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

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

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.
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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.

©2011 Michael Shermer (P)2011 Michael Shermer

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)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Douglas C. Bates Boston, MA 04-13-12
    Douglas C. Bates Boston, MA 04-13-12 Member Since 2010
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    "Starts Strong, Then Wanders"

    The Believing Brain starts strong, delivering on its title promise about why people believe such strange things. Then the author begins to wander. By mid-way the book starts becoming a recap of material from other books.

    The section on politics particularly wanders. For an extended section it's about the author's own political beliefs, and subtly why those beliefs are rational, implying others' beliefs are not.

    From there the book goes on to discuss cognitive biases, the history of science, and the scientific method. All of these topics are much better covered in other books specific to those subjects.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Grant NANTUCKET, MA, United States 08-24-11
    Grant NANTUCKET, MA, United States 08-24-11 Member Since 2008

    caffeinated

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    "Really, really interesting stuff."

    I was skeptical of this book at first. Then I really got into it. And found myself nodding along as I listened. Perhaps I was merely subdued by my innate confirmation bias... ;-) Good stuff.

    4 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Matthew LeClaire, IA, United States 03-08-13
    Matthew LeClaire, IA, United States 03-08-13 Member Since 2011
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    "Dr. Shermer is a skeptic's hero!"
    Would you listen to The Believing Brain again? Why?

    Yes, I probably will. There's a lot of information to grasp, and listening to a second time will help me recall the information in discussions on these topics.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    Non-fiction, no characters.


    What does Michael Shermer bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    A lot of science history is presented (maye a little too much, to be honest).


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    I enjoyed the part on religion, which is my big personal point of interest.


    Any additional comments?

    Dr. Shermer does an excellent job of cutting through the noise and laying out the argument for skepticism. I really enjoyed this book, but here are my few thoughts as to what prevented it from getting five stars:

    1. I tend to be more liberal than Dr. Shermer, so his section on politics ruffled my feathers a bit. He didn't work overly hard to present an unbiased view, instead laying out a basic arguement for civil liberarianism. It was still a good section, but I found myself wanting to argue with some of the things that were written there.

    2. Dr. Shermer does the *funniest* voices sometimes when he is quoting people, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't realize it. Even when quoting someone he really respects, he does this funny mock impersonation that sounds like he is making fun of them. I actually really enjoyed that, so it didn't ding my rating at all.

    3. The book ran a little unneccessarily long at points, especially at the end. I feel like Dr. Shermer could've said everything he wanted to say in half the words, but then some editor came and prodded him into making it longer to maximize profits. I think this book could've almost succeeded better in the micro book format used by Sam Harris.

    Overall, still well worth the read! I intend to get more books by Dr. Shermer soon.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Johnny Davis 07-29-11 Member Since 2007
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    "Hello... this is kermit the frog here."

    Good book but the Narrator sounds to much like Kermit the frog. Extremely distracting. I will be watching out for books read by him.

    11 of 18 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Donald E. Campbell Pearl, MS USA 10-11-14
    Donald E. Campbell Pearl, MS USA 10-11-14 Member Since 2012

    reader

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    "I didn't enjoy it"
    Any additional comments?

    I really did not enjoy this book. I have a rule that I listen all the way through every book that I get -- and I was glad this one was over. His ultimate premise -- that science is great and everything that cannot be proven by the scientific method is a trick of the mind and cannot be trusted -- is all well and good, but the book could have been half as long and make the same point. There was a whole section on the history of science that seemed forced in toward the end of the book and didn't seem to contribute at all to the thesis. In fact, there was a number of times throughout the book that I was left thinking: so what's the point? Why is this discussion here? In short, it may just be my "believing brain" --- but I believe that I should have passed on this one.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 07-06-14
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 07-06-14 Member Since 2007

    Chet Yarbrough, an audio book addict, exercises two cocker spaniels twice a day with an Ipod in his pocket and earbuds in his ears. Hope these few reviews seduce the public into a similar obsession but walk safely and be aware of the unaware.

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    "SHERMER'S CONUNDRUM"

    A conundrum is a difficult problem or question. Michael Sherman deals with the biggest conundrum of all. Shermer is an academic psychologist, writer, myth buster, and faith breaker. Shermer characterizes himself as a religious skeptic.

    Shermer notes that science is the key to knowledge. Science requires experimentally reproducible results, and when experimental results cannot be precisely reproduced, knowledge changes. Man is on the verge of scientifically proving that Higgs Boson particles exist, 16 years after they were conceptually discovered.

    “Patternicity” and “agenticity” are essential characteristics of an inquiring, scientific mind. One must presume that is why Shermer chooses to call himself a skeptic rather than an atheist when asked if he believes in God; i.e. more like a person losing faith rather than God.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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    Kevin SPRING, TX, United States 06-23-14
    Kevin SPRING, TX, United States 06-23-14 Member Since 2012
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    "Great read on why we believe what we believe"
    Would you consider the audio edition of The Believing Brain to be better than the print version?

    Yes - when Michael Shermer read's his own book, it feels like I'm listening to a lecture or debate of his - which I enjoy.


    What did you like best about this story?

