Review: “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer

believingbrainThe full title of the book is The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Quite a mouthful. And yes, this book has certainly caused many people to get their panties in a bunch since its publication in 2011. That being said, I am not one of those angry people and found the book very enlightening and, at times, fascinating.

I think one of the main theses of the book can be summed up by the following quote: “Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not.” Shermer also explains how the human brain has evolved to create beliefs first and rationalize those beliefs after, rather than thinking clearly and logically before coming to a conclusion about what we believe. In this way, we cherry-pick the “evidence” that best fits our beliefs and refuse to see the true evidence to the contrary. He says, “Humans like to feel like they’re in control, and we feel like we’re in control when we understand what’s going on. In order to ‘understand,’ we may see patterns where there really aren’t any.” Shermer is sure to stress that everyone is guilty of doing this – theists and atheists, scientists and philosophers, neuroscientists and custodians – and it’s important to remember that we can’t help it. The scientific method is the best defense against this kind of narrow thinking, and scientific procedures for experiments such as the double-blind method fortify science against our natural biases.

There were one or two times in the book where my mind was completely blown by the theories and suggestions put forth by Shermer, especially one in which he suggests that a divine creator, a “god” if you will, would be indistinguishable from an extraterrestrial life form millions of years more advanced than us with the capabilities to create new galaxies and life. I talked with a couple people about who were not nearly as blown away as I was – apparently it’s not a new suggestion, but it was certainly new to me.

Having studied Spanish and journalism in school, I don’t have the science base to fully comprehend the neuroscience discussed in the book. But I don’t believe in letting that deter me; I’ll never learn if I don’t try. I felt like the book was written colloquially enough to allow me to get a lot from it. Although a friend mentioned to me how ironic it would be if I believed everything in the book, it did make me contemplate my own deeply held beliefs, about myself and others. To conclude, I’ll quote at some length because I think it’s important:

The scientific principle that a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly. Thus it is that we should reward skepticism and disbelief, and champion those willing to change their mind in the teeth of new evidence. Instead, most social institutions – most notably those in religion, politics, and economics – reward belief in the doctrine of the faith or party or ideology, punish those who challenge the authority of the leaders, and discourage uncertainty and especially skepticism.

If you’re interested, find it on Goodreads or on Amazon.

In other news, I picked up the behemoth new biography of J.D. Salinger at the library this evening…I think after reading a book about neuroscience, I’ll take a small break before jumping into it.


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