Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Leonard Shlain’

17 NOVEMBER, 2014

Leonardo’s Brain: What a Posthumous Brain Scan Six Centuries Later Reveals about the Source of Da Vinci’s Creativity


How the most creative human who ever lived was able to access a different state of consciousness.

One September day in 2008, Leonard Shlain found himself having trouble buttoning his shirt with his right hand. He was admitted into the emergency room, diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, and given nine months to live. Shlain — a surgeon by training and a self-described “synthesizer by nature” with an intense interest in the ennobling intersection of art and science, author of the now-legendary Art & Physics — had spent the previous seven years working on what he considered his magnum opus: a sort of postmortem brain scan of Leonardo da Vinci, performed six centuries after his death and fused with a detective story about his life, exploring what the unique neuroanatomy of the man commonly considered humanity’s greatest creative genius might reveal about the essence of creativity itself.

Shlain finished the book on May 3, 2009. He died a week later. His three children — Kimberly, Jordan, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain — spent the next five years bringing their father’s final legacy to life. The result is Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius (public library | IndieBound) — an astonishing intellectual, and at times spiritual, journey into the center of human creativity via the particular brain of one undereducated, left-handed, nearly ambidextrous, vegetarian, pacifist, gay, singularly creative Renaissance male, who Shlain proposes was able to attain a different state of consciousness than “practically all other humans.”

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

Noting that “a writer is always refining his ideas,” Shlain points out that the book is a synthesis of his three previous books, and an effort to live up to Kafka’s famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” It is also a beautiful celebration of the idea that art and science belong together and enrich one another whenever they converge.

To understand Leonardo’s brain, Shlain points out as he proves himself once again the great poet of the scientific spirit, we must first understand our own:

The human brain remains among the last few stubborn redoubts to yield its secrets to the experimental method. During the period that scientists expanded the horizons of astronomy, balanced the valences of chemistry, and determined the forces of physics, the crowning glory of Homo sapiens and its most enigmatic emanation, human consciousness, resisted the scientific model’s persistent searching.

The brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s volume, yet consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. A pearly gray, gelatinous, three-pound universe, this exceptional organ can map parsecs and plot the whereabouts of distant galaxies measured in quintillions of light-years. The brain accomplishes this magic trick without ever having to leave its ensorcelled ovoid cranial shell. From minuscule-wattage electrical currents crisscrossing and ricocheting within its walls, the brain can reconstruct a detailed diorama of how it imagines the Earth appeared four billion years ago. It can generate poetry so achingly beautiful that readers weep, hatred so intense that otherwise rational people revel in the torture of others, and love so oceanic that entwined lovers lose the boundaries of their physical beings.

Shlain argues that Leonardo — who painted the eternally mysterious Mona Lisa, created visionary anatomical drawings long before medical anatomy existed, made observations of bird flight in greater detailed than any previous scientist, mastered engineering, architecture, mathematics, botany, and cartography, might be considered history’s first true scientist long before Mary Somerville coined the word, presaged Newton’s Third Law, Bernoulli’s law, and elements of chaos theory, and was a deft composer who sang “divinely,” among countless other domains of mastery — is the individual most worthy of the title “genius” in both science and art:

The divergent flow of art and science in the historical record provides evidence of a distinct compartmentalization of genius. The river of art rarely intersected with the meander of science.


Although both art and science require a high degree of creativity, the difference between them is stark. For visionaries to change the domain of art, they must make a breakthrough that can only be judged through the lens of posterity. Great science, on the other hand, must be able to predict the future. If a scientist’s hypotheses cannot be turned into a law that can be verified by future investigators, it is not scientifically sound. Another contrast: Art and science represent the difference between “being” and “doing.” Art’s raison d’être is to evoke an emotion. Science seeks to solve problems by advancing knowledge.


Leonardo’s story continues to compel because he represents the highest excellence all of us lesser mortals strive to achieve — to be intellectually, creatively, and emotionally well-rounded. No other individual in the known history of the human species attained such distinction both in science and art as the hyper-curious, undereducated, illegitimate country boy from Vinci.

