The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
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The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

3.91 of 5 stars 3.91  ·  rating details  ·  3,566 ratings  ·  312 reviews


Synthesizing thirty years of research, psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer upends the traditional thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world. Simply put, beliefs come first and explanations for beliefs follow. The brain, Shermer argues, is a belief engine. Using sensory data that flow in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published August 7th 2012 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published May 15th 2011)
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Shaun
I decided to buy this book after watching a short Ted Talk featuring Michael Shermer in which he discussed the origins of belief. A natural born skeptic with two science based degrees who often finds herself wanting to believe (a huge X-files fan), I am fascinated by how people come to hold certain beliefs that on the surface appear flawed or irrational. So that said, this book appealed to me on many levels.

On a personal level, I have a special interest in religious belief. Raised a Christian, I...more
Robert Fischer
Here's the tl;dr review: If you're looking for the ways that we tend to trick ourselves and how to deal with that reality, see Predictably Irrational or The Power of Habit. Shermer's book is definitely not the book for that.

Now the full review:

I was really excited about this book. I was hoping that it would update and extend Consciousness Explained with contemporary neuroscience about belief. That was, after all, exactly how the book billed itself through the marketing coverage and through the f...more
Christine
Sep 22, 2011 Christine rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Skeptics, atheists, and the like.
At first I was afraid this was just another atheist rant (like the disappointing God Delusion by Dawkins). Fortunately, it shaped up to be much more interesting than that. yes, it preaches to the choir, and unless you are an absolute skeptic about everything, you will find yourself offended at some point when reading this. I am pretty skeptical myself, but there were a couple of passages that got to me in an unpleasant way anyway. What really won me over? Sheerer spends a few pages bashing Depak...more
Caroline
One of the most exciting books I have ever read.

The author is a science historian, and writes monthly articles for The Scientific American. What I am going to describe here sounds cold and formal, but the book is written with spirit and vigour, with lots of the author's personal experiences and views included. It pulsates with amazing ideas - and I really relished every word.

Basically, it showed that on the upside we humans are amazing thinking animals, capable of using logic and conducting ex...more
David
This is an excellent, comprehensive examination of the things we believe, and why. It is a very well-written, well-organized book with a unifying theme: we form our beliefs, and then we rationalize them with explanations. We initially formulate our beliefs through two processes: patternicity and agenticity. Patternicity allows us to form all sorts of weird beliefs, including the whole gamut of superstitions. For example, if something bad happens when a black cat crosses your path, and at a later...more
Ellen
This book bills itself as "why people believe weird things," but it's really more of "why you shouldn't believe weird things." It should be noted that I don't actually believe in any of the things discussed in the book (God, heaven, hell, and other religious things; UFOs and alien abductions; conspiracy theories, esp. 9/11 conspiracy theories), so the arguments against were tedious at best, and I gained no insight into why other people do believe them.

Shermer's tone comes across as defensive (an...more
Heather Denkmire
There were a few books in this book and I only enjoyed one of them. Unfortunately for me, most of the content was repeat information from things I've read/heard before. The first sections dealing with the biology of the brain were interesting.

So much of the book (a book in itself) was spent refuting things that don't exist (UFOs, ghosts, god, 9/11 conspiracies, etc.) it was tiresome. I know they don't, I don't need it explained why. This continued on for a long, long time. I almost gave up on th...more
Stephanie
Feb 16, 2012 Stephanie rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone, especially conspiracy theorists
Shelves: nonfiction
I really liked this book and I agreed with most everything in it, and that made me rather uncomfortable just because of what the book is about. Michael Shermer covered a wide range of topics that interest me, from politics to psychology to religion, and i believed every word of what he argued. But... I don't think it's that he convinced me, i think it's that i already held those beliefs going into it, and as the book proclaims repeatedly, i as a human being pay special attention to arguments tha...more
Bill
In this book, Shermer argues that humans form beliefs from genetic predispositions and social experiences. We then selectively filter data and experience to support those pre-existing beliefs. We see "patterns" of meaning in our experience, and we tend to project "agenticity" when causal factors are not known. I respect Shermer for admitting up front that he is subject to the same process, in which emotion trumps reason in matters of belief. So, I read with great interest how he attempts in this...more
Tanja Berg
I have been following Michael Shermer's column in "Scientific American" for years. It's the first thing in the magazine that I read. This book definitely did not dissapoint. Shermer starts off with anecdotes and then goes into the very specific. Oft repeated throughout the book is that belief comes first, rationalization of the beliefs afterward. First we decide to believe, then the evidence collected tends to support what we believe. This is regardless if the subject is religion, paranormal, UF...more
Kim Wombles
Taken from http://kwomblescountering.blogspot.co...