    I liked Shermer's unbiased approach - to everything. I also appreciated his personal testimony in the beginning as I have always wondered what his personal belief structure was like and where it came from.


    What about Michael Shermer’s performance did you like?

    He did a fine job.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    No extreme reaction, but I supposed I was impressed by his unbiased approach.


    Any additional comments?

    "The Believing Brain" was an excellent read on belief systems ranging from religion, to the paranormal, and even to politics. I didn't expect the section on politics to be that engaging, but I felt that Shermer did an excellent job presenting an unbiased approach to discussing political beliefs. Bias is something that has to be avoided in science, so I greatly appreciated his ability to remain unbiased when discussing topics that tend to polarize people.

    I thought the section towards the end regarding the history of cosmology was a bit stretching and really brought the book's momentum to a screeching halt.

    Overall it was an excellent read and I would read this again, as well as recommend to my friends. I also took great insight to Shermer's arching thesis in the book: people first establish their belief and then justify their belief system.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marc 03-27-14
    Marc 03-27-14
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    "Nice, pointed, rather personally biased "old wine""
    What did you like best about The Believing Brain? What did you like least?

    Shermer's approach obviously is personal. While during the first half of the book he sums up current brain science/mind theory's point of view quite fascinatingly, in the second half he more or less concentrates on a "kind of vendetta" against personal critics towards his person or position.
    So five stars for about 50-60 percent of the book, 2 stars for the rest. I would rate it four stars, but Shemer only repeats the same old experiments and studies that have been ridden to death by so many other books, articles and discussions before, without bringing anything new to the table, that - even though his performance, his to-the-point style are great to listen to and "do make you think" (if you didn't do so before) - in the end you ask yourself: What's new about it? That's all kind of all day knowledge for an educated grown up.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    I guess this book has been wrongly categorized by Audible, since there is no "character" (except, maybe, for some "Gods" that ever now and then pop up and whom I find to be quite silly).


    What about Michael Shermer’s performance did you like?

    Shermer's performance is good, professional and convincing. If he had left out all those pokes towards his personal issues with readers or colleagues in the "scientific" community, it might have been great.


    Did The Believing Brain inspire you to do anything?

    I am not going to believe in that any scientist who calls himself a scientist knows ANYTHING for sure. Shermer wants me to believe he does, but this book is a good base for being a skeptic :-)


    Any additional comments?

    There are quite a lot of passages that make you go "huh?". It really isn't of much interest to an European reader/listener, what the American politics system looks like, but if the author insists in this (the US system) being the ONLY ONE in the world, it's quite funny to listen to. You even laugh out loud when the author explains that you just cannot take anything for granted that other people just tell you, and in the next sentence states "this and that, of course, is a fact that everyone knows".
    In general you get the most out of this book by listen closely and finding all the moments in which the author directly contradicts himself.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Silvia Dundrum, Ireland 03-07-14
    Silvia Dundrum, Ireland 03-07-14 Member Since 2013
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    "A well worth it listen"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Read by the author, it's a mix of fact, personal experience and opinion. Very interesting and a great way to kill time in traffic.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jason FPO, AP, United States 11-29-13
    Jason FPO, AP, United States 11-29-13 Member Since 2013
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    "3 out of 4 well-covered gets 4 out of 5 stars"

    First, let me get the performance aspect out of the way. Some of the other reviews are pretty hard on Mr. Shermer's efforts here at reading his own work. While it's true that the reading is not as good as one done by a more professional reader, it's still perfectly acceptable and doesn't distract.

    Now, on to the content!

    In the subtitle, Shermer lists the main topics he will touch on: ghosts, gods, politics, and conspiracies. I am familiar with Shermer's work in the excellent book "Why People Believe Weird Things" as well as an occasion article I've read, so I felt like I knew what I was getting into, and I did with 1 minor exception.

    I did get what I expected in the ghosts, gods, and conspiracies: a clear approach to understanding and explaining why people believe in such nonsensical flights of fancy, with lots of examples, references to current research and well-thought out arguments. I found the underlying question of "why do people believe in _anything_" quite rich and fascinating, and handled well.

    Those are the "3 out of 4 well-covered"...

    I was very disappointed in the political treatment. Shermer dropped the ball here in a 2 ways.

    For one, Shermer strongly promoted his Libertarian viewpoint. Without getting into the details, if you've ran across Libertarian discourses on the internet (and if you are on a message board of any substantial size, I know you have), you've heard everything Shermer has to say on that political position. I don't think any well-read person will hear anything new here, regardless of what politics you hold.

    The larger disappointment, which only makes the Libertarian focus worse, was an over-reliance on putting political discussion into the left-right American political spectrum. Only after a long initial discussion confined to the American left-right spectrum, did we get a few brief sentences on a larger global perspective on politics, and then only to simplify them down into the same American left-right spectrum. There was virtually no consideration given to political thought outside of a strict American perspective.

    Badly managed and highly disappointed with the political topic handling, I must say.

    However, the rest of the content was quite well done, and even the political stuff was worth listening to, if only to reinforce my own personal theory that there is no such thing as true intellectual or rational commentary possible on modern American politics, from any perspective!

    Overall, this is a skeptical book written by a deep thinking skeptic, and if that sort of thing is of interest to you, this is worth a listen.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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