Artwork from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Using a wealth of available information from Leonardo’s notebooks, various biographical resources, and some well-reasoned speculation, Shlain sets out to perform a “posthumous brain scan” seeking to illuminate the unique wiring of Da Vinci’s brain and how it explains his unparalleled creativity.

Leonardo was an outlier in a number of ways — socially, culturally, biologically, and in some seemingly unimportant yet, as Shlain explains, notable ways bridging these various aspects of life. For instance:

Leonardo was a vegetarian in a culture that thought nothing of killing animals for food. His explanation for his unwillingness to participate in carnivory was that he did not want to contribute to any animal’s discomfort or death. He extended the courtesy of staying alive to all living creatures, and demonstrated a feeling of connectedness to all life, which was in short supply during a time that glorified hunting.

He was also the only individual in recorded history known to write comfortably backwards, performing what is known as “mirror writing,” which gives an important clue about the wiring of his brain:

Someone wishing to read Leonardo’s manuscripts must first hold the pages before a mirror. Instead of writing from left to right, which is the standard among all European languages, he chose to write from right to left — what the rest of us would consider backward writing. And he used his left hand to write.

Thoroughly confusing the issue was the fact that sometimes he would switch in mid-sentence, writing some words in one direction followed by other words heading in the opposite direction. Another intriguing neurological datum: Careful examination of two samples of his handwriting show the one written backward moving from right to left across the page is indistinguishable from the handwriting that is not reversed.

Leonardo’s quirks of penmanship strongly suggest that his two hemispheres were intimately connected in an extraordinary way. The traditional dominance pattern of one hemisphere lording it over the other does not seem to have been operational in Leonardo’s brain. Based on what we can extrapolate from the brains of people who share Leonardo’s ability to mirror-write, the evidence points to the presence of a large corpus callosum that kept each hemisphere well informed as to what the other was doing.

Further evidence that his corpus callosum — that thick bundle of fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres, consisting of more than 200 million neurons — was “afairly bursting with an overabundance of connecting neurons” comes from his unusually deft fusion of art and science. For instance, Shlain points out, no other artist in history labored so obsessively over perfecting the geometrical details of the science of perspective.

Before delving into Leonardo’s specific neuroanatomy, Shlain points out that because our brains have the maximum number of neurons at the age of eight months and because a dramatic pruning of our neurocircuitry unfolds over the next decade, those early years are crucially formative in our cognitive development and warrant special attention. (Tolstoy captured this beautifully when he wrote, “From a five-year-old child to my present self there is only one step. From a new-born infant to a five-year-old child there is an awesome distance.”)

Leonardo’s own childhood was so unusual and tumultuous that it calls for consideration in examining his brain development. The illicit child of a rich playboy from the city and a poor peasant girl from the picturesque Tuscan town of Vinci, he grew up without a real father — an ambitious notary, his father refused to marry Leonardo’s mother in order to avoid compromising his social status. The little boy was raised by a single mother in the countryside. Eventually, his father arranged for his mother to marry another man, and he himself married a sixteen-year-old girl. Leonardo was taken from his mother and awkwardly included in his father’s household as a not-quite-son. But the father-figure in his life ended up being his kindly uncle Francesco, whom the boy grew to love dearly. He remained in contact with his mother throughout his life and evidence from his notebooks suggests that, like Andy Warhol, he invited her to live with him as she became elderly.

Shlain to two perplexities that stand out in Leonardo’s upbringing: First, contemporary psychologists agree that removing young children from their mothers makes for substantial attachment and anxiety issues throughout life, producing emotionally distant adults. Secondly, Leonardo’s illegitimacy greatly limited his education options, as the Church, in one of its many strokes of gobsmacking lack of the very compassion it preaches, decreed that children born to unwed parents were not eligible for enrollment in its cathedral schools. Shlain writes:

Outside of the prohibitively expensive alternative of private tutors, admission to one of these schools was the only means to learning the secret code that opened the doors of opportunity.

That secret code was knowledge of Latin and Greek, without which it was practically impossible to participate in the making of the Renaissance. And yet Leonardo had an especially blistering response to those who dismissed his work due to his lack of education:

They will say that because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to treat of. Do they not know that my subjects require for their exposition experience rather than the words of others? And since experience has been the mistress, and to her in all points make my appeal.

