The Believing Brain

The Believing Brain


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IN THIS, HIS MAGNUM OPUS one of the world’s best known skeptics and critical thinkers Dr. Michael Shermer—founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and perennial monthly columnist(“Skeptic”) for Scientific American—presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. This book synthesizes Dr. Shermer’s 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. In this book Dr. Shermer is interested in more than just why people believe weird things, or why people believe this or that claim, but in why people believe anything at all. His thesis is straightforward:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he callsagenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.

Interlaced with his theory of belief, Dr. Shermer provides countless real-world examples of belief from all realms of life, and in the end he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.


The Believing Brain is divided into four parts. Part I, “Journeys of Belief,” includes personal narratives of belief, including that of the author; Part II, “The Biology of Belief,” bores into the brain and explains how the mind works to form beliefs, from thoughts and ideas down to neurons firing across tiny synaptic gaps as they talk to one another chemically; Part III, “Belief in Things Unseen” applies my theory beliefs to the afterlife, God, aliens, and conspiracies; and Part IV, “Belief in Things Seen,” examines the role of beliefs in politics, economics, and ideologies, explains how belief confirmation works to assure that we are always right, and then explores the history of scientific exploration, from the world to the cosmos, and how science works to overcome the power of belief.

The Believing Brain begins with three personal belief stories. The first story is about a man whom you will have never heard of but who had a profound and life-changing experience in the wee hours of the morning many decades ago that still haunts him to this day and drives him to search for ultimate meaning in the cosmos. The second story is about a man whom you will most definitely have heard of as he is one of the greatest scientists of our age, and he too had a life-changing early-morning experience that confirmed his decision to make a religious leap of faith. The third story is Dr. Shermer’s own passage from believer to skeptic, and what he learned along the way that drove him into a professional career of the scientific study of belief systems.

From narrative stories Dr. Shermer turns to an architecture of belief systems, how they are formed, nourished, reinforced, changed, and extinguished, first conceptually through the two theoretical constructs he developed called patternicity and agenticity, and then delve deeper into how these cognitive processes evolved and what purpose they served in the lives of our ancestors as well as in our lives today. Dr. Shermer then bores deeper into the brain, right down to the neurophysiology of belief system construction at the single neuron level, and then reconstructs from the bottom up how brains form beliefs. Then we shall examine how belief systems operate with regard to belief in religion, the afterlife, God, extraterrestrials, conspiracies, politics, economics, and ideologies of all stripes, and then consider how a host of cognitive processes convince us that our beliefs are truths. In the final chapters we will consider how we know any of our beliefs are believable, which patterns are true and which false, which agents are real and which are chimera, and how science works as the ultimate pattern detection device.

In the end, all of us are trying to make sense of the world, and nature has gifted us with a double-edge sword that cuts for and against. On one edge, our brains are the most complex and sophisticated information processing machines in the universe, capable of understanding not only the universe itself but of understanding the process of understanding. On the other edge, by the very same process of forming beliefs about the universe and ourselves, we are also more capable than any other species of self-deception and illusion, of fooling ourselves while we are trying to avoid being fooled by nature

Why Do People Believe Weird Things!

Why do people believe weird things?

There are a lot of weird things that people believe. This has puzzled me most of my life. It is a puzzle I take very seriously. I have trouble dismissing it off hand by crediting the innate stupidity of people or the inadequacy of education. Michael Shermer, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things sums it up as a combination of wishful thinking, need for simple, uncomplicated explanations and immediate gratification. I have in the past believed some pretty weird things (and sadly, probably still do).  I have known many thoughtful and intelligent people to believe weird things too, some of them quite complex. And apathy doesn’t seem to be the issue either. Many times the weirdest things people believe are the ones they are most passionate about and care about the most. But I think this I think offers a clue.

The world is complex. There is a lot going on. We cannot personally verify every idea, statement and opinion that we run across. Even if it were possible it may seem like a ridiculous waste of time. There are so many things that are of little importance or relevance to our lives. As a result we adopt heuristics or short cuts to allow ourselves to be reasonably sure of most things without being overwhelmed by the details. This, of course, leaves us susceptible to promotion and propaganda, myths and conventional wisdom. This tendency occurs even if we assume the purpose of belief is somehow related to knowledge or truth.

From what I have seen, the purpose of belief has very little to do with truth. I suspect the more important function of belief is social cohesion. Widespread agreement and connection within social groups is probably more critical to our success and survival than veracity and reason. Totems, and our modern equivalent, branding, provide a basis for self-identification and social structure. These clusters of ideas tell us who we are and how we fit into the world. They are the building blocks of armies, churches and corporations; of railroads, atom bombs and the internet.

Sometimes these clusters include some rather odd ideas, but it is easier for us to accept a few peculiar wrong ideas than to risk our social cohesion. Intelligent design is equated with strength of character, morality and reverence. Climate change denial supports the values of hard work, responsibility and patriotism. Colon cleanses demonstrate our concern for social justice, sustainable economy and our environment. We cannot check everything—and more importantly that social cohesion is usually more valuable than being right—so we tend to accept the whole basket of beliefs that define our groups, rather than sorting them out individually.

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