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

Michael Shermer
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 24 2011

The Believing Brain is bestselling author Michael Shermer's comprehensive and provocative theory on how beliefs are born, formed, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished.

In this work synthesizing thirty years of research, psychologist, historian of science, and the world's best-known skeptic 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. 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. Our brains connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen, and these patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop of belief confirmation. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths.

Interlaced with his theory of belief, Shermer provides countless real-world examples of how this process operates, from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal. Ultimately, he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.

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The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths + Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
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“Michael Shermer has long been one of our most committed champions of scientific thinking in the face of popular delusion. In The Believing Brain, he has written a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief. We have all fallen more deeply in his debt.” Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Moral Landscape, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith.

“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 and author of The Physics of Star Trek, Quantum Man and A Universe from Nothing

"Michael Shermer has long been one of the world's deepest thinkers when it comes to explaining where our beliefs come from, and he brings it all together in this important, engaging, and ambitious book. Shermer knows all the science, he tells great stories, he is funny, and he is fearless, delving into hot-button topics like 9-11 Truthers, life after death, capitalism, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and the existence of God. This is an entertaining and thoughtful exploration of the beliefs that shape our lives."—Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works

"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, physicist and author of The Drunkard’s Walk and The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking)

"We might think that we learn how the world works, because we take the time to observe and understand it. Shermer says that's just not so. We just believe things, and then make our world fit our perceptions. Believe me; you don't have to take my word for it. Just try clearing some space in your own Believing Brain."—Bill Nye, the Science Guy ©, Executive Director of The Planetary Society

"The Believing Brain is a fascinating account of the origins of all manner of beliefs, replete with cutting edge evidence from the best scientific research, packed with nuggets of truths and then for good measure, studded with real world examples to deliver to the reader, a very personable, engaging and ultimately, convincing set of explanations for why we believe."—Professor Bruce Hood, Chair of Developmental Psychology, Bristol University and author of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

About the Author

Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
I've got to say, this book is fascinating. Not because it appeals to agnostics/atheist and even to religeous people... because it brings to light a very interesting tale of how our brain works, how a belief is formed (religeous OR any other), and what are the biological/psychological foundation of a belief, and of an "other-worldy" experience. Shermer doesn't pretend holding one truth beyond any other ; he basically shows how science today can explain the human capacity of taking in a belief. He doesn't go where he shouldn't ; trying to explain the sociological or anthropologic formation of belief with natural science. He stays sharp on knowledge already developped, and gives plenty of examples/further explanations.

A very big thumbs up to this author. The only downside is when he tries to explain how a neuron works, he lost me a bit... but then again, my background is in sociology, not bio-psychology.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Blashy
Well documented with good researche referenced, not just "his" opinion.

He conveys the message very well for the every day reader.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grand tour of the thinking ape June 16 2013
By Jacek K
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am interested in the subjects of religion and civilization, how the two came together and then drifted apart. If you are like me you will enjoy this book. It truly covers subjects as vast apart and varied as our belief in ghosts and conspiracy theories, and the most recent (2010) theories related to the origins and structure of the universe. Obviously, as the subject matter is immense, some of it is covered only briefly but with ample library references for those interested in expanding any topic.

The book consists of four parts. Part I - Journeys of belief - two examples of people becoming believers due to personal experience; then the author's road from being a born-again Christian to becoming a skeptic; Part II - The Biology of belief - introduction of the two concepts developed by author: patternicity and agenticity - the moda operandi of human brain, evolutionary character of our natural preference for Type I error (false positive) vs Type II error (false negative); the author shows how the tendency to infuse patterns (true or imaginary) with meaning becomes a source of superstition and magical thinking. The last two parts divide our beliefs between "things unseen" (part III) and "things seen" (part IV). Part III deals with matters where science does not apply or has been unsuccessful so far: our belief in afterlife, belief in god(s), belief in aliens. All these are considered in light of our search for meaning/patterns/agents. The material in this part also shows how the way our thinking processes developed can make us susceptible to a variety of conspiracy theories.
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By Michael Kearney TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Shermer is concerned with the truth and calls it as he sees it. A cornerstone of the skeptic philosophy and a regular contributor to Sci American, he has written a number of books which theorize why we are the humans we are. I, for one, think the Believing Brain has nailed it. It is why we believe what we believe. Ever wonder? For many it will perhaps start a dialogue in ourselves which we often stuff or dismiss. But we shouldn't be afraid to do that. This is the underlying message from Shermer. As individuals we need to question why we do what we do and think what we think and believe what we believe. The answers may not be what we had thought and they may upset us, but in the end we become the owners of who we are. Recommended to the fearless thinkers inside you.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I couldn't finish it. Jan. 19 2014
While I read Skeptic magazine regularly (Michael Shermer is the publisher and editor-in-chief) I couldn't finish this book. I'll have to give it a second try.
It's not the research or the prose that fails, in fact it's this anecdote that will forever stick in my head: the story of a little girl who was hyperactive and unruly and some psuedo-scientist/psychologist who used the discredited method of "re-birthing." They smothered the little girl in a makeshift womb of couch cushions, and despite her protests they continued with the "therapy."
I had to set the book down and cry after that. I couldn't continue on.

I'll try again, but that real-world example was
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