(More than half a millennium later, Werner Herzog would go on to offer aspiring filmmakers similarly spirited advice.)

Shlain writes:

Creativity is a combination of courage and inventiveness. One without the other would be useless.

So how did Leonardo muster the courage and inventiveness to turn the dismal cards he was dealt into the supreme winning hand of being history’s greatest genius? Shlain argues that while we can speculate about how much more remarkable work Leonardo may have done had he been able to command the respect, resources, and recognition “of one who claims noble blood, a university position, and powerful friends in high places,” there is an even more powerful counteragent to be made — one that resonates with Nietzsche’s ideas about the value of difficulty and bespeaks the immeasurable benefits of what Orson Welles called “the gift of ignorance,” or what is commonly known as “beginner’s mind”:

A strong counterargument can also be put forth that it was precisely his lack of indoctrination into the reigning dogma taught in these institutions that liberated him from mental restraints. Unimpeded by the accretion of misconceptions that had fogged the lens of the educated, Leonardo was able to ask key questions and seek fresh answers. Although he could not quote learned books, he promised, “I will quote something far greater and more worthy: experience, the mistress of their masters.” He disdained “trumpets and reciters of the works of others,” and tried to live by his own dictum: “Better a small certainty, than a big lie.” He referred to himself as omo sanza lettere — an “unlettered man” — because he had not received the kind of liberal arts schooling that led to the university. Somewhere in his late thirties and early forties, Leonardo made a concerted effort to teach himself Latin. Long lists of vocabulary words appear in his notebooks. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language in adulthood knows how difficult the task can be.

One silver lining to his lack of formal education and attentive parenting is that he was never trained out of his left-handedness as was the practice during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — something that turned out to be crucial in the anatomy of his genius.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

But Leonardo’s social disadvantages didn’t end with education. Based on evidence from his notebooks and biographical accounts from a handful of contemporaries, he was most likely homosexual — at a time when it was not only a crime but a “sin” punishable by death. Even in his fashion and demeanor, Leonardo appeared to be the Walt Whitman of his day — in other words, a proto-dandy who “fell into the flamboyant set.” Shlain quotes Anonimo Gaddiano, a contemporary of Leonardo’s:

He wore a rose colored tunic, short to the knee, although long garments were then in fashion. He had, reaching down to the middle of his breasts, a fine beard, curled and well kept.

Leonardo was also unorthodox in his universal empathy for animals and philosophical stance against eating them — a complete anomaly in a carnivorous era when the poor longed for meat and the rich threw elaborate feasts around it, showcasing it as a status symbol of their wealth and power. Instead, Leonardo was known to buy caged birds whenever he saw them in the town’s shops and set them free.

But Leonardo’s most significant source of exceptionalism goes back to his handedness. Left-handedness might still be an evolutionary mystery, but it is also an enduring metaphor for the powers of intuition. For Leonardo, the physical and the intuitive were inextricably linked:

Leonardo intuited that a person’s face, despite appearing symmetrical, is actually divided into two slightly different halves. Because of the crossover in sensory and motor nerves from each side of the face within the brain, the left hemisphere controls the muscles of the right side of the face and the right hemisphere controls the muscles of the left side. The majority of people are left-brained/right-handed, which means that the right half of their face is under better conscious control than their left. In contrast, the left half of the face connects to the emotional right brain, and is more revealing of a person’s feelings. Right-handers have more difficulty trying to suppress emotional responses on the left side of their face.

In a recent psychology experiment, a group of unsuspecting college students were ushered into a photographer’s studio one at a time and informed that they were to pose for a picture to be given to members of their family. The majority of these right-handed students positioned themselves unaware that they were turning the left side of their face toward the camera’s lens. All of them smiled.

Brought back a second time, the researchers informed them that, now, they were to pose for a job application photo. In this case, they adopted a more professional demeanor, and the majority of right-handers emphasized the right side of their face. The results of this experiment, along with several others of similar design, strongly suggest that unconsciously, most people know that the right side of their face is best to present to the outside world. They are also subliminally aware that their left side is a more natural reflection of who they really are.

