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.



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