Tag Archives: brain

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.

Is Society Promoting Psycopaths?

I watched a fascinating clip on Tonic TV yesterday on the studies of brains of people with psychopathic tendencies. Apparently, the tendency is found in people with a deficiency in the amygdala (the part of the brain playing a key part in processing emotions) – a deficiency that causes these people to have no qualms about being immoral or unethical and hurting others in the process.  I couldn’t locate the clip on the website but found some other fascinating articles on the subject, one in Expats Post. I recommend reading this.

To sum it up, the psycopaths who end up in prison are at the extreme end of the spectrum but many other psycopaths walk among us. Their characteristcs? They con, swindle, manipulate, control and cause emotional and psychological damage to others and wait – here’s the surprising element – their personalities are often charming, witty, confident, outgoing and disarming. This, only to use others to their advantage, then discard them later. The “Expats Post” article goes on to say that society often rewards such people with a “win at all costs, get the job done” attitude e.g. in corporations, politics, Big Banks etc.

I am impressed with the progress in brain science. Perhaps some day brain scans will be added to the repertoire of tools to more accurately profile and fit people for roles, reducing the dependence on psychometric profiling, assessment by other people (possibly psychopaths themselves) and popular votes.