Leonardo understood these subtleties of expression. Mona Lisa is best appreciated by observing the left side of her face.

One of Leonardo’s great artistic innovations was his inclusion of the subject’s hands in a portrait. Up to that point, portraiture included only the upper chest and head, but Leonardo saw in the expressiveness of hands a gateway to the subject’s state of mind, his psychological portraiture implicitly invalidating the mind-body split and painting consciousness itself.

This brings us back to Leonardo’s own brain. Shlain’s most salient point has to do with the splitting of the brain into two functionally different hemispheres, an adaptation that catapulted us ahead of all other creatures in intellectual capacity and also accounted for Leonardo’s singular genius. Reflecting on findings from studies of split-brain patients, Shlain explains:

The most sublime function of the left hemisphere — critical thinking — has at its core a set of syllogistic formulations that undergird logic. In order to reach the correct answer, the rules must be followed without deviation. So dependent is the left brain on rules that Joseph Bogen, the neurosurgeon who operated on many of the first split-brain patients, called it the propositional brain: It processes information according to an underlying set of propositions. In contrast, he called the right hemisphere the appositional brain, because it does just the opposite: It processes information through nonlinear, non-rule-based means, incorporating differing converging determinants into a coherent thought. Bogen’s classification of the brain into two different types, proposition versus apposition, has been generally accepted by neuroscientists, and it appears often in neurocognitive literature.

The right brain’s contribution to creativity, however, is not absolute, because the left brain is constantly seeking explanations for inexplicable events. Unfortunately, although many are extremely creative, without the input of the right hemisphere, they are almost universally wrong. It seems that there is no phenomenon for which the left brain has not confabulated an explanation. This attribute seems specific for the left language lobe.

Artwork from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Echoing Hanna Arendt’s assertion that the ability to ask “unanswerable questions” is the hallmark of the human mind and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous aphorism that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” Shlain describes how this interplay illuminates the creative process:

The first step in the creative process is for an event, an unidentified object, an unusual pattern, or a strange juxtaposition to alert the right brain. In a mysterious process not well understood, it prods the left brain to pose a question. Asking the right question goes to the heart of creativity. Questions are a Homo sapiens forte. Despite the amazing variation in animal communication, there is only one species that can ask a question and — most impressively — dispute the answer. But Mother Nature would not have provided us with language simply to ask a question. She had to equip us with a critical appendage that could investigate those questions. That appendage was the opposable thumb. Thumbs have a lot to do with curiosity, which in turn leads to creativity

Building on previous research on the four stages of the creative process, Shlain outlines the role of the two hemispheres which, despite working in concert most of the time, are subject to the dominance of the left hemisphere:

Natural Selection gave the left hemisphere hegemony over the right. Under certain circumstances, however, the minor hemisphere must escape the control of the major one to produce its most outstanding contribution — creativity. For creativity to manifest itself, the right brain must free itself from the deadening hand of the inhibitory left brain and do its work, unimpeded and in private. Like radicals plotting a revolution, they must work in secret out of the range of the left hemisphere’s conservatives.

After working out many of the kinks in the darkness of the right hemisphere’s subterranean processes, the idea, play, painting, theory, formula, or poetic metaphor surfaces exuberantly, as if from beneath a manhole cover that was overlaying the unconscious, and demands the attention of the left brain. Startled, the other side responds in wonderment.

When a creative impulse arises in the right hemisphere, Shlain writes, it is ferried over to the left side of the brain via the mighty corpus callosum — the largest and most poorly understood structure in the human brain, and a significant key to the mystery of Leonardo’s extraordinary creativity in attaining the two grand goals of his life: to study and discern the truth behind natural phenomena, and to communicate that truth with astounding artistry.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

But Shlain’s most intriguing point about Leonardo’s brain has to do with the corpus callosum and its relation to the gendered brain. We already know that “psychological androgyny” is key to creativity, and it turns out that the corpus callosum has a major role in that. For one thing, Shlain points out, there are differences in the size of that essential bundle of fibers between right-handed heterosexual males, or RHHM, and all other variants of handedness, gender, and orientation — left-handed heterosexual males, heterosexual women of both hand dominances, and homosexual men and women.

