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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (March 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 031254152X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312541521
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #272,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

"On Being Certain challenges our understanding of the very nature of thought and provokes readers to ask what Burton calls “the most basic of questions”: How do we know what we know?”--Scientific American Mind

“In his brilliant new book, Burton systematically and convincingly shows that certainty is a mental state, a feeling like anger or pride that can help guide us, but that doesn't dependably reflect objective truth… In the polarizing atmosphere of the 2008 election, On Being Certain ought to be required reading for every candidate -- and for every citizen.”--ForbesLife

“What do we do when we recognize that a false certainty feels the same as certainty about the sky being blue? A lesser guide might get bogged down in nail-biting doubts about the limits of knowledge. Yet Burton not only makes clear the fascinating beauty of this tangled terrain, he also brings us out the other side with a clearer sense of how to navigate. It's a lovely piece of work; I'm all but certain you'll like it. “--David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness; Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

“Burton has a great talent for combining wit and insight in a way both palatable and profound.”--Johanna Shapiro PhD, professor of Family Medicine at UC Irvine School of Medicine

 “A new way of looking at knowledge that merits close reading by scientists and general readers alike.”--Kirkus

 “This could be one of the most important books of the year. With so much riding on ‘certainty,’ and so little known about how people actually reach a state of certainty about anything, some plain speaking from a knowledgeable neuroscientist is called for. If Gladwell's Blink was fascinating but largely anecdotal, Burton's book drills down to the real science behind snap judgments and other decision-making.”-- Howard Rheingold, futurist and author of Smart Mobs

“A fascinating read. Burton’s engaging prose takes us into the deepest corners of our subconscious, making us question our most solid contentions. Nobody who reads this book will walk away from it and say ‘I know this for sure’ ever again.”--Sylvia Pagán Westphal, science reporter, The Wall Street Journal

“Burton provides a compelling and though-provoking case that we should be more skeptical about our beliefs. Along the way, he also provides a novel perspective on many lines of research that should be of interest to readers who are looking for a broad introduction to the cognitive sciences.”--Seed Magazine

 

From the Back Cover

You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001--you know these things, well, because you just do.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. The feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.

Bringing together cutting edge neuroscience, experimental data, and fascinating anecdotes, Robert Burton explores the inconsistent and sometimes paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. Provocative and groundbreaking, On Being Certain, will challenge what you know (or think you know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason.

ROBERT BURTON, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaimed novels. He lives in Sausalito, California. Visit his website at http://www.rburton.com/

“What do we do when we recognize that a false certainty feels the same as certainty about the sky being blue? A lesser guide might get bogged down in nail-biting doubts about the limits of knowledge. Yet Burton not only makes clear the fascinating beauty of this tangled terrain, he also brings us out the other side with a clearer sense of how to navigate. It's a lovely piece of work; I'm all but certain you'll like it. “

--David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness; Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

“Burton has a great talent for combining wit and insight in a way both palatable and profound.”

--Johanna Shapiro PhD, professor of Family Medicine at UC Irvine School of Medicine

 “A new way of looking at knowledge that merits close reading by scientists and general readers alike.”

--Kirkus

 “This could be one of the most important books of the year. With so much riding on ‘certainty,’ and so little known about how people actually reach a state of certainty about anything, some plain speaking from a knowledgeable neuroscientist is called for. If Gladwell's Blink was fascinating but largely anecdotal, Burton's book drills down to the real science behind snap judgments and other decision-making.”

-- Howard Rheingold, futurist and author of Smart Mobs

“A fascinating read. Burton’s engaging prose takes us into the deepest corners of our subconscious, making us question our most solid contentions. Nobody who reads this book will walk away from it and say ‘I know this for sure’ ever again.”

--Sylvia Pagán Westphal, science reporter, The Wall Street Journal

“Burton provides a compelling and though-provoking case that we should be more skeptical about our beliefs. Along the way, he also provides a novel perspective on many lines of research that should be of interest to readers who are looking for a broad introduction to the cognitive sciences.”

