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The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths Hardcover – May 24, 2011
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“Michael Shermer has long been one of our most committed champions of scientific thinking in the face of popular delusion. In The Believing Brain, he has written a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief. We have all fallen more deeply in his debt.” ―Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Moral Landscape, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith.
“The physicist Richard Feynman once said that the easiest person to fool is yourself, and as a result he argued that as a scientist one has to be especially careful to try and find out not only what is right about one's theories, but what might also be wrong with them. If we all followed this maxim of skepticism in everyday life, the world would probably be a better place. But we don't. In this book Michael Shermer lucidly describes why and how we are hard wired to 'want to believe'. With a narrative that gently flows from the personal to the profound, Shermer shares what he has learned after spending a lifetime pondering the relationship between beliefs and reality, and how to be prepared to tell the difference between the two.” ―Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and author of The Physics of Star Trek, Quantum Man and A Universe from Nothing
“Michael Shermer has long been one of the world's deepest thinkers when it comes to explaining where our beliefs come from, and he brings it all together in this important, engaging, and ambitious book. Shermer knows all the science, he tells great stories, he is funny, and he is fearless, delving into hot-button topics like 9-11 Truthers, life after death, capitalism, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and the existence of God. This is an entertaining and thoughtful exploration of the beliefs that shape our lives.” ―Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works
“The Believing Brain is a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences to explain how irrational beliefs are formed and reinforced, while leaving us confident our ideas are valid. This is a must read for everyone who wonders why religious and political beliefs are so rigid and polarized--or why the other side is always wrong, but somehow doesn't see it.” ―Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of The Drunkard's Walk and The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking)
“We might think that we learn how the world works, because we take the time to observe and understand it. Shermer says that's just not so. We just believe things, and then make our world fit our perceptions. Believe me; you don't have to take my word for it. Just try clearing some space in your own Believing Brain.” ―Bill Nye, the Science Guy ©, Executive Director of The Planetary Society
“The Believing Brain is a fascinating account of the origins of all manner of beliefs, replete with cutting edge evidence from the best scientific research, packed with nuggets of truths and then for good measure, studded with real world examples to deliver to the reader, a very personable, engaging and ultimately, convincing set of explanations for why we believe.” ―Professor Bruce Hood, Chair of Developmental Psychology, Bristol University and author of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable
About the Author
Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.
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Shermer maintains that the brain is a “belief engine,” which actively seeks patterns in the sense data it receives from the environment (patternicity), and then gives meaning to those patterns that seem to explain the environment (agenticity). The meaningful patterns are transformed into our beliefs, which generate our understanding of the world. In that sense, each person constructs his or her own reality, a notion that I have long thought to be valid and useful.
Shermer proceeds to examine the factors that contribute to patternicity and agenticity. He discusses the role of evolution in the tendency to find patterns that may not be there, but which trigger behavior that has survival value for the species. An ambiguous rustle in the bushes evokes fear and results in escape behavior, innate brain mechanisms evoke stereotypical behavior in response to specific visual patterns (imprinting), and random schedules of reinforcement produce superstitious behavior in animals and humans (rituals in sports, especially baseball).
The most difficult problem for Shermer— and for all neuroscience— is the relationship between mind and brain. The author wastes no time in dismissing dualism, and states plainly that mind is the sole product of the materialistic brain. “No brain, no mind.” Of course, the mechanisms whereby the neurochemical activity of the brain produces all the varieties of mental experience remain a mystery. However, Shermer does try to relate specific physiological processes to certain psychological and behavioral events.
First, Shermer reviews the functional properties of neurons and synapses, and then suggests that convergence of different inputs (neural binding) occurs to account for the holistic nature of percepts. This hierarchical process may continue until individual neurons — referred to as grandmother cells — fire only to one specific stimulus. Some neuroscientists are skeptical of such neurons and refute the necessity of binding altogether. Furthermore, Shermer emphasizes the importance of neurotransmitters in relaying information across synapses. Of the many transmitters found in the brain, Shermer selects dopamine as most directly related to belief (he calls it the belief drug) because of its role in the brain’s reward system. However, this choice is questionable because dopamine is also present in other circuits that control movement, modulate cognition and emotion, and regulate hormonal responses.
