The Believing Brain

  • by Michael Shermer
  • Narrated by Michael Shermer
  • 13 hrs and 34 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

In this, his magnum opus, the world’s best known skeptic and critical thinker, 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 question 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 explains 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. 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.


What the Critics Say

“The physicist Richard Feynman once said that the easiest person to fool is yourself, and as a result he argued that as a scientist one has to be especially careful to try and find out not only what is right about one's theories, but what might also be wrong with them. If we all followed this maxim of skepticism in everyday life, the world would probably be a better place. But we don't. In this book Michael Shermer lucidly describes why and how we are hard wired to 'want to believe'. With a narrative that gently flows from the personal to the profound, Shermer shares what he has learned after spending a lifetime pondering the relationship between beliefs and reality, and how to be prepared to tell the difference between the two.” (Lawrence M. Krauss, Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, author of Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science)
The Believing Brain is a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences to explain how irrational beliefs are formed and reinforced, while leaving us confident our ideas are valid. This is a must read for everyone who wonders why religious and political beliefs are so rigid and polarized—or why the other side is always wrong, but somehow doesn't see it.” (Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard’s Walk and The Grand Design with Stephen Hawking)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Brilliantly evidenced reasons to doubt yourself!

Brilliantly researched, and argued, the message of the book is "the easiest person to fool is yourself"! None of us are immune from the various confirmation biases that mean we adopt many of our beliefs first, and then gather supporting evidence to prove ourselves right. This is just part of our evolutionary baggage of biases and of patternicity and agenticity it seems.

This is no neo-atheist rant, Michael Shermer gives a very fair account by two believers who found God through unusual experiences. I enjoyed his own account of losing his own faith, when for the first time, he sees himself as others saw him in his tiresome obsession about God as a fundamentalist Christian.

Most of all I found the neuroscience and numerous research experiments fascinating. We are all wired to take on trust it seems, and also to seek out patterns. It is individual differences in the activity of areas like the ACC, that enables us to discern useful from imaginary patterns, with many non-skeptics showing higher levels of patternicity.

Finally, in part 2, there are some excellent chapters on specific beliefs such as God, conspiracy theories, alien abduction etc. one of the most interesting is on our political biases (which seem to be 40-50% genetic), the strong confirmation biases and the 5 moral dimensions that lead to predictable clustering as liberal or conservative.

There is just loads in this book, and I liked that Prof. Shermer reads it himself in a strong clear delivery. I had to listen through twice, so much research is quoted as supporting evidence. In the end, it is whether you believe the naturalistic explanation is not just necessary, but also a sufficient cause. Above all however, I was left with a wariness in believing my own opinions, and a new awareness of the miriad ways we can deceive ourselves, let alone others!
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- Jeremy

How to kill an interesting topic

Michael Shermer manages to turn what should be a fascinating topic into a dull dirge. He has a propensity to ramble off topic for hours. This is one book that really should have been abridged - one to two hours should have been ample to cover the information relevant to the title. To compound the problem, his reading voice is so annoying. And what is the point of the cheesy music that starts each chapter and heralds its ending?

I enjoyed reading Shemer's "Why Darwin Matters" and hoped "The Believing Brain" would be a interesting foray into a broader area. But interesting it was not.
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- Gavin

Book Details

  • Release Date: 24-05-2011
  • Publisher: Michael Shermer-John Wagner Studios