--Seed Magazine

 

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

This book made me think and then made me think some more.
Book Fanatic
I wish the author would have discussed the issue of 'certainty' more than the tertiarilly related matter of brain states like fear and deja vu.
Kevin Currie-Knight
I enjoyed the book, thought it was very well constructed and would highly recommend it to anyone.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

147 of 165 people found the following review helpful By Mike Bruno on March 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Book Review: "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You're Not" by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

In my theistic discussions; I am often fascinated (stymied) at the level of certainty that some theists have in the validity of their religious narrative...often in the face of clear contradictory empirical evidence. Over the years, I have taken a keen interest in neurology and how the brain works; enough so that I have a passing regret for not having gone into neurology instead of engineering (it's never too late, right?). Over these years, I have amassed a mental library of various illustrations that show how malleable and unreliable the mind (as manifested in the brain) can be. Still; the inexplicable certainty that some possess was never addressed directly in my readings. Hence, when I saw a brief blurb about the book "On Being Certain", I immediately went and bought a copy (my library had ordered it, but they did not yet have it ready for lending).

Dr. Burton's sole focus of "On Being Certain" is that sense of certainty that we all recognize. He provides evidence that the feeling (or `emotion' more accurately) is a `primary emotion' and refers to it as the "feeling of knowing" (he did not shorten it to an acronym, I think, because of the obvious, awkward acronym that would result).

Burton cites the rapidly accumulating knowledge that we have with regard to brain function and perception to good end. The less diligent reader, though, might not find the reading deeply satisfying as we cannot, based on our current knowledge, fully answer specific questions (i.e. why do we create gods to address the unknown). Still, the empirical evidence cited is often clearly in conflict with some common presumptions.
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172 of 196 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 12, 2008
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I am always slightly annoyed when a book is not about what is is supposed to be about. A few chapters of this book - those towards the end - are on why the feeling of certainty is just that: a feeling. This leads the author to some interesting discussions about how the 'feeling of certianty (a feeling though it is) is something that tends not to be subject to reason, but owes more to emotion. The author also goes into some really interesting thoughts about evolutionary reasons why the feeling of certainty as a tool to help us survive in an uncertain world (where we have to act, so we might as well act with conviction).

Unfortunately, this only happens well into the second half of the book (maybe 2/3rds of the way through). The first many chapters are stage setters. There are chapters about distinguishing what is meant by "mental states," "feeling" and "sensation," chapters describing how we know that emotions like fear, deja vu, and religious experience are chemical in nature, and how the "mind" is an emergent property tying together several components of the brain into a unity.

The author also spends quite a bit of time talking about what neuroscientists term the "hidden layer." That is, when we make decisions, the brain "surveys" a whole host of things - past experiences, attitudes one has acquired, things one has learned, etc. - to come to a conclusion, but this is all "hidden" form our consciousness. Thus, the author concludes that while we may feel like our deliberations are conscious, often the bulk of our deliberation is unconscious.

All of this, the author tells us, supports the thesis (that he eventually gets to) suggesting that certainty is a feeling,, and not always one subject to rationality as we generally assume.
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Thomas L. Lincoln on February 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
We are challenged by certainty our own and that of others which are often in turbulent conflict across many fields. It is difficult to understand how we as individuals and as groups can feel so deeply certain and so differently about a given issue. Here is a book that reviews such matters in modern terms both from a personal and from a professional neuroscience perspective, showing how and why our convictions are neurologically our own. He does so be citing examples from clinical practice, but without overloading the reader with difficult technical terms. At the same time, interesting examples and personal experiences both broaden and enlighten the presentation. His motivation to address the topic is never hidden. His message is that even with the best of scientific proof we can never be as certain as we commonly think (and feel) we are. What we do not know (or have not yet dreamed of) vastly exceeds what we know. The small voice of skepticism should always be in our ear. It is more than an admonition, it is a necessity. Those who liked the books by Oliver Sacks will like this book.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Madeleine L. Vanhecke on April 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As an avid reader of authors such as Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works), Malcolm Gladwell (Blink), Richard Restak (The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own) and Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), I found Burton's book On Being Certain a riveting read. Trying to understand how the mind works feels to me as if we are putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle, knowing that we only have 20 or 30% of the pieces. On Being Certain provides a key piece that for me shifted all the others into a more meaningful pattern.

Burton argues eloquently for the power that the feeling of certainty that we are right has over us. I agree; and also find that this book triggered the reverse in me: a sense of uncertainty,the feeling that I'm not sure what I believe about some of the issues Burton raises. And that can be an exhilarating experience as well. As one wit said, "Being certain is nice, but it's doubt that gets you an education."

Burton uses very creative analogies, practical examples, and reader-friendly illustrations to convey the intricacies of what he is describing, and he links what might otherwise seem to be esoteric issues to questions about self and the meaning of life that have haunted humantity for eons. I thought this was a super book.
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