The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

Believing Brain, Michael Shermer, book coverIn this book, Michael Shermer describes the way our brains function and how this leads us to construct beliefs.

Shermer starts by recounting the experiences of three people with strong beliefs. He then takes the reader through some neurological and psychological research findings.

The basic premise Shermer presents is that our brains are ‘programmed’ to find patterns and to make sense of our perceptions, even when the ‘patterns’ and the events we experience are entirely random and meaningless. We go on to construct narrative explanations that make sense of the patterns we see – but this process can lead to the production of illogical, albeit firmly-held, beliefs.

“We are all pattern seekers, but some people find more patterns than others…”

Several chapters deal with specific beliefs such as belief in a god, belief in the supernatural, in UFO’s and in conspiracy theories.

There is an interesting chapter on right-wing versus left-wing politics and why people may veer towards one or other extreme, depending on the balance of their value systems. And a very interesting section on the biases that lead people to form beliefs, commit to these beliefs and become entrenched in them. Some of these biases were familiar to me: hindsight bias and the self-fulfilling prophecy, for example. Others were new and helped me become more aware of my own biases: the endowment effect, where we tend to value what we already have above what we might have, and the just-world bias, which explains victim-blaming.

He ends with a plea for continual scepticism and the consistent use of scientific methods to test theories.

“Belief comes quickly and naturally, scepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance of ambiguity.”

He reminds us of the null hypothesis, as used in the scientific method. It is not up to the disbeliever to prove that the other person’s belief is wrong, but rather it is up to the believer to prove that their belief is true.

I found the book hard going to start with. Michael Shermer does tend to write in a professorial manner, using convoluted sentences, and sometimes I had to re-read a paragraph several times to deduce the meaning. Perhaps I fell prey to ‘anchoring bias’ or the ‘recency effect’, having just read Joshua Foer’s extraordinarily engaging book on memory, Moonwalking with Einstein. And I certainly thought the book could have been shorter, as I found the concepts of ‘patternicity’ and ‘agenticity’ very easy to grasp. So, for me, the lessons I learnt as a writer were:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Keep it readable.
  • Make your point and move on.

I was pleased I persevered to the end of the book. It was a worthwhile read and gave me a greater understanding of how and why we construct beliefs, and useful insight into my own biases.

“We are also more capable than any other species of self-deception and illusion, of fooling ourselves even while we are trying to avoid being fooled.”

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