The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truthsby Published 24 May 2011
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The Believing Brain is bestselling author Michael Shermer's comprehensive and provocative theory on how beliefs are born, formed, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished.
In this work synthesizing thirty years of research, psychologist, historian of science, and the world's best-known skeptic Michael Shermer upends the traditional thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world. Simply put, beliefs come first and explanations for beliefs follow. The brain, Shermer argues, is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. Our brains connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen, and these patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop of belief confirmation. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths.
Interlaced with his theory of belief, Shermer provides countless real-world examples of how this process operates, from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal. Ultimately, he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths Reviews
I have to admit at the beginning that I have a significantly pro-skeptic bias. I love skeptics, so it is hard for me not to like the book. An interesting book that belongs on my shelf between my books on psychology and science (The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) and my books on agnosticism, skepticism, neo-atheism and the evolution of religion (The Evolution of God, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, The God Delusion). Anyway, 'Believing Brain' was worth my time and was a nice homage to science, and the scientific method.
What an amazing book......
If you ever want to understand,the psychology of why we Believe,grab this one,very well written,so informative........It will help you understand why many of us are not immune to logic fallacies, conspiracy theories,why genius and madness are living on the same street but just couple of blocks away from each other,why we believe in weird things like god(s),angels, prayers,superstition rituals,alien abduction and How is even possible for one person to hold different conflicting beliefs and still entertaining them both. and lastly how we arrive on our moral and political beliefs.
I decided to buy this book after watching a short Ted Talk featuring Michael Shermer in which he discussed the origins of belief. A natural born skeptic with two science based degrees who often finds herself wanting to believe (a huge X-files fan), I am fascinated by how people come to hold certain beliefs that on the surface appear flawed or irrational. So that said, this book appealed to me on many levels.
On a personal level, I have a special interest in religious belief. Raised a Christian, I grew up attending church and going to private, religious-based schools. In fact, I went through high school with only being aware of one "true" non-believer, a father of a friend. Back then the idea that someone would have the gall to be an atheist blew me away. Yet somewhere along the way, my belief in God simply deteriorated and I found myself grappling with the "A" word.
During my journey, I have gone through many stages of belief and disbelief. First I believed everything wholeheartedly and literally, but then as a kid I also believed in Santa Claus.
As I got older, I found that I could no longer accept the Bible as literal, but still hung onto the belief of God and Christ. Then over the years, it became impossible for me to accept even the most basic foundation of Christian Theology (the divinity of Christ)any longer. The religions were all too similar, not just to each other but also to past mythologies (for example: the similarities between Christ and mythological gods like Dionysus are just too many to be coincidence.) I realized that had I been born to Muslim parents, I would have a been a Muslim, born to Buddhists parents, a Buddhist. I also could not accept that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving God would need to be worshiped or would punish his imperfect creations for their imperfections. It became obvious to me that religion and gods are man-made.
Quite frankly I found religious teachings rather simplistic and boring when held up against the freaking awesomeness of the universe we now know exists.
That's when I started to define myself as spiritual, until I asked myself exactly what that meant. Then I got to where I am now, a skeptical, non-theist who would like to believe in things like God, and Heaven, and an Afterlife and maybe even Ghosts and ESP and the like, but feels that there is no real, rational, scientific evidence to support living a life that treats those things as real, even if possible (though unlikely). I've also found I don't need a god to give my life meaning or purpose.
This puts me at odds with my family and many in my inner circle, so I wanted to understand why I don't believe when they do. What happened?
That being my starting point, I found this book to be an excellent read. Shermer gives a detailed account of the neurobiology and neurophysiology of belief. Yes, even belief is nothing more than a firing of neurons in the brain. He discusses and provides evidence for the evolutionary foundation of our belief and why beliefs are often irrational and not based on fact. He claims the belief often comes first and the evidence later. Furthermore, we are creatures of bias who are hard wired to find patterns and find meaning in it all, which leads us to see patterns that don't exist and attribute meaning when there is none. We tend to attribute unexplained phenomena to magic or supernatural forces when historically we know that just because we can't explain something yet doesn't mean it doesn't have a good and rational explanation.
He then goes on to discuss belief in supernatural phenomena, including things like religion and the paranormal. He even takes some time to discuss the neurobiology as it relates to political beliefs.
Shermer describes himself as a skeptic and a libertarian, who lives his life as an atheist (he claims you either live as if there is a particular god or you don't - practically speaking). He shares his own personal views and acknowledges his own bias, though it should be noted he has spent much of his life investigating the claims of the supernatural. Still, much of the book is the presentation of data from many different scientific sources.