The notion of the gendered brain is, of course, problematic and all sweeping statistical generalizations tend to exist on bell-shaped curves, with outliers on either side. Still, Shlain relays some fascinating findings:

The most dichotomous brain — that is, where the two hemispheres are the most specialized — belongs to a right-handed heterosexual male. Approximately 97 percent of key language modules reside in his left hemisphere, making it unequivocally his dominant lobe. This extreme skewing is not present to the same degree in women, both right- and left-handed; gays and lesbians; and left-handers of both sexes.


Females, right- or left-handed, have a more even distribution between the lobes regarding language and brain dominance. Right-handed women still have the large majority of their language modules in their left brains, but whereas an RHHM would most likely have 97 percent of his wordsmithing skills concentrated in the left lobe, a woman would be more likely to have a lesser percentage (about 80 percent) in the left brain, and the remaining 20 percent in the right brain.

Shlain cites MRI research by Sandra Witelson, who found that the anterior commissure, the largest of the corpus callosum’s anatomically distinct “component cables,” can be up to 30% larger in women than in men, and other studies have found that it is 15% larger in gay men than in straight men. Taken together, these two findings about the corpus callosum — that RHHMs have more specialized brains and slimmer connecting conduits between the two hemispheres — reveal important deductive insight about Leonardo’s multi-talented brain, which fused so elegantly the prototypical critical thinking of the left hemisphere with the wildly creative and imaginative faculties of the right.

Evidence from his notebooks and life strongly suggests that Leonardo was what scientists call an ESSP — an individual with exclusive same-sex preference. He never married or had children, rarely referenced women in his writings and whenever he did, it was only in the context of deciphering beauty; he was once jailed for homosexual conduct and spent some time in prison while awaiting a verdict; his anatomical drawings of the female reproductive system and genitalia are a stark outlier of inaccuracy amid his otherwise remarkably medically accurate illustrations. All of this is significant because ESSP’s don’t conform to the standard brain model of RHHM. They are also more likely to be left-handed, as Leonardo was.

In fact, Shlain points out, left-handers tend to have a larger corpus callosum than right-handers, and artists in general are more likely to be left-handed than the average person — around 9% of the general population are estimated to be left-handed, and 30-40% of the student body in art schools are lefties.

A left-handed ESSP, Leonardo was already likely to have a larger corpus callosum, but Shlain turns to the power of metaphor in illuminating the imagination for further evidence suggesting heightened communication between his two hemispheres:

The form of language that Leonardo used was highly metaphorical. He posed riddles and buried metaphors in his paintings. For this to occur, he had to have had a large connection of corpus callosum fibers between his right hemisphere and his left. The form of language based on metaphor— poetry, for instance—exists in the right hemisphere, even though language is primarily a left hemispheric function. To accomplish the task of the poet, a significant connection must exist between the parts of the right hemisphere, and, furthermore, there must be many interconnections between the two hemispheres. These fibers must be solidly welded to the language centers in the left hemisphere so that poetic metaphors can be expressed in language. Leonardo used the metaphor in his writings extensively— another example of connected hemispheres.

And therein lies Shlain’s point: The source of Leonardo’s extraordinary creativity was his ability to access different ways of thinking, to see more clearly the interconnectedness of everything, and in doing so, to reach a different state of consciousness than the rest of us:

His ESSP-ness put him somewhere between the masculine and the feminine. His left-handedness, ambidexterity, and mirror writing were indications of a nondominant brain. His adherence to vegetarianism at a time when most everyone was eating meat suggests a holistic view of the world. The equality between his right and left hemispheres contributed to his achievements in art and science, unparalleled by any other individual in history. His unique brain wiring also allowed him the opportunity to experience the world from the vantage point of a higher dimension. The inexplicable wizardry present in both his art and his science can be pondered only by stepping back and asking: Did he have mental faculties that differed merely in degree, or did he experience a form of cognition qualitatively different from the rest of us?

