Book Review: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Updated: Aug 27, 2021


Michael Shermer is a psychologist, science historian, and the founder of The Skeptics Society, a scientific and educational organization committed to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. He earned his Ph.D. in History of science, after earning an M.A. in experimental psychology, and he is a scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).


In his book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, Shermer challenges our understanding about how humans form beliefs about the world around them. Shermer himself, is an agnostic, who used to be a fundamentalist Christian; however, he prefers to simply be called a skeptic.


Beliefs come first: reasons for belief follow...

Shermer’s central theme is that the brain is a belief engine. He says the human brain instinctively looks for and finds patterns in everything, and then we go about applying meaning to those patterns. Once we have established a belief, we develop a bias towards only seeing evidence that supports our beliefs. “Beliefs come first; reasons for beliefs follow in confirmation of the realism dependent on the belief (p. 133). This idea is applied, demonstrated, and supported with numerous anecdotal stories and research studies throughout the book. In the end, it’s an unending positive feedback loop. Republicans see red, democrats see blue.


He begins the book by setting the stage with three testimonies to the power of belief. The first is the story of a longtime, trusted family friend named Chick D’Arpino and his ‘out of mind’ experience that put him in a State mental institution for three days, and now has sent him on a lifelong quest to make contact with extraterrestrials through the METI program (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). This story also sets the tone for Shermer’s work, in the way that he systematically goes about presenting empirical scientific research to offer alternative explanations to such things as UFOs, extraterrestrials, out of body experiences and belief in God. He makes you think.


The second story is of the former head of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins, and his ‘epiphany’ conversion from atheism to theism, and finally, Shermer’s own personal journey as a fundamentalist Christian becoming an agnostic skeptic.

The three stories offer a point of reference for almost anyone who reads it, and once that is established, the author begins to methodically break down the biology of belief. Specifically, he believes that there was a natural selection for the way that our brains assume that all patterns in life are real versus false, and that those patterns represent real and important phenomena to us. “Patternicity is the process of seeking and finding patterns, connecting the dots, linking A to B” (p. 60). We have a natural tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. For example; the wind represents an inanimate force, but a predator indicates danger from an intentional agent. When the cost of believing that the noise in the bush is a mountain lion (a false pattern) is less than the cost of not believing that it’s a mountain lion (real pattern), natural selection favors patternicity. Together, patternicity and agenticity are simply descriptive terms for our cognitive process.


In wrapping up his biology of belief, Shermer points out the long-standing debate between dualism and monism. Dualists say that there are two substances that rest in our cranium; the brain and the mind, while monists, according to Watson and Breedlove (2016) “reject dualism in favor of the much simpler view that the workings of the mind can be understood as purely physical processes taking place in the brain” (p. 6). While it may seem that the body/soul debate is largely based upon religion, some quantum physics research suggest that the mind is not localized in the body, but rather that the brain is only a receptor for pulling information from the Zero Point Consciousness Field (Kazemzade 2012). Shermer believes, that “The mind is what the brain does (p. 111).

That said, Shermer proceeds to outline exactly how neurons work. Explaining action potentials, EPSPs, IPSPs, temporal vs spatial summation, and the effects of the belief neurotransmitter, dopamine, Shermer gives a very thorough and clarifying take on what the individual neuron does and enthusiastically points to the magnitude of their collaborative potential, declaring “the number of neurons in the human brain is about the same number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy” (p. 113).


Once he explores how our brains believe, Shermer jumps into why we believe in things like the afterlife, God, aliens, and conspiracy theories. Shermer thinks that we are natural dualists, believing in both the mind and the body, because we want to believe that we have an eternal essence, and as a monist, he quickly points out that there is no scientific evidence showing that the soul survives death; however, with scientific professionalism he simply suggests that in our, “...overwhelming desire to believe in something otherworldly- be it mind, spirit, or God- means that we should be especially vigilant in our skepticism of claims made in these arenas of beliefs” (p. 162).


Shermer then really taps into his field of expertise by digging into the history of evolution, describing how, as tribes and groups of people became larger groups, the need for government and religion co-evolved as social institutions. This was our attempt at managing moral behavior in society. It was then that God became the ultimate enforcer of the rules, and this is when, according to Shermer, humans created God, not vice versa. “Patternicity and agency form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms” (p. 87).


Our belief systems evolved, our patternicity intuitions took over, and we systematically looked for confirmations of our beliefs, in everything that we did. As soon as we formed and committed to a belief, our brain worked hard to convince us that we were right. This has fostered all manner of cognitive biases, supporting Shermer’s idea that beliefs are formed for a variety of “subjective, emotional, psychological, and social reasons, and then are reinforced, justified, and explained with rational reasons” (p. 258). Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt sums reasoning up quite well, in his book The Righteous Mind (2012) with, "We reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment" (p. 175). Confirmation bias essentially equates to the old adage, seek and ye shall find.


