the most stride-stopping example comes from a unique “experimental design” that takes place not in a lab but in life. Vedantam points to two successful biologists at Stanford, Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres, who each transitioned from one gender to another late in life. Ben, once Barbara, didn’t transition to being a man until he was fifty. Barbara had spent many years oblivious to sexism, even scoffing at the rhetoric of the second wave of feminism. Exceptional at math, she had ignored her high school counselor’s advice to aim lower and had gotten admitted into MIT in 1972. It was there that she had her first brush with extraordinary sexism, though she didn’t realize it at the time:

During a particularly difficult math seminar at MIT, a professor handed out a quiz with five math problems. He gave out the test at nine A.M., and students had to hand in their answers by midnight. The first four problems were easy, and Barbara knocked them off in short order. But the fifth one was a beauty; it involved writing a computer program where the solution required the program to generate a partial answer, and then loop around to the start in a recursive fashion.

“I remember when the professor handed back the exams, he made this announcement that there were five problems but no one had solved the fifth problem and therefore he only scored the class on the four problems,” Ben recalled. “I got an A. I went to the professor and I said, ‘I solved it.’ He looked at me and he had a look of disdain in his eyes, and he said, ‘You must have had your boyfriend solve it.’ To me, the most amazing thing is that I was indignant. I walked away. I didn’t know what to say. He was in essence accusing me of cheating. I was incensed by that. It did not occur to me for years and years that that was sexism.”

Fast-forward a few decades and, as Vedantam puts it, “things changed in large and subtle ways after Barbara became Ben.” He gives one particularly telling example, in which after Ben had delivered a lecture at the prestigious Whitehead Institute, someone in the audience, unaware that Barbara and Ben were the same person, remarked:

Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister’s.

The differences also percolated through everyday life as Ben began to notice he was listened to more attentively, serviced more respectfully at stores, and generally made to feel more visible, more like he mattered.

Illustration from the 1970 book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' Click image for more.

Joan Roughgarden, meanwhile, experienced the exact opposite. She arrived at Stanford more than a quarter-century before making her male-to-female transition, landing into a “career track [that] is set up for young men” where “you are assumed to be competent unless revealed otherwise.” After the transition, however, Joan began noticing the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which people were treating her and her work differently, taking her ideas less seriously. When she proposed a controversial theory, she was gobsmacked to see it dismiss not on scientific grounds but on social. She told Vedantam:

When I was doing [my earlier] work, they did not try to physically intimidate me and say, ‘You have not read all the literature…’ They would not assume they were smarter. The current crop of objectors assumes they are smarter.

Vedantam writes:

Joan is willing to acknowledge her theory might be wrong; that, after all, is the nature of science. But what she wants is to be proven wrong, rather than dismissed. Making bold and counterintuitive assertions is precisely the way science progresses. Many bold ideas are wrong, but if there isn’t a regular supply of them and if they are not debated seriously, there is no progress. After her transition, Joan said she no longer feels she has “the right to be wrong.”


I asked her about interpersonal dynamics before and after her transition. “You get interrupted when you are talking, you can’t command attention, but above all you can’t frame the issues,” she told me. With a touch of wistfulness, she compared herself to Ben Barres. “Ben has migrated into the center, whereas I have had to migrate into the periphery.”

Vedantam’s point, of course, isn’t to urge the less chromosomally privileged of us to change genders. It’s to shed light on an often invisible current of cultural advantage — on what it might be like to be the privileged player in a rigged game, or be the opposite. His most poignant illustration of that rig comes from an allegorical anecdote from his own biography, a beautiful and unsettling read. Vedantam recounts vacationing with his family on a tiny island in Mexico, where he got to experience a phenomenon that gave him profound perspective into how such biases work. He writes:

I have a complicated love affair with the water. I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult. Well into my twenties, I carried the kind of unreasonable fear of water that you do not have if you learn to swim as a child. A considerable part of my enjoyment of the water lies in demonstrating to myself, over and over, that I have conquered my mortal fear. I am a decent swimmer, but I also know my fear has not completely disappeared. When things go wrong in the water, I easily panic.

