Book Review: The Believing Brain

       Michael Shermer’s recently published book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How we Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, discusses how we believe rather than why we believe. The Believing Brain is not just another book explaining that it’s easier to believe than to question or a rant on religious dogma. The book delves into the neuroscience and psychology of how we believe. The book describes in great detail the types of biases that believers and non-believers can easily fall prey to and commit in their reasoning — including researchers and scientists. The premise of the book is that beliefs come first and the reasons for a particular set of held beliefs come second.

       One of the many mechanisms of belief is what Shermer calls, “patternicity.” “Patternicity” is another word for associated learning. The Human brain is a pattern-recognizing machine. Humans have evolved to connect dots and create links by association. Humans are more sophisticated at patternicity because they have larger and more complex brains than other primates. Recognizing and forming patterns has survival value. Modern humans inherited the genes of their ancestors that were best at pattern recognition because they were more likely to survive and reproduce passing their genes to offspring. However, what humans did not evolve is good “filter systems” that easily detect false patterns. In other words, the brain will see patterns that are either real or unreal. In the face of danger, erring on the side of caution and committing a cognitive Type I error has a greater survival value than committing a Type II error. A type 1 error, or false positive, is a belief that something is true that turns out to be false and a Type II error, or false negative, is a belief that something is false that turns out to be true. The mechanism behind “false patterns” is the same mechanism for detecting real or true patterns. We evolved to see patterns such as face recognition. Our ability to recognize faces at various angles and expressions serve us well from a survival value because we can better detect friend or foe. Our ability to see patterns is the reason why some of the faithful will “see” Jesus or other prophet of their belief system on a piece of burnt toast. On the other hand, patternicity, or associated learning is the reason why humans have progressed scientifically. Associated learning is instrumental to all animal behavior as demonstrated by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner with his experiments with pigeons and rats. Shermer contends that the best tool we have for distinguishing false patterns from true patterns is science. Shermer illustrates the dangers of Type 1 patternicity with a powerful description of the tragic story of 10 year old Candace Newmaker who died in 2000 during an alternative therapy called (attachment therapy) for attachment disorder. Not only do we see patterns, but we also apply purpose or meaning to patterns in what Shermer calls “Agenticity.”

       Shermer suggests that it is our sense of self as to why we ascribe purpose or meaning to events. Agenticity is the cognition that entities outside of ourselves control the universe, what and how we do things and that there is somehow a grand-plan. Agenticity is also responsible for belief in new age nonsense and even in elaborate conspiracy theories. Our sense of self “resides” in the left hemisphere temporal lobe of our brain and can actually be tampered with to induce feeling of spirituality similar to those experienced by people having out of body experiences (OBEs) by using magnetic fields to stimulate “microseizures.” Shermer even plays the role of lab rat to undergo the same type of temporal lobe stimulation by neuroscientist, Michael Persinger. Shermer shares an account of his experience and a fuller neuro-scientific explanation of OBEs and spiritual experiences. Shermer both entertains and dismays us with examples of agenticity including how the CIA and military blew $20 million over a 25 year span on their Stargate psychic spy program. The purpose of Stargate was to hone peoples’ supposed psychic abilities to locate missiles, read minds and even telepathically kill enemy soldiers. Patternicity and agenticity explain the mechanisms behind beliefs, but neurons are the root cause of beliefs.

       The sense of self is why people tend to view the mind and body as separate entities. The mind and body is the same thing. The brain comprises the mind which is a result of neurological connections — lots of them. Shermer blinds us with mind-boggling neurostats that should impress anyone geeky enough to listen at a cocktail party. For example, the brain comprises of approximately a quadrillion neurological connections. A quadrillion is an astronomically large number; 10 to the 15th power (10^15 or 1,000,000,000,000,000). Shermer introduces us to an interesting brief history of neuroscience from Henri Bergson’s élan vital (vital force) to understanding to the physiology of the firing of neurons as a result of a set of action potentials. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter guilty as charged for amplifying the ability to find patterns in randomness through increased firing which results in new neural connections that form long term memory. This sounds like a good thing except that too much dopamine can result in auditory and visual hallucinations. Shermer tells an amusing tale of his close encounter with Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis (developer of Polymerase Chain Reaction which is a method of replicating sequences of DNA). Mullis reveals his contact with extraterrestrials to Shermer after a few beers… Even brilliant people are also subject to the fallacy of finding patterns in randomness and giving meaning to their false patterns.

        Filtering systems are another mechanism that filters out information that fails to match an idea or set of ideas because we naturally seek out information in the form of patterns that confirm and reinforces the belief or set of ideas; i.e., conformation bias. Shermer contends that the belief in elaborate conspiracy theories such as those of 9/11 truthers or the fans of a losing side of a sporting team are individuals whose “pattern-detection filters are wide open” Conspiracy theorists make patterns from randomness and add an agent such as the government in the case of 911 truthers, or a biased referee in the case of a losing team to add meaning or purpose to their claims. Shermer dismantles the conspiracy theories of holocaust deniers, 911 truthers and the assassination of John F. Kennedy by the CIA by highlighting the fallacious arguments given by conspiracy theorists and provides evidence for how these events unfolded without the agents of government. The list of cognitive biases described in the book read like a basic psychology course, but illustrate where we cognitively fall over in the way we view the world no matter how rational we perceive ourselves.

       Shermer concludes by reiterating that science is a tool that can help control our filtering systems. It is not enough to argue from ignorance and apply an agent to what we don’t know or understand. We must require evidence using science as the tool to find answers to our questions. The burden of proof must lie with the person or group of people making a claim. Science has various mechanisms that help to identify and breakdown biases. Shermer describes how even the scientific method is not perfect, but it is the best tool yet for understanding the natural world.


Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How we Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Times Books, 2011. Print.


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