The Believing Brain

Author: Michael Shermer

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

Published: 2011

I read it: May 2014

believing brain

This book is a large improvement on Why People Believe Weird Things, which didn’t focus nearly enough on the “why.” While the book has a tendency to go too far into too many topics, but its comprehensiveness could also be seen as its strength. As an introduction to skepticism and science-based thinking, you couldn’t do much better. While Shermer seems excited to insert his own politics (such as libertarianism–oh brother) into the book, he at least is willing to put his own views on the line while conveying the importance of examining one’s own views, biases, and beliefs. While I don’t agree with his economic politics, I give him credit for honesty. The “Journeys of Belief” at the beginning are strategically placed, as they are the least research-based part of the book, which makes them conversational and accessible. While not much time is wasted in questioning the biggest beliefs (God, etc.) Shermer at least gives a fair look at the types of personal stories that, although conflicting, are understandable once you understand human psychology.

So the rest of the book is laying out that psychology. Plenty of classic experiments are covered, and readers of other science non-fiction will surely encounter a few things they already know. But all readers will be challenged at some point, even the open-minded atheists. At the very least, it’s good to have a clear reminder that we all construct our beliefs for emotional reasons, and then go through the process of rationalizing them in hindsight. The message of hope I take away is that in time, collectively, we can get better at recognizing our biases and eliminating faulty thinking by using science and reason. Shermer doesn’t have all the answers and neither do you and I, but we can join in figuring out the answers over the millennia.

Some other notes worth mentioning:

  • Shermer writes that we are “natural-born supernaturalists” and “natural-born immortalists.” I dig these phrases despite their syllable count.
  • Did you know Alfred Russell Wallace (co-discoverer of evolution) was into all sorts of wackiness? Seances, phrenology, spiritualism, anti-vax, fell for scams, did not agree with Darwin that the brain could have come from natural selection. Yep. Happens to the best of us.
  • He writes about the “fine line between creativity (discriminate patternicity) and madness (indiscriminate patternicity)” which I unknowingly paraphrased recently in this analysis of the effects of fiction. I did mention Dawkins in that piece, but perhaps I should have also mentioned Shermer.
  • Cool word alert: “qualia” are the subjective states of thoughts and feelings that arise from a concatenation of neural events. We’re all filled with qualia, man.

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