Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

24 JUNE, 2014

Susan Sontag on Being in the Middle versus Being at the Center


Why true neutrality is not an abstinence from taking sides of but an act of compassion.

“The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in reflecting on how language shapes our capacity for fantasy. And because language is intricately entwined with everything from our cognitive function to gender politics to the evolution of creativity, it also shapes our experience of reality — and of ourselves in reality — even more profoundly.

From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — her superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that was among the best books of 2013 and also gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, how our cultural polarities imprison us, and love, sex, and the world between — comes Sontag’s characteristically insightful meditation on the inherent intelligence and ingenuity of language in helping us navigate the world and orient ourselves not only in relation to it but in relation to ourselves as well. She tells Cott:

What’s so wonderful about language is that we have these positive and negative words for the same thing. That’s why language is an infinite treasure. When we say in the middle, we think of someone who wants to remain equidistant from certain alternatives because he or she is afraid to take sides. But being in the center — isn’t that interesting? The whole thing changes.


One can think of it in the time sense. But “being in the center” is opposed to being marginal, and you don’t want to be in the margin of your own consciousness, or your own experience, or your own time. John Calvin, of all people, said, “The world is sloped on either side, therefore place yourself in the middle of it.” Meaning that you can fall off. We all know in our own lives that people are falling off the world all the time — they get onto that slope and then they start to slide. And that’s another sense of being in the middle. But to be on level ground is what you want to do because life is very complicated and you don’t want to just be hanging on by your bitten-down fingernails on one end of things, which is what happens to a lot of people because they can’t see anymore. And from where they’re hanging, it’s just a struggle not to fall off completely.

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

When Cott relays the famous anecdote that Johann Sebastian Bach preferred playing the alto or tenor parts in an orchestra because being in the middle allowed him to truly hear the music around him, Sontag responds with a remark doubly poignant in the context of today’s net neutrality debates and why they matter:

That’s so interesting about Bach. I think it’s wonderful. There’s an active notion of neutrality that people don’t understand. Transcendent neutrality isn’t an attitude of “I won’t take sides,” it’s compassion. Where you do see more than just what separates people or sides.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is truly an exceptional and wonderfully wide-ranging treasure. Sample it further here, here, and here, then revisit Sontag on love, education, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of photography, and why lists appeal to us.

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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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13 NOVEMBER, 2013

The History of the English Language, Animated


“The Sun never sets on the English language.”

The history of language, that peculiar human faculty that Darwin believed was half art and half instinct, is intricately intertwined with the evolution of our species, our capacity for invention, our understanding of human biology, and even the progress of our gender politics. From the fine folks at Open University — who previously gave us these delightful 60-second animated syntheses of the world’s major religions, philosophy’s greatest thought experiments, and the major creative movements in design — comes this infinitely entertaining and illuminating animated history of the English language in 10 minutes:

Complement with these 5 essential reads on language and the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, in which she explores the beauty of the English language.

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02 OCTOBER, 2013

How Richard Dawkins Coined the Word Meme: The Legendary Atheist’s Surprising Religious Inspiration


“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

Most people know that the word “meme” was coined by legendary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his seminal 1976 book The Selfish Gene. What few realize, however, is that the vocal atheist and champion of evidence as the holy grail of life, who even penned a children’s book rebutting religious mythology with science, had his first experience of a true meme, decades before he had the word for it, in a religious context. In his altogether fantastic new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (public library), Dawkins describes his largely unhappy days at boarding school, where he was sent away at the age of seven:

Every night in the dormitory we had to kneel on our beds, facing the wall at the head, and take turns on successive evenings to say the goodnight prayer:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. Amen.

None of us had ever seen it written down, and we didn’t know what it meant. We copied it parrot fashion from each other on successive evenings, and consequently the words evolved towards garbled meaninglessness. Quite an interesting test case in meme theory. . . . If we had understood the words of that prayer, we would not have garbled them, because their meaning would have had a ‘normalizing’ effect, similar to the ‘proofreading’ of DNA. It is such normalization that makes it possible for memes to survive through enough ‘generations’ to fulfill the analogy with genes. But because many of the words of the prayer were unfamiliar to us, all we could do was imitate their sound, phonetically, and the result was a very high ‘mutation rate’ as they passed down the ‘generations’ of boy-to-boy imitation.

Dawkins adds that it would be interesting to investigate this effect experimentally, but admits he’s yet to do it. (I wonder whether he knows of Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of The Lord’s Prayer.)

But rather than mindlessly succumbing to the meme, young Dawkins found himself asking the types of profoundly philosophical questions of which children are capable, and seeking their answers in science rather than religion:

I became a secret reader. In the holidays from boarding school, I would sneak up to my bedroom with a book: a guilty truant from the fresh air and the virtuous outdoors. And when I started learning biology properly at school, it was still bookish pursuits that held me. I was drawn to questions that grown-ups would have called philosophical. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How did it all start?

Richard Dawkins at age 7. Photograph courtesy of

Nearly thirty years later, he came to formulate his meme theory in The Selfish Gene, which remains an essential piece of cultural literacy. In considering the primeval soup of “replicators” responsible for the origin of all life, he casts human culture as a different kind of “primeval soup” driven by the same mechanisms and coins his concept of the “meme,” which has since itself mimetically overtaken popular culture, even offering a pronunciation pointer:

I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged. . . . It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

Returning to his days at public school, Dawkins offers another intriguing example of meme theory in action by way of “the weirdness of nickname evolution,” which operates much like mimetic mutation:

One friend of mine was called ‘Colonel’, although there was nothing remotely military about his personality. ‘Seen the Colonel anywhere?’ Here’s the evolutionary history. Years earlier, an older boy, who had by now left the school, was said to have had a crush on my friend. That older boy’s nickname was Shkin (corruption of Skin, and who knows where that came from — maybe some connection with foreskin, but that name would have evolved before I arrived). So my friend inherited the name Shkin from his erstwhile admirer. Shkin rhymes with Thynne, and at this point something akin to Cockney rhyming slang stepped in. There was a character in the BBC radio Goon Show called Colonel Grytte Pyppe Thynne. Hence my friend became Colonel Grytte Pyppe Shkin, later contracted to ‘Colonel’. We loved the Goon Show, and would vie with each other to mimic (as did Prince Charles, who went to a similar school around the same time) the voices of the characters: Bluebottle, Eccles, Major Denis Bloodnok, Henry Crun, Count Jim Moriarty. And we gave each other Goon nicknames like ‘Colonel’ or ‘Count.’

An Appetite for Wonder is an altogether fantastic read, offering a fascinating glimpse of how one of today’s most influential scientific minds blossomed into himself.

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