After several dips, I decided to take one final excursion — this time around the edge of the bay. I felt happy and wonderful and fit; the water was calm. I suspected some of the best snorkeling lay around the edge of the rocks, two hundred fifty feet away. There were no signs posted that warned of any danger. With a good lunch in my stomach, I felt I could easily swim around the edge of the bay and back. I briefly thought about donning a life jacket and flippers, but decided against it. The life jacket would slow me down, and flippers don’t allow for the kind of maneuverability I like when I am snorkeling over a shallow reef.

The moment I got into the water and headed for the edge of the bay, I knew I had made the right decision to swim without a life jacket or flippers. I felt strong and good. I had done a lot of swimming that day already and was surprised at how smoothly I was kicking through the water. The trip would be child’s play; the way I was feeling, I knew I could easily swim well past the edge of the bay. I struck out purposefully to the lip of rocks. I imagined seeing myself from the deck chairs back on land, disappearing from view around the rocks.

The water felt suddenly cooler as I rounded the lip of the bay. It felt pleasant… My legs and arms felt stronger than ever. Each kick took me several feet; my technique was better than I remembered. I lengthened my stroke, feeling the pull of cool water against my torso. I felt graceful. Without realizing it, through steady practice, I had become a very good swimmer. I felt proud of myself.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile.' Click image for more.

When he eventually decided to turn around, he quickly became aware of a chilling trick that his brain, conspiring with the ocean, had played on him:

I pivoted and started to kick my way back. A particularly lovely piece of coral lay just beneath me. But as I watched for it to go by as I swam past, the coral did not budge. I kicked again and again. It was as though I were swimming in place, stuck with invisible glue to a single spot. My fear of the water, long dormant, opened one monstrous eye.

I instantly realized my grace and skill on the way out had not been grace and skill at all. I had been riding an undercurrent. I would now have to fight it on the way back. The reef did not look beautiful anymore. The water looked too deep. No one on land could see me. Why had I not worn a life jacket? How insane not to have donned flippers. I kicked and pulled and kicked and pulled. I was working much harder than before, but I was not traveling several feet with each stroke; each effort bought me mere inches. My breathing in my own ears sounded labored, a huge pair of bellows shouting over the din of the sea…

I lived the usual sedentary life of many urban professionals; my athletic exploits were mainly weekend heroics. What had made me think I was really fit enough to swim out so far when I had already exerted myself so much that day?

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile.' Click image for more.

Somehow, carried by an image of his two-year-old daughter on the shore, he mustered the seemingly impossible strength and fought his way back to land, arriving on the verge of collapse. More than a staggering reality check of his athletic capacity, however, the experience provided a perfect and chilling metaphor for how our cultural biases that produce privilege work. Vedantam writes:

Unconscious bias influences our lives in exactly the same manner as that undercurrent that took me out so far that day. When undercurrents aid us … we are invariably unconscious of them. We never credit the undercurrent for carrying us so swiftly; we credit ourselves, our talents, our skills. I was completely sure that it was my swimming ability that was carrying me out so swiftly that day. It did not matter that I knew in my heart that I was a very average swimmer, it did not matter that I knew that I should have worn a life jacket and flippers. On the way out, the idea of humility never occurred to me. It was only at the moment I turned back, when I had to go against the current, that I even realized the current existed.

Our brains are expert at providing explanations for the outcomes we see. People who swim with the current never credit it for their success, because it genuinely feels as though their achievements are produced through sheer merit. These explanations are always partially true — people who do well in life usually are gifted and talented. If we achieve success through corrupt means, we know we got where we are because we cheated. This is what explicit bias feels like. But when we achieve success because of unconscious privileges, it doesn’t feel like cheating. And it isn’t just the people who flow with the current who are unconscious about its existence. People who fight the current all their lives also regularly arrive at false explanations for outcomes. When they fall behind, they blame themselves, their lack of talent. Just as there are always plausible explanations for why some people succeed, there are always plausible explanations for why others do not. You can always attribute failure to some lack of perseverance, foresight, or skill. It’s like a Zen riddle: If you never change directions, how can you tell there is a current?

Most of us — men and women — will never consciously experience the undercurrent of sexism that runs through our world. Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine. We may have our suspicions, but we cannot know for sure, because most men will never experience life as a woman and most women will never know what it is like to be a man. It is only the transgendered who have the moment of epiphany, when they suddenly face a current they were never really sure existed, or suddenly experience the relief of being carried by a force larger than themselves. The men and women who make this transition viscerally experience something that the rest of us do not. They experience the unfairness of the current.

