The Believing Brain: Book Review

The Believing Brain
Michael Shermer
Times Books
Hardback US Edition, 2011, $28:00
Kindle US download, $14:99

The Believing Brain

Following the last post, Quackery, Hokum, Baloney, Gregory Lof from the Department of Communication Science at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions sent us a reference to his latest article, which we highly recommend because it is (a) a readable, well-written, and scholarly treatise on the application of Science-Based Practice in Speech Pathology, and (b) short. The latter will appeal to all students who find that anything longer that 6 pages, many of which are not filled with pictures, is a chore. In fact, I did some research and assigned it to my daughter, who is a Junior in Psychology at Ohio State University. In true SocMed style (I’m trying to encourage the aphetic “SocMed” as word for “Social Media” but failing miserably), she tweeted me the review in less than 140 characters:

I like it so far cause he makes it easy to read to us non speech ppl:)

I’m marginally ashamed that she considers Psychology a “non-speech” subject but I’ll have that discussion when she’s next home. So for those of you who have access to the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, here’s the citation:

Lof, G.L. (2011). Science-based practice and the speech-language pathologist. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. 13(3), 189-196.

And as one last plug for Gregg, he will be presenting a paper on this topic along with Stephen Camarata from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, entitled “Clinical Science: Distinguishing Fads, Myths, and Evidence.” It takes place at the Conference Center in room 20A on Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 6:30 – 7:30 pm. Interestingly, it’s billed as a Twilight Session, which presumably means it will be populated by vampires, werewolves, and SLP students eager to catch a glimpse of some hunky young men with their shirts off. I could be wrong. It’s also well into drinking time so I guess I’ll have to smuggle in a little something in a hip flask.[1]

Both Gregg’s article and ours cite Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World[2] as an excellent introduction to the world of Science and Skepticism – although it is longer than an article and a little short on pictures. And though our article doesn’t mention the works of Michael Shermer, we’re avid readers of his stuff.

Coincidentally, only three weeks ago I was reading Shermer’s latest book, The Believing Brain [3], which, along with some evidence-based practice related tweets from Bronwyn Hemsley (@bronwynah) of the University of Queensland, Australia, gave rise to the “Quackery” article.

Shermer’s thesis in this book is summarised in a couple of sentences he makes early on:

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.

What follows is a series of discussions and explanations about what this means for the way in which people behave when it comes to beliefs, whether that’s religious beliefs, scientific beliefs, political beliefs, or just whether to believe whether “Reality TV” is, in fact, “real.”

Shermer argues that this tendency to see patterns and meaning is fundamental to us as individuals and a result of our evolutionary heritage:

We are the descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning and is fundamental to all animal behavior, from C. elegans to H. sapiens. I call this process patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

Shermer illustrates this tendency with many examples, as he has done in most of his books. He expands on this notion of patternicity by sub-categorising into different types.

As a companion to patternicity, he introduces the term agenticity, by which he means that not only do we find patterns and meanings in noise, but we tend to ascribe some type of agent to those patterns i.e. someone or something causes it.

(W)e often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world.

Shermer takes some time to talk about the neurochemistry of belief, with dopamine being the top contender for being “the belief chemical.” Citing research from a number of sources, he proposes that higher concentrations of dopamine in the nervous system enhances the “signal-to-noise” ratio, which means you find more “signal,” or meaning, amid what is really “noise,” or meaninglessness. Studies he cites show that people with high levels of dopamine are more prone to be superstitious, believe in the paranormal, and more likely to see patterns when there are none there. In contrast, skeptics have lower dopamine levels.

Exploring the neurochemistry of superstition, magical thinking, and belief in the paranormal, Brugger and Mohr found that people with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find significance in coincidences and pick out meaning and patterns where there are none.[4]

There are chapters on belief in the afterlife, belief in God, belief in aliens, and belief in conspiracies. Readers of earlier Shermer books, or skeptical literature in general, will find little new here, but those new to Skepticism will be entertained.

For me, the weakest chapter is the one entitled The Politics of Belief, where he essentially tries to marry his own political stance (Libertarianism) with the “evidence,” which, not surprisingly, hints at Libertarianism being more consistent with “facts.” It’s worth the read but you might come to different conclusions.

And reaching you own conclusions is what the chapter Confirmation of Beliefs is all about. Here Shermer lists and explains a number of the more common psychological biases to which we are all subject. For example, he mentions the confirmation bias as the “mother of all biases,” and how it serves to filter incoming information so as to accept all that supports our beliefs and rejects all that disconfirms our beliefs. I’ll leave these biases to another Speech Dudes article.

If you’ve never read any of Shermer’s books, this is a good one with which to start. Otherwise, there are elements of the text with which Shermer readers will be familiar. The discussions on patternicity, agenticity, and dopamine are worth the read but the rest is more recap than “new.”

It’s worth concluding with three sentences that new skeptics might want to jot down and commit to memory. They pretty much summarise what the scientific method is about:

A null hypothesis states that X does not cause Y. If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis.

The null hypothesis also means that the burden of proof is on the person asserting a positive claim, not on the skeptics to disprove it.

The principle of positive evidence states that you must have positive evidence in favor of your theory and not just negative evidence against rival theories.

Notes and References
[1] I’m not sure what the rules are for carrying hip flasks in the San Diego Conference Center, and I am sure there is someone, somewhere, who keeps a large list of “Things-that-are-banned-because-they-make-people-happy.” The spirit of Puritanism lives on in the US, something that most progressives would deny but that the rest of the world takes as obvious. And as that astute observer of American life, H.L. Mencken, once told us, “Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

[2] Sagan, C. (1995). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Book.

[3] Shermer, M. (2011). The Believing Brain. Times Books.

[4] Brugger, P. and Mohr, C. (2008). The Paranormal Mind: How the Study of Anomalous Experience and Beliefs May Inform Cognitive Neuroscience. Cortex, 44, 10, 1291-1298.

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2 responses to “The Believing Brain: Book Review

  1. Pingback: A Perfect Mess: Book Review | The Speech Dudes

  2. Pingback: Is “Foreign Accent Syndrome” a Cinnamon Bun? | The Speech Dudes

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