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Believing Brain, The [Hardcover]

Michael Shermer
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 July 2011
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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Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books (7 July 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805091254
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805091250
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 47,895 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Shermer founded 'Skeptic' magazine and website ( and is a contributing editor, and columnist, for 'Scientific American'. Michael Shermer frequently appears on television and radio as a scientific expert.

Product Description


"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 for

Book Description

The Believing Brain is a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences to explain how irrational beliefs are formed and reinforced. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Do you believe it? 15 Aug 2012
By F Henwood TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
We like to think we hold the beliefs that we do because we have come to them as a result of careful process of deliberation, carefully weighing all the different sides of a question, before we reach a definitive conclusion, But it's not quite like that - we find reasons for beliefs we already hold prior to our justification of them. The brain is the seat of this - a belief engine that constructs beliefs about the world after the fact.

Shermer devises two neologisms - `patternicity' and `agenticity' to explain how this comes about. These rather ugly terms are simply shorthand for saying that our brains look for patterns where there is just randomness, and attribute conscious properties and deliberate intent to natural phenomena. We all do this to some extent - ever cursed your computer for running slowly, as if it would actually listen? Or tried to get a recalcitrant electronic or mechanical device to comply with your demands by thumping it? Those who hold strong religious or ultra-conspiratorial worldviews are likely to exaggerate patterns and agents operating in the world - excessive and unwarranted detection of `signal to noise.' He examines the psychological and neurobiological bases of our beliefs, how these apply to beliefs in the paranormal, religion, conspiracy theories and politics. He rounds off the discussion with an examination of the history of science as it is told in the story of progress in cosmology, to demonstrate how real knowledge advances.

Shermer does not of course push his argument too far. There is such a thing as legitimate belief. The truth is out there and it does not lie in between two extremes. Between the theory of gravity and the theory of levitation there is no middle ground, only the difference between truth and falsehood.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very comprehensive 18 July 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've read quite a few books of subject of perceptions, belief, critical thinking etc. I enjoyed this it was very comprehensive & covers a lot of stuff including some things I hadn't read about before (such as some excellent explanations for Near Death Experiences and sensed presences etc) The stuff about agency was really nicely explained, if you are new to critical thinking then its probably worth reading just for that alone. I did find it hard going at times when reading about the scientific studies (whilst they are interesting I've read about many or similar one so may times before it may just be down to me re-hashing stuff I've seen before rather than a reflection on the book itself). I would definitely recommend this if the subjects new to you, if you've read a lot about this stuff before then maybe not so much.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read! 28 Oct 2011
My very first product that I have bought from Amazon and my very first review!

Just finished the book and it was a brilliant read, very well written. I found it well structured and easy to understand. (I am a non-scientist btw). Every point was made very clearly and a little humor really helped this book though the more involved science.
If there is anyone who is unsure about this book due to it having no reviews I would definitely recommend it!
The book arrived in perfect condition and 2 days early! So thanks to Amazon!

So overall a great book about why we believe what we believe.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and mindblowing 31 Aug 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Shermer shows how, through numerous experiments, the brain really works. It first comes up with a belief, then does all it can to shore up that belief - even when presented with compelling, empirical evidence to the contrary.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Accessible but not always lucid 1 Jan 2013
Shermer distills a mass of evidence from the realms of psychology and neuroscience to explain what parts of the brain are associated with emotion, conflict resolution, creativity and belief. He uses the studies to illustrate his conjecture that belief comes first, and that the reasons for the beliefs we hold are developed afterwards.

The author is also keen to show that many unusual things that people experience, such as voices and visions, are simply the imagination of a tired, fearful or otherwise stressed mind. There is so much emphasis on this that the book sometimes reads like a diatribe against belief in the supernatural. It also meanders and rambles, and Shermer is overly fond of quoting himself (from his books, YouTube interviews and TV appearances).

The book redeems itself in the last few chapters, where Shermer is very good at showing how theory and observation complement each other in driving forward our understanding of the world. All in all, `The Believing Brain' is a passionate defence of the scientific method. Though Shermer is humble enough to acknowledge that science doesn't have, and may never have, all the answers, he makes a strong case for it being the best tool we have for making sense of the world.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clearest Breakdown of Belief yet? 11 Aug 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Shermer's central message: "People form beliefs before they form explanations for them" is a real game changer, but not an intuitive conclusion. However, this message is well justified by experiment. It has profound implications for how intelligent people can hold opposite (sometimes ridiculous) opinions.

Many great authors have given insight into belief generation and self deception, including Shermer himself. In my opinion this 406 page book now usurps the rest because I find it the most comprehensive and wonderfully compelling account of belief. It is (crucially) grounded in neuroscience experiments - Chapter 6 of 14, for which I admit command of high school biology makes easier reading.

Criticism of "The Believing Brain" would centre around the amount of material openly borrowed from other popular science publications: In this sense, many ideas are less original, but I think completely necessary to achieve a book which properly covers the subject without leaving obvious gaps. Certainly Shermer is well read - he writes competently on everything from theology to cosmology.

People who should buy this book are those who can spare a couple of weeks to read it properly and whose lives have been affected by absurd beliefs which really need concrete explanation. People who should avoid it are those who reject the scientific approach as the unrivalled way of sorting fact from fiction, as they might firmly believe the book to be falsely premised before making up an explanation as to why!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Skeptics in the Pub justified
Skeptics in the Pub in Leicester, which I attend every month, gets supposed iconoclasts to talk about their take on a wide variety of subjects. Read more
Published 14 days ago by M. Hillmann
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly written and very informative
Its clear why he is one of the four horsemen. This was a fantastic book. Shermer wastes no words in explaining his premises to the utmost, whilst deconstructing opposing... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars a lot of interesting studies and theories
I really enjoyed this work, Shermer presents several studies and scientists to support his arguments. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Pearl Anyetei
5.0 out of 5 stars Brain - An amazing Book
My favourite book ever! Some interesting interviews with belief conversions, believers to non-believers & visa versa. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Mr. Conrad Foote
5.0 out of 5 stars Blind belief - why?
As a non-believer in anything religious, I have often been perplexed at the naive acceptance of a god concept by supposedly intelligent people. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Jenny
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting insights, if only into the mind of Michael Shermer
An interesting discussion on the reasons for belief, though I was surprised he didn't touch on certain key scientific belief principles, such as parsimony - the principle that says... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Mr. Steve Lloyd
2.0 out of 5 stars Needs a good edit
This book is rather frustrating as the author indulges in a wide range of rambling and often irrelevant material. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Dr. H. J. Ziman
3.0 out of 5 stars What if...
So in believing what he says, you conform to how he believes the brain works.. Therefore, if you take this stance that no supernatural/metaphysical/paranormal anomalies are... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Morpheus
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but very repetitive!
This book was great for the first few chapters. Giving you things to think about and making you question the world as we know it! Read more
Published 11 months ago by Jonathan Kibble
3.0 out of 5 stars Gets repetitive
Makes good points but gets very repetitive about a third in. OK, we GET IT, various types of belief apparently have a common psychological (or should it be neurological? Read more
Published 12 months ago by Dr Chris
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