These findings illustrate that any given neurochemical may be involved in different brain circuits that have quite distinct functions, depending on the connectivity of the circuits and the type of receptors that are affected by the neurochemical. Furthermore, fMRI studies have shown that any given brain area may serve more than one function, presumably depending on the distinct number of circuits it contains and on the number of different population response patterns each circuit can produce.
The rest of Shermer’s book is divided into two major sections, the first entitled “Belief In Things Unseen.” This section deals with: 1) evidence regarding belief in the afterlife, including near-death experiences, 2) belief in God, including the idea that God is hard-wired into our brains as the ultimate pattern that explains everything, 3) belief in aliens, and 4) belief in conspiracies, with special attention given to the “conspiracy” of 9/11.
The second section is entitled “Belief In Things Seen.” This section contains: 1) a discussion of the politics of belief, with an interesting analysis of the differences between conservatives and liberals in their views on various moral attributes, 2) confirmations of belief, our tendency to accept evidence that supports our existing beliefs — the strongest of all biases — and ignore or reject evidence that conflicts with our beliefs, and 3) geographies of belief and 4) cosmologies of belief, which give brief summaries of the geographical and cosmological sciences that led to the profound understanding that science, and specifically the scientific method, is our only reliable tool to determine if our pattern-based beliefs are true or false.
Of course, wishful thinking and believing is a breeze when compared to the rigorous requirements of the scientific process. Yet, it is clear that science is still humanity’s best and most reliable BS detector.
Why are we all so very similar yet, at the same time, so very different?
I've studied psychology and philosophy formally and informally over many decades (I'm 67) and couldn't begin to estimate how many books and articles I've read on human behavior, the mind, and how we all tick.
I first became acquainted with Michael Shermer about 10 years ago. Though impressed with him from the outset he was (for me) a bit in the shadow of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett whose public profiles were greater than Shermer's due to their provocative, controversial books that flew off the shelves of bookshops and shook societies the world over. Dawkins is a hero of mine but I also have enormous respect for (the late Christopher) Hitchens, Harris and Dennett whose teachings have enlightened and inspired me. These four were more 'out there' than the understated Shermer so he (Shermer) slipped under my radar.
Then I discovered the wonderful website 'Closer to Truth' run by interviewer par excellence and brilliant intellectual Robert Lawrence Kuhn.
While none of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris or Dennett is featured in Kuhn's interviews, Shermer is.
He (Shermer) handles all of Kuhn's deep, probing questions with a calm assuredness and I soon began to realize what an impressive, original-thinker he is.
I watched videos of his debates with Deepak Chopra, Jean Houston and numerous other 'notables'. Shermer never failed to come up trumps and I could see that he is every bit as switched-on and knowledgeable as the four I mentioned above.
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic Magazine, Shermer is in the rare position of being right up-to-date with many and varied fields of knowledge, particularly the Sciences. He studies the latest findings that come across his table and deftly synthesizes the information at hand, presenting us with outstanding articles and thought-provoking talks.
I just had to buy 'The Believing Brain'.
After reading it I immediately wanted to read it again (I'm almost finished the second run-through).
This book has provided me with the most exciting and satisfying 'Aha' experience I've had.
For me, Michael Shermer is vastly underrated, not just as a thinker and communicator.... but also as a psychologist.
He has the best, most complete grasp of the hows and whys of 'Belief' of anyone I've come across ...and, of course, it's Belief (capital letter intended) that so often determines behavior (of individuals, of tribes, of societies, even nations).
With my understanding of Belief (and, as a consequence, Human Behavior) immeasurably enhanced, I've never felt so enlightened.