Tag Archives: belief

Book Review: The Believing Brain – by Michael Shermer

The Believing Brain – by Michael Shermer

TheBelieving Brain Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

There is so much about the brain and its complex workings that we do not understand. Every time an expert explains a little more, learnt through scientific study and controlled experiments, this becomes quite helpful.

I found the book particularly useful as it it very well written, very readable and informative; at the same time, it is not too technical (except for a few small sections) for the lay person. The author takes on a number of the “strange” phenomena witnessed in the world head-on (such as sensed presences, experienced by athletes, mountaineers and in Charles Lindburgh’s transatlantic flight), describing real, specific examples, and explains what goes on in the brain during those times. The way human brains work gives us the tendency to look for patterns and infuse them with meaning (whether correct or not).

Michael Shermer also presents in some detail, the various cognitive biases that affect us when forming  beliefs. Most of us are vaguely aware of some of this (e.g. anchoring bias and framing effects) but having such a comprehensive list explained is very helpful. I see the usefulness of applying this knowledge whenever we are presented with a persuasive argument, thinking about what traps we may be falling into.

Smarts and Nonsmarts

“Smart people believe in weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.”

This would have to the quote of the day for me. It comes from the book “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer.

“Smart” here refers to having a high IQ; “nonsmart” reasons refer to our unscientific filtering through our coloured lenses (coloured by worldviews, heros, prejudices etc), selecting facts that confirm what we already believe and rationalizing away those that condradict our existing beliefs. I would be inclined to replace “weird” with “weird or nonsmart”.

This is at the heart of multi-billion dollar industries (advertising, self help) as well as politics, the paranormal, etc. Hard science is well, hard, so we resort to the unscientific – half-baked facts, testimonials, etc and fill in the rest. This was alluded to in another book I read recently, “Redirect” by Timothy Wilson. We know this but I just wish there would be less of it and more of the hard scrutiny in the choices we make.