It took me awhile to find this photo (see the link above) in my stream of thousands of photos because it's more than a month old. I've been reading Michael Shermer's latest book The Believing Brain for over a month now to review it for here and Science 2.0. I spent more than a month with Baron-Cohen's The Science of Evil. I try to be thorough and careful in my reading of books I review; I don't want to gloss over it and throw out a review that i...more
Darwin8u
I have to admit at the beginning that I have a significantly pro-skeptic bias. I love skeptics, so it is hard for me not to like the book. An interesting book that belongs on my shelf between my books on psychology and science (The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) and my books on agnosticism, skepticism, neo-atheism and the evolution of relig...more
Diana
I really enjoyed this book as it offers evidenced based reasons for why we humans are programmed to believe in external agents (when the evidence proves such things are internal in the brain) and why we find patterns where there are none. I find knowing such things comforting and I think I got a little dopamine reward when Shermer confirmed that we experience these things because we share the same brain biology (something I've argued often with regard to religion and other common belief systems)...more
Socraticgadfly
This review should prove that I don't always "high-side" my reviewing stars. In fact, let me be blunt — now that I've read one Shermer book, I have no more desire to read further writings of his than I do of Sam Harris, and for somewhat similar reasons. In Shermer's case, here's why.

Here's derivative and blind spots intersecting -- Shermer briefly, but briefly talks about Kahneman's and Tversky's study in behavioral economics (without also citing Dan Ariely, among others). One will learn much mo...more
Rpmcestmoi
He knows his science and his brain as mind thesis has always been a view I have held, which, as we all know, makes him brilliant. But Shermer also describes for me the true believer in the Eric Hoffer sense. He insists on science when we talk of god but embraces the teat of libertarian capitalism because it warms him, I guess. He offers no evidence for his view in this sphere, so I guess he has a belief and the dopamine hit he gets from that cold capitalist teat works for him.
Not a bad book, ra...more
David
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once formed an alliance with a erstwhile political enemy. When someone asked him why, Johnson remarked that he would rather have the enemy inside the tent urinating out than outside the tent urinating in.

So it is with Shermer. His thesis, that the human brain through the process of natural selection has evolved to see patterns, even when none exists, gives him a platform from which he may assault the many, many popular beliefs with which he disagrees. It is enjoyab...more
L.M. Ironside
Based on the title, I was expecting a lot more, you know, brain science. Instead I got a good overview of logical fallacies, some interesting anecdotes about people who believed in various interesting things, coverage of popular conspiracy theories, and a very out-of-place political diatribe.

I've read better books by Michael Shermer. In fact, I liked all his books better than this one. That's not to say this is a poorly written book. It was simply not what I was expecting. I was hoping to learn...more
Danny
I was probably the most excited about this book before cracking it's cover... The premise is alluring and it is very timely (it seems that we are having a media renaissance in the recognition of human limitations of rationality) yet, once opened, the book just falls into too many traps to be exciting to me.

Perhaps the largest flaw for me was that the work is 'too current' - insofar as much of the book seems to be just a parroting of factoids that have been floating around in many other places re...more
John
Michael Shermer is a prolific writer, best known for The Science of Good & Evil, Why People Believe Weird Things, and, publisher of Skeptic Magazine. I have been a huge fan of Shermer for some years and traveled cross-country twice this year to attend his conferences on the west coast.

The early chapters of The Believing Brain have some redundancy from Shermer's earlier work but the last 60 percent is a wealth of new information that I found enlightening, and partially disturbing. Unlike the...more
Izumen
Според статистиките, живеем в свят, в който повече хора вярват в Бог, чудеса, Рай, ангели, душа, Ад, дявол, отколкото в Дарвиновата теория на еволюцията, която трябва да стои в съседство с призраци, креационизъм, НЛО, астрология, вещици и прераждане. Има си причина в училищата да се преподават определени неща, те не са произволно избрани от разни гуру-та (както някои са свикнали да мислят). Има научен метод, който се базира на емпирични доказателства, който много лесно прецежда истината (тук гов...more
Sebouh
I expected to find a book about (Shermer`s skepticism) but I found much more, it is an excellent overview on BELIEF, the major points are
- The mechanism of belief formation (the human brain is a specialized belief forming machine that constantly picks up patterns in nature)
- Believe comes first (without rationalization) and then confirmed often in biased ways
- This belief mechanism covers all beliefs including political, religious, about ourselves and our entourage
- Understanding the mechan...more
Juan Manuel
“Imagine que usted es un homínido que está caminando por una sabana africana hace tres millones de años. Escucha un crujido en la hierba. ¿Es acaso el viento o un peligroso depredador? De su respuesta puede depender la vida o la muerte.”

