Book's Reviews > The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
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Jun 24, 11

bookshelves: atheism-religion, evolution, neuroscience
Read in May, 2011

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 following four parts: Part I. Journeys of Belief, Part II. The Biology of Belief, Part III. Belief in Things Unseen, and Part IV. Belief in Things Seen.

1. A fascinating topic in the hands of a master of his craft.
2. Well-written, well-researched, engaging and accessible book. Bravo!
3. Great, logical format. Good use of illustrations.
4. Great use of popular culture to convey sophisticated concepts in an accessible manner.
5. Establishes his theory early on and then proceeds like a great architect building his masterpiece.
6. Great quotes from many great minds, including some of his own, "What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence do not always coincide. I'm a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know".
7. Answers the question of "Why we believe" to complete satisfaction.
8. A thorough explanation on what the brain is.
9. The first of four parts of this book starts off with three distinctly different routes to belief, including his own revealing journey to beliefs.
10. The concept of patternicity defined. A great take at why our brains evolved to assume that all patterns are real.
11. Insightful and thought-provoking, consider the following "The problem we face is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old".
12. Where would we be without evolution? Great use of science from the best scientific minds.
13. The concept of agenticity defined and how patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis for various "spiritualisms".
14. The evidence that brain and mind are one is now overwhelming. Great examples in support of the aforementioned assertion.
15. Great tidbits of knowledge throughout, "what people remember happening rarely corresponds to what actually happened".
16. Provides four great explanations for the sensed-presence effect found in the brain. With plenty of fascinating examples.
17. The mind in its proper context.
18. In order to understand beliefs you must understand neurons.
19. Dopamine...the belief drug. A lot of interesting facts.
20. Great explanation on why dualism is intuitive and monism counterintuitive.
21. The theory of mind and agenticity.
22. Enlightening look at why belief comes quickly and naturally while skepticism is slow and unnatural.
23. The afterlife chapter is one of my favorite chapters of this book...worth the price of admission.
24. Six solid reasons why people believe there is life after death.
25. The case for the existence of the afterlife around four lines of evidence and the thorough debunking that follows.
26. Compelling explanations for Near-Death Experiences (NDEs).
27. Ditto for Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs).
28. A compelling explanation of, why do so many people believe in God?
29. Three lines of evidence that supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains. Great stuff.
30. The compelling evidence that humans created gods and not vice versa.
31. Great explanation on the difference between agnosticism versus atheism.
32. Mr. Shermer's last law, an interesting take. I will not spoil it here.
33. Interesting tidbits on Einstein who is always fascinating.
34. The supernatural in proper context.
35. Science as the best tool ever in devising how the world works.
36. Interesting chapter on aliens.
37. Conspiracy theories and what characteristics indicate they are likely untrue.
38. Fascinating look at the 9/11 "conspiracy".
39. How conspiracies actually work.
40. Mr. Shermer even delves in the world of politics. Liberals versus conservatives.
41. A realistic visions of human nature and why it would help understand one another.
42. A dozen essentials to liberty and freedom. Democracy a different perspective.
43. Interesting look at how our brains convince us that we are always right.
44. Explanation of a series of biases: confirmation bias, hindsight bias, self-justification bias, attribution bias, sunk-coast bias, status-quo bias, anchoring bias, representative bias, inattentional blindness bias, and more...
45. Why science is the ultimate bias-detection machine.
46. Awesome belief history on exploration: Columbus, Galileo, Bacon...
47. Astronomy...beliefs and historical debates.
48. Good use of previous knowledge of biases to help understand data.
49. Red shifts and other astronomical hypotheses explained, and the photograph that changed the universe.
50. The greatest unsolved mystery.
51. Links worked great!
52. An intellectual treat from cover to cover!

1. Having to buy extra copies to share with close friends.
2. Having to wait for Mr. Shermer's next book.

In summary, this may be Michael Shermer's greatest book. This book feels like a labor of love in which Mr. Shermer is able to match his accumulation of prodigious knowledge and his lucid thoughts in total harmony. This book not only met my high expectations it exceeded it, I couldn't put it down. Thought-provoking, enlightening and a joy to read. I can't recommend this book enough, kudos to Mr. Shermer for a great accomplishment.

Further suggestions: "Physics of the Future" by Michio Kaku, "SuperSense" by Bruce M. Hood, "Human" by Michael Gazzaniga, "Hardwired Behavior" by Laurence Tancredi, "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland, "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker and "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard.
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Robert Fischer Keep in mind this book claims to be about the neuroscience of belief. That stuff is pretty much limited to snippets within Part II. Much of the science and almost all of the philosophy (which Shermer disparages) is straight up bad. There's more in my review:

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