I propose that many of Leonardo’s successes (and failures) were the result of his gaining access to a higher consciousness.

Significantly, Leonardo was able to envision time and space differently from the rest of us, something evidenced in both his art and his scientific studies, from revolutionizing the art perspective to predating Newton’s famous action-reaction law by two centuries when he wrote, “See how the wings, striking the air, sustain the heavy eagle in the thin air on high. As much force is exerted by the object against the air as by the air against the object.” Shlain poses the ultimate question:

When pondering Leonardo’s brain we must ask the question: Did his brain perhaps represent a jump toward the future of man? Are we as a species moving toward an appreciation of space-time and nonlocality?

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

With an eye to Leonardo’s unflinching nonconformity — his pacifism in an era that glorified war, his resolute left-handedness despite concentrated efforts at the time to train children out of that devilish trait, his vegetarianism and holistic faith in nature amid a carnivorous culture — Shlain turns an optimistic gaze to the evolution of our species:

The appearance of Leonardo in the gene pool gives us hope. He lived in an age when war was accepted. Yet, later in life, he rejected war and concentrated on the search for truth and beauty. He believed he was part of nature and wanted to understand and paint it, not control it.


We humans are undergoing a profound metamorphosis as we transition into an entirely novel species. For those who doubt it is happening, remember: For millions of years dogs traveled in packs as harsh predators, their killer instinct close to the surface. Then humans artificially interfered with the canine genome beginning a mere six thousand years ago. No dog could have predicted in prehistoric times that the huge, snarling member, faithful to a pack, would evolve into individual Chihuahuas and lap-sitting poodles.

Leonardo’s Brain is a mind-bending, consciousness-stretching read in its totality. Complement it with Shlain on integrating wonder and wisdom and how the alphabet sparked the rise of patriarchy.

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07 AUGUST, 2014

Art & Physics: Leonard Shlain on Integrating Wonder and Wisdom


“Art and physics, like wave and particle, are an integrated duality … two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world.”

“It’s part of the nature of man,” Ray Bradbury told Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke as they peered into the future of space exploration, “to start with romance and build to a reality.” “What would happen,” Marshall McLuhan wondered in his seminal 1964 treatise Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties?” More than a quarter century later, Leonard Shlain picked up the inquiry with added dimension in Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (public library) — an exploration of how “the inscrutability of modern art and the impenetrability of the new physics” intersect in a shared system of thinking about how the world works. In the preface, Shlain — neither an artist nor a physicist himself — considers how his training as a surgeon lends him a unique perspective on the two fields and their cross-pollination:

A surgeon is both an artist and a scientist… Surgeons rely heavily on their intuitive visual-spatial right-hemispheric mode. At the same time, our training is obviously scientific. Left-brained logic, reason, and abstract thinking are the stepping-stones leading to the vast scientific literature’s arcane tenets. The need in my profession to shuttle back and forth constantly between these two complementary functions of the human psyche has served me well for this project.

Shlain lays out the basic premise of the parallel between the two fields:

Art and physics are a strange coupling. Of the many human disciplines, could there be two that seem more divergent? The artist employs image and metaphor; the physicist uses number and equation. Art encompasses an imaginative realm of aesthetic qualities; physics exists in a world of crisply circumscribed mathematical relationships between quantifiable properties. Traditionally, art has created illusions meant to elicit emotion; physics has been an exact science that made sense…

Yet, despite what appear to be irreconcilable differences, there is one fundamental feature that solidly connects these disciplines. Revolutionary art and visionary physics are both investigations into the nature of reality. Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist of the 1960s, declared, “Organized perception is what art is all about.” Sir Isaac Newton might have said as much for physics; he, too, was concerned with organizing perceptions. While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.

Roy Lichtenstein, 'Sunrise,' 1963

Turning to the question of originality, Shlain argues that both art and physics are propelled by revolutionary insight — that transcendent clarity of vision that Rilke called a “conflagration of clear sight” — which reframes our understanding of the world:

Although the development of physics has always depended upon the incremental contributions of many original and dedicated workers, on a few occasions in history, one physicist has had an insight of such import that it led to a revision in his whole society’s concept of reality. . . .