The Hidden Brain is an altogether spectacular read, the kind that gives the best possible hope for changing our minds in the most necessary direction there is — toward more fairness, greater self-awareness, and a vital integration of our intentions and our actions.

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17 MARCH, 2014

How the Invention of the Alphabet Usurped Female Power in Society and Sparked the Rise of Patriarchy in Human Culture


A brief history of gender dynamics from page to screen.

The Rosetta Stone may be one of the 100 diagrams that changed the world and language may have propelled our evolution, but the invention of the written word was not without its costs. As Sophocles wisely observed, “nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” That curse is what Leonard Shlain explores in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (public library) — a pause-giving look at the relationship between literacy and patriarchy. Without denying the vastness of the benefits literacy bestowed upon humanity, Shlain uses Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum — “the medium is the message” — to examine how the advent of the written word and our ability to read reconfigured the human brain, effecting profound changes in the cultural dynamics of gender roles.

“By profession, I am a surgeon… I am by nature a storyteller,” Shlain tells us, and it is through this dual lens of critical thinking and enchantment that he examines his iconoclastic subject — a subject whose kernel was born while Shlain was touring Mediterranean archeological sites in the early 1990s and realized that the majority of shrines had been originally consecrated to female deities, only to be converted to male-deity worship later, for unknown reasons. (Beyond the broader cultural appeal such an observation might hold for a mind as inquisitive as Shlain’s, it’s worth noting that he had just sent off his own young daughter — one very special daughter — to college and into a world still very much shaped by gender dynamics.) A major culprit in the shift, Shlain argues, was the invention of the alphabet. (He takes great care to avoid the trap of correlation vs. causation and offers a wonderfully poetic formulation of the danger of conflating the two: “Correlation … does not prove causality — the disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise.”)

Illustration by Giselle Potter for Gertrude Stein's posthumously published 'To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays.' Click image for details.

Shlain frames the premise:

Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. . . . One pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture.

He defines the feminine outlook as a “holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world” and the masculine as a “linear, sequential, reductionist” one characterized by abstract thinking, while recognizing — as Susan Sontag did decades earlier in condemning our culture’s artificial polarities — that “every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both.” Shlain writes:

They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature superior to its reciprocal. These complementary methods of comprehending reality resemble the ancient Taoist circle symbol of integration and symmetry in which the tension between the energy of the feminine yin and the masculine yang is exactly balanced. One side without the other is incomplete; together, they form a unified whole that is stronger than either half. First writing, and then the alphabet, upset this balance. Affected cultures, especially in the West, acquired a strong yang thrust.

The Rosetta Stone, one of 100 diagrams that changed the world. Click image for details.

The invention of the alphabet, Shlain argues, is what tilted the balance of power toward the masculine — a shift that took place eons ago, but one that is also evidenced by isolated indigenous cultures of the present and recent past:

Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that, for the majority, relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies. Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever societies in which women had power and influence greater than or even equal to that of men. Yet, a diverse variety of preliterate agrarian cultures—the Iroquois and the Hopi in North America, the inhabitants of Polynesia, the African !Kung, and numerous others around the world—had and continue to have considerable harmony between the sexes.

He cites the work of legendary anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was among the first to examine the dark side of literacy in 1969:

There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing … is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.

Shlain puts it in even less uncertain terms than Lévi-Strauss:

Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West. Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.

Written language, Shlain argues, shaped both the development of the human nervous system and the social dynamics of gender relations, affecting both sides of the nature/nurture equation profoundly:

Although each of us is born with a unique set of genetic instructions, we enter the world as a work-in-progress and await the deft hand of the ambient culture to sculpt the finishing touches. Among the two most important influences on a child are the emotional constellation of his or her immediate family and the configuration of his or her culture. Trailing a close third is the principal medium with which the child learns to perceive and integrate his or her culture’s information. This medium will play a role in determining which neuronal pathways of the child’s developing brain will be reinforced.

Artwork from 'Shapes for Sounds,' a visual history of the alphabet. Click image for details.