Aquel que asume que el crujido de la hierba es causado por el viento se lleva muchas veces la desagradable fortuna de ser devorado por un depredador; en cambio, quien cree que el crujido se debe a un depredador y se aleja, puede siempre salvarse de ser devorado.

Q...more
Richard Palmer
I was hoping that this book would explain the biology and evolution of what makes us believe things. It does do that, but does not stick to that theme. Shermer digresses often and spends a good deal of time debunking beliefs in extraterrestrial visits, ESP, and a lot of pseudoscience. His discussions on religion were thought provoking, and I appreciated that. However, instead of coming back to the idea of why the human race believes things, he concludes with a long discussion of the history of s...more
Jenn Kunz
I am glad I read this book, but I'll admit I'm a bit torn as to how to rate it. On one hand, it was thought-provoking, and Shermer is a decent writer, and sincere. I can definitely get on board with the idea that the human brain is wired to accept evidence that supports already-established beliefs. On the other hand, he (and I doubt he would deny this) is definitely prey to this same behavior: his premise of all all solid belief in a deity being wrong is very apparent in how he interprets eviden...more
Louise
Up until page 140 this is a 5 star book. These are the pages where the author describes belief as stemming from what he calls patternicity and agenticity. Our minds have evolved to spot patterns. Agenticity is the story we overlay on the patterns. The patterns may be random, yet, if they explain a something very good (a ritual before placing a bet correlates with a few wins) or negative (unlucky clothing or actions) we may ascribe significance to them and they become beliefs. We often have the b...more
Kiril Todorov
The sad thing about this book is that the people that really need to read it, will never go around the possibility they might be wrong, and will probably never open it.
soul
Толкова хубава и полезна книга, написана разбираемо и с точната доза информация, без да дотежава и доскучава! Би трябвало да присъства във всяка домашна библиотека и да се изучава в училище вместо Библията по литература и риалити форматите по психология.
Не съм сигурна чия работа е да следи за правилността на имената - на преводач, коректор или редактор, но те трябва да бъдат верни: Мишел Бесо (не Бресо), Бил Мар (не Махер).
Книгата е очевадно недогледана за грешки! Коректорката вероятно не се въл...more
Cora Judd
The benefits of The Believing Brain may be best realized by readers who are like the author. He states, "I am a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know." Michael Shermer writes lucidly about how the brain is wired for belief and pattern recognition and what that process looks like.

Shermer classes all belief into a category of 1. He then lays out the sequence of neural events that culminates in a new belief. This model is applied to many beliefs to demonstrate how...more
Marnie
I started reading Michael Shermer's work about 15 years ago, when he released Why People Believe Weird Things and I've been enjoying his work ever since. I regularly recommend both Weird Things and The Science of Good and Evil to people. I subscribe to the magazine he publishes, Skeptic Magazine, and try to stay on top of skeptic blogs and books, in general.

For the most part, this book represents plenty of what I like about Shermer's writing. He offers both technical and layman's explanations o...more
Book
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies by Michael Shermer

"The Believing Brain" is a fantastic and ambitious book that explains the nature of beliefs. Mr. Shermer provides his theory of belief and with great expertise and skill provides compelling arguments and practical examples in explaining how the process of belief works. He applies his theory to a wide range of types of beliefs and does so with mastery. This excellent 400 page-book is composed of the followin...more
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Michael Brant Shermer (born September 8, 1954 in Glendale, California) is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating and debunking pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. The Skeptics Society currently has over 55,000 members.

Shermer is also the producer and co-host of t...more
More about Michael Shermer...
Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics

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“An uncertain and doubting mind leads to fresh world visions and the possibility of new and ever-changing realities.” 5 likes
“I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know.” 1 likes
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