The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word & Image

By Shlain, Leonard | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, April 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word & Image


Shlain, Leonard, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


A CHILD LEARNS a novel bit of information. A set of neurons fires in his or her brain. With each reinforcement of the lesson, the same neurons fire again. The surrounding neurons, sensitized to the discharges of the first set, also begin to join in what becomes an ever-magnifying electrochemical chorus. Learned information becomes "burned" into neuronal pathways. Such is the manner by which we acquire knowledge that will endure throughout our lives. Conversely, what we fail to learn causes the withering of whole tracts of other neurons as a result of their disuse. For example, a preschooler can learn a second language with ease if taught at the right time. The same individual having to learn that second language many years later in college will find it a far more difficult task.

But what effect does the kind of learning have on the larger organization of the human brain? Separating our species from virtually all others, we have two highly specialized brain hemispheres. Each lobe is designed to handle essentially different types of information. The left lobe in over 90% of people is the seat of language that is perceived in a linear stream. We call this careful sequencing grammar and syntax, without which strings of words would be incoherent. The majority of other linear, sequential mental processes such as logic, reason, algebra, causality, and arithmetic also reside principally in the left hemisphere. In general, the main functions of the left proceed linearly one thing after another--in time. It is as if evolution designed the left hemisphere as a new sense organ charged with perceiving sequential time.

The right hemisphere, in contrast, is non-verbal, yet it contributes a global awareness to events often endowing them with emotion and meaning. In general, the right perceives the world holistically and simultaneously. It responds to body language, the voice's inflection, facial expression and is expert at grasping gestalts. It takes in whole images in a glance. The right's primary functions are visual-spatial. We rely on it to read a map, figure out mazes, and discern faces all-at-once. Evolution assigned the right hemisphere to perceive space and complement the left's temporal skills.

But this dichotomy also can be applied to the sexual duality. Addressing right handers (who comprise 92% of the population), each man and each woman is a composite of both a feminine side and a masculine one. Many of the modules located in the brain that are necessary to care for children too young to use verbal language reside principally in the right hemisphere and the strategy, planning, and cooperation necessary to hunt and kill large mammals reside principally in the left hemisphere.

In general, the right hemisphere of both men and women can be said to be the seat of their feminine side and the left hemisphere of both men and women is where their masculine side resides. Every culture in the world acknowledges these differences in their myths, customs and culture. The left side of the body controlled by the right brain is considered female and the right side controlled by the left brain is considered male. For example, Tories are called "right wingers" by their adversaries and are generally for discipline, fiscal responsibility, and arms. Labour is called "leftist" by its adversaries and is more supportive of welfare, childcare, and the rights of women. Left is "sinister" and human "rights" are laudable. The same distinctions hold throughout history. William Blake wrote, "Time & Space are Real Beings, a Male & a Female. Time is a Man and Space is a Woman".

All humans are bora with the innate capability to learn the grammar of the first language he or she hears. And every human is born with an innate ability to read the body language, gestures, and facial expressions of others. Evolution did not, however, prepare humans in the same way for the immense innovation called literacy. The invention of writing approximately five thousand years ago, followed by the improved system called the alphabet 3500 years later, was on equal par with fire, the wheel and agriculture.

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The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word & Image
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