To illustrate the mesmerism of the written word, Shlain urges us to “observe an enthralled four-year-old mastering the letters of the alphabet” — an invocation that calls to mind an anecdote my own grandmother likes to tell: One day, when I was in the first grade and we had just had our first lesson in writing the letters of the alphabet, grandma picked me up from school and made a quick stop at the supermarket on the way home. She left me with a kindly cashier while she ran inside to grab whatever she needed to buy. Upon returning, she found me perched up atop the counter, having filled an entire lined notebook with dutifully drawn letter-curves. She uses this anecdote as evidence of my hunger for learning, but if Shlain is correct, it might be more indicative of just how early children latch onto the inescapable hegemony of the alphabet. Shlain contemplates this duck-to-water uptake:

Literacy, once firmly rooted, will eclipse and supplant speech as the principal source of culture-changing information. Adults, for so long enmeshed in the alphabet’s visual skein, cannot easily disentangle themselves to assess its effect on culture. One could safely assume that fish have not yet discovered water.

He juxtaposes the written word with the visual processing of images, exploring the gender implications of this dichotomy:

Images are primarily mental reproductions of the sensual world of vision. Nature and human artifacts both provide the raw material from the outside that the brain replicates in the inner sanctum of consciousness. Because of their close connection to the world of appearances, images approximate reality: they are concrete. The brain simultaneously perceives all parts of the whole integrating the parts synthetically into a gestalt. The majority of images are perceived in an all-at-once manner.

Reading words is a different process. When the eye scans distinctive individual letters arranged in a certain linear sequence, a word with meaning emerges. The meaning of a sentence, such as the one you are now reading, progresses word by word. Comprehension depends on the sentence’s syntax, the particular horizontal sequence in which its grammatical elements appear. The use of analysis to break each sentence down into its component words, or each word down into its component letters, is a prime example of reductionism. This process occurs at a speed so rapid that it is below awareness. An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion.

To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Custom and language associate the former characteristics with the feminine, the latter, with the masculine. As we examine the myths of different cultures, we will see that these linkages are consistent.

Beyond the biological, Shlain argues, this divergence also manifests in the spiritual aspect of human culture. Returning to the historical roots of the phenomenon, he points out that while hunter-gatherer societies tend to worship a mixture of male and female deities, while hunting societies prioritize virile spirits and cultures where gathering is the primary method of survival instead place greater value on nurturing, the female domain. The parts of the world we often refer to as “the cradle of civilization” — generally, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Greece — were populated primarily by gathering-based cultures and originally worshipped female deities. But by the fifth century A.D., these objects of worship were almost entirely replaced by masculine ones, to a point where women were “prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament.”

While Shlain points to influences like “foreign invaders, the invention of private property, the formation of archaic states, the creation of surplus wealth, and the educational disadvantaging of women” as partially responsible, he argues that the single most important factor was the invention of writing:

The introduction of the written word, and then the alphabet, into the social intercourse of humans initiated a fundamental change in the way newly literate cultures understood their reality. It was this dramatic change in mindset … that was primarily responsible for fostering patriarchy.

Illustration by Sir Quentin Blake from 'Quentin Blake’s ABC.' Click image for details.

He turns to the world’s major religions for evidence of the pattern:

The Old Testament was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages. Attesting to its gravitas, multitudes still read it three thousand years later. The words on its pages anchor three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each is an exemplar of patriarchy. Each monotheistic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through His revealed Word, sanctified in its written form. Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature triad of Western culture. I propose that the profound impact these ancient scriptures had upon the development of the West depended as much on their being written in an alphabet as on the moral lessons they contained.

Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of the image . God worship, masculine values, and men’s domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.

What is especially interesting is that Shlain was writing in 1998, when the internet as we know it — a medium that lends text and image seemingly equal gravitas — was in its infant stage. The golden age of web video was nearly a decade away, as was the invention of the smartphone camera and its constant connection to the web. Could it be that the world wide web, especially the image-heavy ecosystem of social sharing, would emerge as an equalizer of gender dynamics? To be sure, the cultural and biological changes Shlain examines in relation to the invention of the alphabet unfolded over millennia — so whatever equalizing effects the web might have, they wouldn’t be fully detected for many generations.

Indeed, Shlain acknowledges that certain developments in the history of modern media challenged the dominance of the written word:

World War II was a firestorm for modern civilization, but the conflict also marked the beginning of yet another massive shift in global consciousness. The combining of two “feminine” influences, photography and electromagnetism, was chiefly responsible for this change. In 1939, Philo T. Farnsworth invented television. After the war ended, television spread rapidly — literally house to house. One after another, living rooms were illuminated by the glow of fuzzy electronic pictures. The tube was an overnight sensation, and soon the amount of time people spent watching images flit on and off the front of the glowing box began to surpass the amount of time people spent reading linear rows of black letters.

