Book Review: The Believing Brain. Michael Shermer

Skeptic in-chief, Michael Shermer has an important and fascinating new book. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths – describes how our beliefs arise from patterns and that these beliefs come first, and explanations for those beliefs comes second.

Shermer reviews 30 years of leading research in cognitive science, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and anthropology and numerous real-world examples to show how the belief mechanism works. This holds for our beliefs in all manner of important spheres: religion, politics, economics, superstition and the supernatural.

Shermer proposes that our brains are “belief engines” that “look for and find patterns” quite naturally, and it is only following this that our brains assign these patterns with meaning. It is these meaningful patterns that form what Shermer terms “belief-dependent reality.” Additionally, our brains tend to gravitate towards information that further reinforces our beliefs, and ignore data that contradicts these beliefs. This becomes a self-reinforcing loop where beliefs drive explanation seeking behaviors to confirm those beliefs which are further reinforced, and drive further confirmation seeking behavior.

In fact, the human brain is so adept at looking for patterns it “sees” them in places where none exist. Shermer calls this “illusory correlation”. Birds do it, rats to it; humans are masters at it. B.F. Skinner’s groundbreaking experiments on partial reinforcement in animals shows this “patternicity” exquisitely. As Shermer describes:

Skinner discovered that if he randomly delivered the food reinforcement, whatever the pigeon happened to be doing jiust before the delivery of the food would be repeated the next time, such as spinning around once to the left before pecking at the key. This is pigeon patternicity or the learning of a superstition.

. . . If you doubt its potency as a force inĀ  human behavior, just visit a Las Vegas casino and observe people playing the slots with their varied attempts to find a pattern between (A) pulling the slot machine handle and (B) the payoff.

This goes a long way to describing all manner of superstitious behaviors in humans. But Shermer doesn’t stop there. He also describes how and why we look for patterns in the behaviors of others and assign meaning to these as well. Shermer call this “agenticity”. This is “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency”. As he goes on to describe:

… we 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. Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Combined with our propensity to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise, patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Backed with the results of numerous cross-disciplinary scientific studies, Shermer’s arguments are thoroughly engrossing and objectively difficult to refute. This is by far Shermer’s best book to date.

(By the way, in the interest of full disclosure this book thoroughly validated the reviewer’s own beliefs.)