Emile Zola’s definition of art: “Nature as seen through a temperament,” invokes physics, which is likewise involved with nature. The Greek word, physis, means “nature.” … The physicist, like any scientist, sets out to break “nature” down into its component parts to analyze the relationship of those parts. This process is principally one of reduction. The artist, on the other hand, often juxtaposes different features of reality and synthesizes them, so that upon completion, the whole work is greater than the sum of its parts. There is considerable crossover in the technique used by both. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “There is no science without fancy and no art without facts.”


In addition to illuminating, imitating, and interpreting reality … artists create a language of symbols for things for which there are yet to be words.

This capacity for abstraction and symbolic representation, Shlain argues, is hard-wired into the evolution of our cognitive development:

Observe any infant as it masters its environment. Long before speech occurs, a baby develops an association between the image of a bottle and a feeling of satisfaction. Gradually, the baby accumulates a variety of images of bottles. This is an astounding feat considering that a bottle viewed from different angles changes shape dramatically: from a cylinder to an ellipse to a circle. Synthesizing these images, the child’s emerging conceptual faculties invent an abstract image that encompasses the idea of an entire group of objects she or he will henceforth recognize as bottles. This step in abstraction allows the infant to understand the idea of “bottleness.”

This rudimentary faculty remains central to how we make sense of the world as adults and how we grasp its immaterial subtleties:

Concepts such as “justice,” “freedom” or “economics” can be turned over in the mind without ever resorting to mental pictures. While there is never final resolution between word and image, we are a species dependent on the abstractions of language and in the main, the word eventually supplants the image.

When we reflect, ruminate, reminisce, muse and imagine, generally we revert to the visual mode. But in order to perform the brain’s highest function, abstract thinking, we abandon the use of images and are able to carry on without resorting to them. It is with great precision that we call this type of thinking, “abstract.” This is the majesty and the tyranny of language. To affix a name to something is the beginning of control over it. . . . Words, more than strength or speed, became the weapons that humans have used to subdue nature.

Children’s use of metaphor, we now know, sheds light on the evolution of human imagination — something Shlain argues is central to our ability to navigate the world. Adding to history’s most elegant definitions of art, he argues for the cultural role of the artist in fostering this crucial domain of understanding:

Because the erosion of images by words occurs at such an early age, we forget that in order to learn something radically new, we need first to imagine it. “Imagine” literally means to “make an image.” … [If] this function of imagination, so crucial to the development of an infant, is also present in the civilization at large, who then creates the new images that precede abstract ideas and descriptive language? It is the artist.


Art [lives] not only as an aesthetic that can be pleasing to the eye but, as a Distant Early Warning system of the collective thinking of a society. Visionary art alerts the other members that a conceptual shift is about to occur in the thought system used to perceive the world.

One of Lisbeth Zwerger's imaginative illustrations for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

He cites art critic Robert Hughes’s assertion that “the truly significant work of art is the one that prepares the future” and adds:

Repeatedly throughout history, the artist introduces symbols and icons that in retrospect prove to have been an avant-garde for the thought patterns of a scientific age not yet born.


Revolutionary art in all times has served this function of preparing the future.

Shlain returns to the common ground between art and physics, both of which serve as tools for mapping the unknown:

Both art and physics are unique forms of language. Each has a specialized lexicon of symbols that is used in a distinctive syntax. Their very different and specific contexts obscure their connection to everyday language as well as to each other. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy just how often the terms of one can be applied to the concepts of the other… While physicists demonstrate that A equals B or that X is the same as Y, artists often choose signs, symbols and allegories to equate a painterly image with a feature of experience. Both of these techniques reveal previously hidden relationships.


Revolutionary art and visionary physics attempt to speak about matters that do not yet have words. That is why their languages are so poorly understood by people outside their fields. Because they both speak of what is certainly to come, however, it is incumbent upon us to learn to understand them.