In a 2004 fMRI study at Emory University (Westen et. al 2006), a group of self-described “strong” Republicans and Democrats were asked to assess contradictory statements from their respective candidates, George Bush and John Kerry, and the results provided strong evidence of motivated reasoning. The participants rationalized away the parts of the contradictory statements that did not fit their preconceived beliefs. Shermer states, “We do not reason our way to a moral decision by carefully weighing the evidence for and against; instead, we make intuitive leaps to moral decisions and then rationalize the snap decision after the fact with rational reasons” (p. 237).


Shermer even discusses, what he calls geographies of belief, as he investigates the history of science exploration, as man created maps (Terra Incognita), invented tools (telescope), and meticulously logged his findings in books that directly challenged the strongly held biases of all ‘authority’, including the church at the time, and he travels along an evolutionary timeline toward cosmologies of belief, discussing how in 1893, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, while working at Harvard as a ‘computer’, discovered a way for astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and faraway galaxies. Then a guy named Slipher gathered images of Andromeda on spectrographic plates for 13 hours one night in 1912, and using Swan’s methods, discovered the idea of the expanding universe theory. If you’re in to Stephen Hawking, blue-shifting, and multiverses, this section is the icing on your cake.


Wrapping up his work, Shermer turns to the seemingly never ending quest for truth. In his epilogue, titled “The Truth is Out There”, he revisits the importance of science, once again, and addresses the burden of proof, along with the null hypothesis. In the end, the burden of proof rests with the person asserting a positive claim (i.e., the believer must prove God’s existence), and the null hypothesis states that a hypothesis under investigation is not true, or null, until proven otherwise. Controlled experiments needs to be 95 to 99 percent confident that the results were not due to chance, and Shermer uses a simple example of a psychic’s ability to determine if a playing card is either red or black. The null hypothesis states that the psychic will do no better than chance (50%); however if the psychic were to get 35 correct in a deck of 52 cards, the null hypothesis could be rejected, at a 99 percent confidence level (p 335). There are obviously calculations that matter when coming to 95 to 99 percent confidence level, however, it’s probably a good thing to know for anyone conducting scientific experiments.


I would recommend this book to anyone that is on a journey of science and truth. Understanding the nature of how we believe gives new perspective to the most hotly debated subjects of all time; politics and religion, and we live in a very interesting time to be exploring why? Michael Shermer’s, The Believing Brain, causes you to reconsider everything you’ve ever known, and look at individual humans in a slightly different way.


I’m left with the thought that even if you’ve arrived at an ideology (conservatism let’s say), with a full understanding of its nature and function, it is still only as true as you think it is. Your single perspective is vastly limited, and as a truth-seeker myself, I am much more inclined to listen to reason from a person who has arrived at understanding two ideologies, and more so three. Knowledge is power and science seems to be on a never-ending search for empirical truth. No matter what side of the fence you lean, unless proven otherwise, it feels natural for man to continue to search, and astronomer Michael Chauvin (2015) agrees, regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, “If ETs exist, we may someday know that. If they don’t, we shall never know that. And it is the combined force of “these two logical truths that provides the lure, and the rub, of all SETI programs” (p. 29).


Finally, I am humored by a limerick referenced in the book, from a physicist named George Gamow (1972) that boldly speaks to the divide between science and religion.


'There was a young fellow from Trinity Who took the square root of infinity But the number of digits Gave him the fidgets; he dropped Math and took up Divinity.'


References

Chauvin, M. (2015). The Logic of SETI: 20 years later "Where do we go from here?".

Planetarian, 44(1), 18-29.

Gamow, G. (1972). One two three ... infinity. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. New

York: Vintage Books.

Kazemzadeh, M. (2012). Apophenoetics: Virtual pattern recognition, the origins of creativity and

augmenting the evolution of self. Technoetic Arts: A Journal Of Speculative Research, 10(1),

115-123. doi:10.1386/tear.10.1.115_1

Shermer, M. (2012). The believing brain: from ghosts and gods to politics and conspiracies--how

we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company,

LLC.

Watson, N. V., & Breedlove, S. M. (2016). The mind's machine: foundations of brain and

behavior (Second ed.). Sunderland, MA, USA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Westen, D., Blagov, P. S., Harenski, K., Kilts, C., & Hamann, S. (2006). Neural Bases of

Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political

Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18(11),

1947-1958.


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