The Believing Brain – Michael Shermer

May 16, 2014 at 19:22 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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shermerAs humans, we revel in our ability to think. To judge. To see the world around us, to fathom its intricacies, to understand and communicate its nuances, and above all to be able to discern its truths.

Except that we are deluded. We are actually pretty terrible at objectively weighing up the evidence around us, preferring to use a range of mental shortcuts to arrive at a ‘truth’ that is often utterly at odds with reality. Furthermore, once these ‘truths’ are lodged in our brains, we resolutely stick to them, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. The strength with which we cling to our beliefs is extraordinary, and in many cases we simply refuse to ever give them up, however ludicrous they may seem to an objective observer.

This behaviour is familiar to everyone, of course. We are also rather good at spotting this behaviour in others, even as we are blind to our own delusions.

But why should this be so? Why do we cling to our beliefs? How are they formed? And why do certain topics – religion, politics, spirituality, –¬† seem to be at the heart of so many powerful belief systems?

In this book Michael Shermer dissects the patterns, systems and neuroscience of belief, to explain how and why we get so caught up in our beliefs, and why the more they are challenged the more entrenched they become. He breaks this process down into two broad categories – patternicity, or the tendency humans have to see patterns in everything, even when none are present; and agenticity, the tendency we have to ascribe an outside purpose to random events. He also explores the nature of objective truth and how to arrive at it; the power of sceptical thought and the scientific method.

There are some fantastic observations and evidence. For example, he describes how easy it is to make mice and birds ‘superstitious’ –¬† associating a food reward with some random, unrelated¬† action. He then goes on to describe how trivial it is to get humans to do the same things; his accounts of otherwise perfectly normal, rational people doing weird dances, or touching every wall before hitting a button because they think it might influence the number of ‘points’ they score is both hilarious and somewhat disturbing (the number of points they actually received, by the way, was completely random).

Overall this is a good primer to the subject, and is for the most part well written – although there are sections than ramble on somewhat. He takes entertaining potshots at all sorts of institutions along the way, from faith healers to economists, from religion to political parties, and shows how they are slave to biased thinking.

The book is not startlingly original and doesn’t have a great deal of new material for anyone reasonably versed in sceptical and scientific literature (think Dawkins, Harris, Grayling, Sagan etc). He amusingly also gets very caught up in his own US-centric libertarian political views which significantly colour the chapters on politics – apparently Shermer is not immune from the effects he describes. However, as an entertaining and well-written introduction to the subject it is to be recommended.




The Brain that Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

February 12, 2009 at 16:16 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The brain that changes itself

The brain that changes itself

Norman Doidge has written an eminently readable and interesting book about advances in the understanding of brain function, perception, learning, and response to injury. He also illustrates how these advances are informing the development of more effective treatments and interventions for conditions as diverse as strokes and addiction.

However, the book is somewhat spoiled by the over-congratulatory tenor of the prose, and the over-enthusiastic application of these ideas to every aspect of human behaviour. It is ironic that he spends so much time lambasting the ‘localizationalists’ (bizarrely portrayed as a kind of establishment mafia hell-bent on stifling research) for over-extending their ideas whilst he undertakes similar mental gymnastics in his attempts to demonstrate that every condition – from autism to pornography addiction – can be wholly explained by brain plasticity.

And this is where the book ultimately falls down as a science book. In many cases he asserts ‘facts’ to support his hypotheses which are simply wrong – facts which the rather poorly referenced and constructed end-notes are silent on. The chapter on sexuality is particularly cringeworthy, as he trots out a number of bizarre assertions, social commentary and outdated Freudian concepts to build his arguments, apparently unaware of the rich depth and detail of research in this area which in some cases contradicts his hypotheses.

Is this an interesting book worth reading? Yes. But that comes with a warning that it contains the over-generalisations and unwarranted assumptions that, so often, are found in sloppy science – both ‘popular’ and academic.

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