The crux of his book is that we generally, but not always, believe first (whether because of indoctrination and/or societal influences) and seek confirmation for our beliefs later (often by cherry picking and employing understood biases) and that we need to start using science (that which we can systematically confirm and prove/disprove) and not beliefs (that which we know are irrational and flawed), as our litmus moving forward, understanding why we do the things we do and maybe believe the crazy stuff we believe. He points to the erroneous nature of past beliefs (even when science was employed) to support the need for continued and vigilant skepticism, but acknowledges that skepticism is often discouraged. In fact, he notes skepticism is seen as being noncommittal and wishy-washy, and instead we are encouraged to confirm and assimilate to the group and group dogma. Group-think provides cohesiveness, while skepticism challenges the status-quo and threatens perceived stability.
Bottom line: There is still a lot we don't know, but not knowing is not an excuse for making stuff up. Science isn't perfect and does change, but it's the best tool in the tool box. As Einstein suggested, our Gods should only start where our science ends. If science can explain it, then we need to be able and/or willing to adapt our "gods" accordingly, whatever those "gods" are.
This book might be alienating to a person of faith or someone who is a staunch believer in the paranormal as Shermer does present a strong case against the likelihood of deities and knowing what deities want, as well as paranormal phenomena. However, if you are open-minded, you will find he doesn't attack belief as much as he tries to explain it, which may seem like nothing more than semantics but I think an important distinction.
Shermer's discussion of politics also resonated with me, and I found after reading his argument that I was more sensitive to the "other side". According to him, we are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps the left and right arm of the same body yet functioning from the same complicated and emotional brain.
I wanted to end with a quote, which is hard in retrospect since I highlighted about a third of the book. Yeah, it spoke to me. So I will go with Shermer's closing remarks, which I feel capture the essence of the book.
In the end, all of us are trying to make sense of the world, and nature has gifted us with a double-edged sword that cuts for and against. On one edge, our brains are the most complex and sophisticated information-processing machines in the universe, capable of understanding not only the universe itself but also the process of understanding. On the other edge, by the very same process of forming beliefs about the universe and ourselves, we are also more capable than any other species of self-deception and illusion, of fooling ourselves even while we are trying to avoid being fooled by nature.
In the end I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.
I would recommend this book to skeptics and/or those who are interested in brain and behavior and brain science in general, as well as anyone who is willing to challenge their own personal gods - whether those gods be religious, political, or personal - by seeking a deeper understanding of why we are who we are.
There were a few books in this book and I only enjoyed one of them. Unfortunately for me, most of the content was repeat information from things I've read/heard before. The first sections dealing with the biology of the brain were interesting.
So much of the book (a book in itself) was spent refuting things that don't exist (UFOs, ghosts, god, 9/11 conspiracies, etc.) it was tiresome. I know they don't, I don't need it explained why. This continued on for a long, long time. I almost gave up on the book.
I appreciated his honesty, his disclosure of his own background since part of the premise of the book is that belief is formed through brain chemistry that is affected and effected by many variables. There were a few points that were frustrating, like when he obviously misunderstood the Lakoff/Westin books that in my mind agree entirely with his position that belief comes from chemical reactions in the brain and that feelings are integral to forming beliefs (Shermer probably wouldn't like the "fuzzy" term "feelings," I suppose).
Anyway, it got long-winded as it was so full of disputing theories and disputing false notions. The section on ways we delude ourselves (delude is my word choice) was also too long. He gave labels to about 20 different kinds of reasons people hold faulty beliefs. The labels seemed unnecessary to me, though the anecdotal descriptions were interesting (too many repeated from earlier books, as I mentioned).
So, it was so-so.
This is an excellent, comprehensive examination of the things we believe, and why. It is a very well-written, well-organized book with a unifying theme: we form our beliefs, and then we rationalize them with explanations. We initially formulate our beliefs through two processes: patternicity and agenticity. Patternicity allows us to form all sorts of weird beliefs, including the whole gamut of superstitions. For example, if something bad happens when a black cat crosses your path, and at a later time something else bad happens in the presence of a black cat, it is natural for one to see "a pattern".
And, when we see a pattern--even in a series of coincidental occurrences--we often ascribe agenticity to it. We attach a special meaning, or ascribe the occurrence to an agent who has intentionally willed it to happen. Beliefs in haunted houses, lucky sweaters, seances, aliens, ghosts, and a host of other phenomena are due to agenticity.
Shermer shows how the biology of the brain and chemicals that activate neurons in certain regions of the brain can play a big part in forming our beliefs. Belief in the afterlife, in God, in aliens, in conspiracies, and political beliefs are all discussed in some detail. A whole host of biases in our beliefs are described.
Toward the end of the book, our scientific beliefs are described. The history of cosmology is told in some detail, offering insights into how old paradigms hold sway for years-decades-centuries-even millennia, until science has gathered overwhelming evidence for a better theory.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in how and why people formulate beliefs.