Artwork by Shepard Fairey for Marshall McLuhan's 'The Medium Is The Massage.' Click image for details.

With this new narrative form came new modes of cognitive processing:

Comprehending television required an entirely different hemispheric strategy than that used in reading. Viewers called forth their pattern-recognition skills to decipher the screen’s low-definition flickering mosaic mesh. The retina’s cones need bright light to scan a static page of print, but television brings the eye’s rods into play. They see best in dim surroundings and can detect the slightest movements. As people watched more and more television, the supremacy of the left hemisphere dimmed as the right’s use increased. For 750, 000 years, families had gathered around lit hearths whose flames supplied warmth, illuminated darkness, encouraged camaraderie, and encouraged storytelling. Campfires had been an essential ingredient for the evolution of oral epics. In 1950, a new kind of fire replaced the hearth; and it encouraged a different set of social qualities.

Shlain points out that when a person reads a book, his or her electroencephalogram (EEG) brain wave patterns differ significantly from those registered when that person is watching television — a finding made all the more remarkable by the fact that these patterns deviate negligibly when the content of the book or TV program is varied. Watching television generates the same slow alpha and theta waves as meditating — patterns representing a “passive, receptive, and contemplative state of mind” — while reading generates beta waves, typically registered when the mind is concentrating on a task. Shlain ties this back to the question of balance in the human spirit:

Task-oriented beta waves activate the hunter/killer side of the brain as alpha and theta waves emanate more from the gatherer/nurturer side. Perhaps Western civilization has for far too long been stuck in a beta mode due to literacy, and striking a balance with a little more alpha and theta, regardless of the source, will serve to soothe humankind’s savage beast.


Television, being a flickering image-based medium, derails the masculine-left-linear strategy, just as in parallel, the written word had earlier disoriented the gestalt-feminine-right one.

In one of the final chapters, Shlain does consider how the invention of the computer, if not the internet, plays into these male/female modalities:

The computer … converted the television screen from a monologue to a dialogue by making it interactive. And features peculiar to computers shifted the collective cultural consciousness of the men and women who used them toward a right-hemispheric mode, which in turn has further diminished male dominance.

The computer was originally designed to aid scientists, most of whom were male. Since the 1970s, therefore, males have rushed in droves to learn what their fathers and grandfathers contemptuously dismissed as a skill for women and sissies — typing. Unlike all the scribes of past cultures, men now routinely write using both hands instead of only the dominant one. The entry into the communication equation of millions of men’s left hands, directed by millions of male right brains tapping out one half of every computer-generated written message, is, I believe, an unrecognized factor in the diminution of patriarchy.

Illustration by Edward Gorey from his alphabet book 'The Gashlycrumb Tinies.' Click image for details.

One particularly curious phenomenon Shlain points to as evidence of this shift is the seemingly sudden rise of dyslexia:

Dyslexic children, predominantly male (9:1), have difficulty deciphering the alphabet. One credible theory proposes that it is due to a failure of hemispheric dominance. Ninety percent of the language centers traditionally reside in the left hemisphere of right-handed people. In the right-handed dyslexic, the distribution of language centers may be more on the order of 80/20 or 70/30. Although we cannot be sure that dyslexia was not always among us, it seems to have erupted at the very moment that an entire generation was devaluing the left hemispheric mode of knowing. Perhaps television is the agent equilibrating the human brain’s two differing modes of perception.

And yet such theories highlight our culture’s toxic polarity between intellect and intuition. Shlain makes the same argument for dyslexia that Temple Grandin has been championing about autism — that rather than a “disease” producing an abnormal or lesser mind, it is an evolution producing a different mind:

The very concept of “brain dominance” is presently under scrutiny, as many dyslexics are talented artists, architects, musicians, composers, dancers, and surgeons. The idea that logical, linear thinking is better than intuition and holistic perception was a script written by left-brainers in the first place. Our culture has classified dyslexia as a disability. But as culture becomes more comfortable with its reliance on images, it may turn out that dyslexia will be reassessed as another of the many harbingers that announced the arrival of the Iconic Revolution.

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess is a fascinating read in its entirety, certain to pull into question a great many of our cultural assumptions and perceived givens.

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