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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

Critic Reviews

“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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Best audio book I've listened to!

Wonderful book, rich and complex, reasoned and reasonable. I enjoyed the whole thing -- the last chapter somewhat less than the others. I wasn't sure it fit in all that well. And I loved the performance. This is my favorite of all the audiobooks I've listened to. I'm surprised that some people didn't like Shermer's reading. I always PREFER books read by their authors. And this one is among the best, in my opinion. I felt as though Shermer were right here, just talking with me (I listen with earbuds). I did notice a few mispronounced words, which always surprised me and gave e a chuckle. Shermer's very smart and has put together an excellent book. His biases are obvious but he's fair to those whose opinions he doesn't share. The point is that we ALL have cognitive biasses. We all choose our beliefs first, then assemble the facts and rationales to support our beliefs. Everyone should read (listen to!) this book. I would consider also buying the physical book because there are so many parts I'd like to go back to. I will probably listen to the whole thing again.

3 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Tyler
  • St. Louis Park, MN, United States
  • 09-09-11

Great book

As the other reviews say, Michael is a better speaker than reader. He's also really bad at pronunciation. If you can get beyond that (I certainly did), this really is a fantastic book. I certainly hope that this will inspire more people to adopt a skeptical philosophy. Yet, I'm sure there are many who would have a hard time with the book. Namely those who fell asleep in science class and stayed awake in Sunday school. But really, EVERYONE needs to read/listen to this book.

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  • Kel S
  • Canberra, Australia
  • 09-04-11

Familiar Territory In A Succinct Presentation

If you've read some of Michael Shermer's other books, mainly How People Believe, then a lot of this book will seem like familiar territory. It even has the same hypothetical thought experiment for patternicity (it's a good thought experiment, so it's well worth repeating). Likewise, if you've read other works on the psychology of belief, again there's familiar territory covered. There's nothing quite revolutionary or revelatory highlighted, just a solid case told in a very enticing way.

It's in its personal approach that I feel the book is successful. While treading dangerously close to the anecdotal, the whole narrative is rife with examples highlighting the theory in action; akin to the approach in the sublime Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). And by subjecting his own beliefs to the model, it was a nice way of putting his own biases under the spotlight. The result is that the theory put forward is memorable and applicable in real-world cases. The chapter on political beliefs, for example, should serve as a sobering reminder of just how arbitrary much of the political discourse truly is. And the account of Francis Collins will hopefully serve to remind us in the sceptical community that the difference between believer and non-believer has nothing to do with stupidity.

In terms of narration, it was generally good though there are a few moments where Shermer seems to get tongue-twisted and the flow breaks, and a few words are mispronounced. But aside from that, I have no complaints.

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  • ANDRÉ
  • ORLANDO, FL, United States
  • 01-30-14

Should be common sense

In Michael Shermer's point of view, humans form beliefs (from experiences, genetics...) and then selectively filter the data that to support the pre-existing beliefs. He divides the book in 4 parts Part 1- Journeys of Belief; Part 2. The Biology of Belief; Part III. Belief in Things Unseen; and Part IV- Belief in Things Seen.
A good book, but I think it is not for everyone. If you are a believer (in God, ET, conspiracies...) you will get upset.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Must read for skeptics of skeptics

Would you listen to The Believing Brain again? Why?

Yes. It is a good book to have solidly present in one's head at all times.

Any additional comments?

I (for complex reasons — I suppose they are always complex) had a penchant for being gullible which got worn down through education, but after a crisis in my mid-thrities, I decided to become "open" (thereby casting away deliberately many mental restraints). I decided it was simply better strategy, even if that meant being gullible. However, in time I shifted back to a more critical, intellectually rigorous position. For someone like myself, Schermer's book is just the thing to steady a sometimes vacillating mind.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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I have to get this book in print now.

Where does The Believing Brain rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This book ranks in the top 5. I learned just how much we base beliefs on emotions and how reasons to support those beliefs come second. I think people have to be willing to be open to evidence. If you don't believe Dr. Shermer, by all means chase down his references and make sure he's telling the truth.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Rachel
  • COLUMBUS, OH, United States
  • 09-14-12

Interesting, but not outstanding

In The Believing Brain Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic Magazine, shows the reader how and why we believe. He begins the book with a discussion of religious beliefs, providing a few examples of life-altering religious (or irreligious) experiences, including his own. I found these stories engaging and enjoyed Shermer's philosophical discussion. Then Shermer defines "agenticity"--the tendency to assume patterns have meaning and intention (an outside agent) instead of seeing them as non-intentional or even random events. He describes the cellular mechanics of our brains and why we would have evolved "agenticity," and then provides many examples of how we see patterns even when they don't exist. This part was pretty funny. I enjoyed his examples. Shermer describes how we can become convinced that our own beliefs are accurate and unbiased, how confirmation bias leads to unconsciously ignoring data that contradict our ideas while noticing in minute detail all the examples in which the data confirm our ideas. This leads to a political discussion of liberals versus conservatives versus libertarianism (because, after all, we simply MUST hear about Shermer's libertarian beliefs!). The final third of the book describes the progress of scientific beliefs from world-is-flat to the multi-verse (again, Shermer inserts a commentary about what HE believes, which seemed a small digression from his main point). This third of the book also describes how the scientific method works. I found the final third of the book less interesting than the first two thirds. It seemed a little less organized than the first two parts, but that may have been because my mind was wandering since I was already familiar with the material he covered. In the end, this was a fun and interesting read, but nothing I'm going to read again.

Shermer is well-spoken and therefore did a good job reading his own work. There were a few words that he hesitated on EVERY time (like spectroscopy), but he was mainly a pretty smooth reader.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Great !!!!!! Will listen again. So far, Shermers

What does Michael Shermer bring to the story that you wouldn???t experience if you just read the book?

It is a great story itself.

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

The first story he told.

Any additional comments?

One of the better audible books I've listened to. I was really into the stories. Very good.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Informative , Enjoyable , Thoughtful , Believing

Informative , Enjoyable , Thoughtful , Believing lol
Mr Shermer takes us on a journey .
enjoyably self narrated .

Credit well spent .

Though .... music between chapters would be distracted ,
I'd see if Audible would remove it .
sort of like the doorbell ringing in the final scene in a film ,
you ride it out but you know its distracted you ,
Otherwise it was great .

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Starts out strong, but ends with a detour

Would you consider the audio edition of The Believing Brain to be better than the print version?

The ideas explored in the book are fascinating, but I wouldn't have picked it up if there was another narrator.

What other book might you compare The Believing Brain to and why?

I listened to other books on the brain, psychology, and society but they didn't provide as much background as The Believing Brain. I really learned a lot more about the psychology of the brain and will likely pick up a few of the books he cited, that cover similar themes.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

I tend to listen to books on a congruent basis, alternating between music and other areas of interest. This was just long enough to listen to on my breaks from work, while not taking too long to complete.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful