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 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.
"Insightful . . . brilliantly lays out what modern cognitive research has to tell us about his subject."—Ronald Bailey, The Wall Street Journal "Short of Penn and possibly Teller, Michael Shermer is America's most famous skeptic . . . His general commitment to science is appreciated by many—and rightly so."—John T. Jost, Science magazine Absorbing and comprehensive . . . This stimulating book summarizes what is likely to prove the right view of how our brains secrete religious and superstitious belief."—A.C. Grayling, Nature magazine "[Shermer is] an able skewerer of sloppy thinking."—The Economist "I would rank this as one of the most important books I've ever read . . . Michael Shermer, one of the world's great authorities on skeptical thinking, explains in his book how and why some people believe irrational things . . . fascinating."—John Long, COSMOS magazine '[Shermer] brilliantly synthesizes cognitive research and evolutionary theorizing—shedding light on a number of humanity's most cherished beliefs and their underlying mechanisms along the way. Shermer has written an entertaining and informative book that serves as a great resource for helping people understand why we form such beliefs in the first place."—Corey L. Cook, Evolutionary Psychology "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 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, physicist and author of The Drunkard’s Walk and The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking) "We might think that we learn how the world works, because we take the time to observe and understand it. Shermer says that's just not so. We just believe things, and then make our world fit our perceptions. Believe me; you don't have to take my word for it. Just try clearing some space in your own Believing Brain."—Bill Nye, The Science Guy©, Executive Director of The Planetary Society "The Believing Brain is a fascinating account of the origins of all manner of beliefs, replete with cutting edge evidence from the best scientific research, packed with nuggets of truths and then for good measure, studded with real world examples to deliver to the reader, a very personable, engaging and ultimately, convincing set of explanations for why we believe."—Professor Bruce Hood, Chair of Developmental Psychology, Bristol University and author of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable "Shermer is perhaps the country's best-known skeptic. His position is as clear as it is simple: 'When I call myself a skeptic I simply mean that I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims.' But now Shermer is interested not only in why people have irrational beliefs, but 'why people believe at all.' Our brains, he says, have evolved to find meaningful patterns around us. But why do people believe they see patterns—whether 'evidence' of angels, conspiracy theories, or UFOs—where none exist? Drawing on evolution, cognitive science, and neuroscience, Shermer considers not only supernatural beliefs but political and economic ones as well. He demonstrates how our brains selectively assess data in an attempt to confirm the conclusions we've already reached. Informative and difficult to put down, this book adds a compelling and comprehensive case to the growing number of arguments about the importance of scientific reasoning."—Publishers Weekly
Michael Shermer is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, and eight other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.
Michael Shermer on writing The Believing Brain
Michael Shermer discusses his new book on Skepticality, the official podcast of Skeptic Magazine.
Michael Shermer Discusses The Believing Brain on The Colbert Report
Michael Shermer of The Skeptics Society shares his thoughts on whether the end is really near.
Martin Bashir talks with Michael Shermer about the predicted apocalypse on May 21st.