Vol.33 No.3 August 1999

Smashing Images—A Review

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

August 99 Columns
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Images and Reversals
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“In the eighth century, a sect arose from within the ranks of its highly literate clergy that so despised images that its members declared an all-out war against statues and paintings. . . . At first, they sought out only religious images to smash. Church mosaics, painted icons, and stained-glass artistry fell to their savage assaults. Later their targets also included painters, sculptors and craftsmen. They even murdered those whose crime it was to love art. Monks who resisted were blinded and had their tongues torn out. The iconoclasts beheaded the Patriarch of the Eastern Church in 767 for refusing to support their cause.
“The iconoclast movement never spread to illiterate Western Europe; its madness consumed only the segment of Christendom that boasted the highest literacy rate. Artists fled for their lives from Byzantium, heading for the western court of Charlemagne whose largely illiterate courtiers welcomed them with open arms” (pp. 275-276) [1].

Reconsecrated Shrines

When we are trying to understand something fundamental about human beings and the human brain, it seems wise to look, as much as possible, to other ages and other cultures to see the full range of what we need to consider. This is effectively what has been provided recently by Leonard Shlain in his book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess—The Conflict Between Word and Image [1].

Shlain, a surgeon from Mill Valley, CA, spent seven years drawing together elements from many cultures and thousands of years of history to weave a narrative and an argument about the sometimes catastrophic interplay of image, alphabetic writing, religion, gender relationships and human history. For the vast sweep of the topic, Shlain’s achievement is astonishing—although it is not always entirely convincing. One does not have to accept all of Shlain’s argument, however, to be persuaded that he is dealing with a topic that is well worth our attention. His view is bold and he delivers new insights and information that substantially enlarges our understanding of important historical dynamics.

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

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

Using Two Sides

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

The experience of surgeons is thus unlike many scholars and historians. They are expected to use mainly one side only—the left side of the brain, the world of words, grammar, logic and highly specialized analysis. Less weight is given to the pictures, images, proportion and the large-scale, global view so characteristic of the right side of the brain. It is widely recognized in some circles that there is often a tradeoff between verbal and visual skills.

Persistent Questions

Years ago, when I was researching my own book, In the Mind’s Eye, I found that always in the background, behind and under every story and every neurological observation, was my own awareness of the larger implications of the dual nature of the two hemispheres of the human brain. I was aware that this relatively new understanding of the brain provided the larger context for most of the things I was writing. Along with this awareness, however, came a quiet but persistent series of questions.

If we are now, in fact, moving from a world based on words to a world based on images, has this happened before and how did it happen? Were there ever whole societies and cultures largely based on right-hemisphere kinds of knowledge—as ours is based largely on left-hemisphere forms of knowledge and understanding? What would be the main consequences of following one approach over the other? What is gained and what is lost in each direction? And what happens to various factions and power groups when there is a substantial change in one direction or another?

I wondered why certain religions and certain cultures seem to revere the written word and the book so very highly (two relatively new technologies in the long history of the human race), whilst, at the same time, they seemed so ready, from time to time, to explode with a destructive force full of fear and hatred for images and everything linked to them? And what might all this mean for us today if we are, in fact, beginning to go through such a major change once again? I knew just enough of history to suspect that there was a major story to be told.

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

Two Hemispheres Through History

In a series if 35 tightly-constructed chapters Shlain surveys an enormously broad territory. With example after example, he attempts to show that, in general, the old goddess-linked, polytheistic religions are more concerned with the cycles of life, more tolerant, less given to religious warfare and tended to exhibit the values and perspectives of the right hemisphere.

The newer, literacy-linked, monotheistic religions, on the other hand, are more given to single-minded pursuit of narrow group goals, are often intolerant and self-righteous in the extreme, can be extraordinarily savage in extended religious warfare (in spite of peaceful religious teachings) and tend to exhibit the values and narrow perspectives typical of the left hemisphere of the brain.

Shlain argues that these changes were brought about, remarkably, by learning to use alphabetic writing systems. “Aside from obvious benefits that derived from their ease of use, alphabets produced a subtle change in cognition that redirected human thinking. . . . Alphabets reinforced only half of the dual strategy that humans had evolved to survive. . . .” Each part of this “duality perceived and reacted to the world in a different way; a unified response emerged only when both complementary halves were used. All forms of writing increase the left brain’s dominance over the right.” Learning to read and write “supplants all-at-once gestalt perception with a new, unnatural, highly abstract one-at-a-time cognition” (pp. 66-67).

New Thoughts About The New World

Consequently, according to Shlain, the rapid spread of literacy and inexpensive printed materials with Gutenberg’s press in 1454 had mixed results. “The rapid rise of literacy rates wrought by the printing press was a boon to European science, literature, poetry, and philosophy. And yet it seemed no country could escape the terrible religious upheaval that inevitably followed the march of the metal letters.” (p. 354).

However, the possibilities inherent in one predisposition versus another are probably most clear in Shlain’s speculations about the discovery of the New World. If the Old World discoverers had been more tolerant and less single-minded, he argues, this sad period of history might have been very different. “Had the discovery and invasion of the New World been undertaken by a culture other than sixteenth-century Europeans driven mad by the printing press, a different scenario might have ensued. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great made peace treaties with Dravidian tribes in India and Scythians in Thrace; people as exotic as any he would have encountered in America. Unencumbered by the intolerance that comes with alphabet monotheism, Alexander did not feel compelled to eradicate the local religions and enslave the native populations.”

Alternatively, “If Julius Caesar had discovered the New World, would he have destroyed the local population, stolen their lands, and rooted out their culture? Likely not. This wise pagan would have forged alliances, fostered trade, and treated the people with respect.” This should be expected, according to Shlain, because this is the policy he actually pursued with the “blue-painted Celts and Pics” (pp. 350-351).

It is noteworthy that in Shlain’s view, the most dangerous historical times appear to be soon after the growth and establishment of widespread literacy. The more people learned to read, the more likely they were going to find good and authoritative reasons to begin slaughtering each other. It is doubtful whether this will be a popular view among the growing numbers of literacy programs. However, perhaps we can be grateful that we are working on the last few percentage points—rather than the first burst of broad-spread literacy, as in other parts of the world.

A New Balance

Shlain gives us an unsettling picture of what can happen with the rapid spread and deep effects of a powerful technology—reading, writing and the book. However, in his Epilogue, he apologizes for his criticism of the books he loves so dearly. “Throughout, as a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends.” However, he felt that he had to point out the “pernicious side effect” of literacy which “has gone essentially unnoticed” (p. 430).

What is most important is finding a new balance once again. He notes that “even when we become aware that literacy has a downside, no reasonable person would . . . recommend that people not become literate. Instead, we seek a renewed respect for iconic information, which in conjunction with the ability to read, can bring our two hemispheres into greater equilibrium and allow both individuals and cultures to become more balanced” (p. 429).

The promise of this new balance leads Shlain to foresee a brighter future. “I am convinced,” he asserts, “we are entering a new Golden Age—one in which the right-hemispheric values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature will begin to ameliorate the conditions that have prevailed for the too-long periods during which left-hemispheric values were dominant. Images, of any kind, are the balm bringing about this worldwide healing” (p. 432).

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


  1. Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess – The Conflict Between Word and Image, Viking, 1998, 464 pages.

Thomas G. West is author of In the Mind’s Eye. He is currently helping to develop a research agenda concerning visual thinking and visualization technologies for the U.S. National Library of Medicine and other organizations.

Thomas G.West

Tel: +1-301-654-5828
Fax: +1-301-654-0987

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.