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics' by CERN physicist Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

Turning to the famous Tower of Babel myth — a Biblical story about humanity’s collaborative effort to build a tower that would reach the heavens, paralyzed by an indignant god’s spell that transformed people’s previously common language into garbled speech that made them unable to communicate and collaborate — Shlain draws a parallel to the artificial garbling of the shared language of art and physics:

History has been the record of our agonizingly slow resumption of work on this mythic public monument to knowledge. Gradually the parochial suspicions that had been abetted by large numbers of local dialects have given way to the more universal outlook of modern humankind. Currently, this work in progress is the creation of a global commonwealth. The worldwide community of artists and scientists is and has been in the forefront of this coalescence, offering perceptions of reality that erase linguistic and national boundaries. Reconciliation of the apparent differences between these two unique human languages, art and physics, is the next important step in developing our unifying Tower.

Both disciplines, he argues, first require us to ask how we know the world. Tracing the history of the answer from Plato to Descartes to Kant, Shlain points to philosophers’ distinction between “the inner eye of imagination and the external world of things” as a toxic and artificial divide that drove art and physics apart:

The faculty we use to grasp the nature of the “out there” is our imagination. Somewhere within the matrix of our brain we construct a separate reality created by a disembodied, thinking consciousness. This inner reality is unconnected to external space and exists outside the stream of linear time. When reminiscing about a day at the beach, we knit together elements of that day that no longer “actually” exist. We can run the events forward and backward with ease, and amend with alternate possibilities what we believe happened… Consciousness, resembling nothing so much as long columns of ants at work, must laboriously transfer the outside world piece by piece through the tunnels of the senses, then reconstruct it indoors. This inner spectral vision amounts to a mental “opinion” unique to each individual of how the world works… When an entire civilization reaches a consensus about how the world works, the belief system is elevated to the supreme status of a “paradigm,” whose premises appear to be so obviously certain no one has to prove them anymore.

Shlain points to the beginning of the 20th century, when Einstein’s theory of photons challenged two centuries of considering light a wave, as a turning point for the integration between art and physics. Suddenly, by acknowledging the contradictory duality of light as both a particle and a wave, science had to confront its basic tenet of objectivity and fixed laws. As Shlain puts it, “at the turn of the century, what was to be a surprising feature of quantum reality amounted to a Zen koan.”

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein' by Jennifer Berne. Click image for more.

In 1926, Niels Bohr formalized this notion in his theory of complementarity, which stated that light was not either a wave or a particle, but was both a wave and a particle. Shlain writes:

As it turned out, light would reveal only one aspect of its nature at a time, resembling an odd carnival peep show. Whenever a scientist set up an experiment to measure the wavelike aspect of light, the subjective act of deciding which measuring device to use in some mysterious way affected the outcome, and light responded by acting as a wave. The same phenomenon occurred whenever a scientist set out to measure the particlelike aspect of light. Thus “subjectivity,” the anathema of all science (and the creative wellspring of all art) had to be admitted into the carefully defended citadel of classical physics. Werner Heisenberg, Bohr’s close associate, said in support of this bizarre notion, “The common division of the world into subject and object, inner world and outer world, body and soul is no longer adequate…. Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.” According to the new physics, observer and observed are somehow connected, and the inner domain of subjective thought turns out to be intimately conjoined to the external sphere of objective facts.

From this revolutionary duality of light Shlain extracts a broader metaphor for his central thesis:

[Through] the complementarity of art and physics … these two fields intimately entwine to form a lattice upon which we all can climb a little higher in order to construct our view of reality. Understanding this connection should enhance our appreciation for the vitality of art and deepen our sense of awe before the ideas of modern physics. Art and physics, like wave and particle, are an integrated duality: They are simply two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world. Integrating art and physics will kindle a more synthesized awareness which begins in wonder and ends with wisdom.

In the remainder of Art & Physics, a mind-expanding read in its totality, Shlain goes on to trace the evolution of human thinking and knowledge from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance to the 20th century, exploring various aspects of the parallels between the two disciplines, from Einstein and Picasso’s “common vision” to the interplay between illusion and reality to how music integrates the reason of science with the emotional expressiveness of art. Complement it with Dorion Sagan (son of Carl) on how science and philosophy enrich each other.

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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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