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The Believing Brain Book Summary – Michael Shermer

What you will learn from reading The Believing Brain:

– Why you should view the world through multiple lenses.

– The processes that the brain uses to create beliefs.

– How beliefs are built from the neurons up.

The Believing Brain Book Summary:

The Believing Brain is a great primer to understanding how we all build our beliefs. Exploring the brains belief creating processes, patternicity and agenticity coined by the author Michael Shermer you will being to become more aware of your own beliefs and how you use these processes yourself.

It has fascinating insights into conspiracy theorists and how the supernatural often makes sense. This is a must read if you’re into psychology and how we all form beliefs.


Understanding is belief dependent:

Every man is the creature of the age in which he lives; very few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the times.VOLTAIRE

What you believe is what you see. The label is the behaviour. Theory moulds data. Concepts determine percepts. Belief-dependent realism.

Understanding is belief dependent. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.

Again, as the principle of belief-dependent realism dictates, once the belief is formed, reasons can be found to support it.

Once people commit to a belief, the smarter they are the better they are at rationalising those beliefs. Thus: smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

Even minds staggering genius cannot override the cognitive biases that favour anecdotal thinking. We are wired for anecdotal extrapolation.

Our evolved tribal tendencies lead us to form coalitions with fellow like-minded members of our group and to demonise others who hold differing beliefs.


Multi-lens Life:

‘Model-dependent realism’ presented by the University of Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking and mathematician and science writer Leonard Mlodinow in their book, The Grand Design, in which they explain that because no one model is adequate to explain reality, we are free to use different models for different aspects of the world.


The idea of a single cause is a fallacy:

The truth is far more complex; rarely are important religious, political, or ideological beliefs attributable to single causal factors. Human thought and behaviour are almost always multivariate in cause, and beliefs are no exception.


The Brains Belief Processes:

The first belief process Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data.

The second process he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.



This process is called association learning and is fundamental to all animal behaviour, from C. elegans to H. sapiens. Shermer calls this process patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. Unfortunately, we did not evolve a baloney-detection network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns.

The inability of individuals – human or otherwise – to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them will often force them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones.

Although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the patternicity phenomenon endured the winnowing process of natural selection.

Anecdotal association is a form of patternicity that is all too common and that leads to faulty conclusions. I heard that Aunt Mildred’s cancer went into remission after she imbibed extract of seaweed. Hey, maybe it works. Then again, maybe it doesn’t. Who can tell?

Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training. Any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials. 


Uncertainty and Magical Thinking:

Uncertainty makes people anxious, and anxiety is related to magical thinking.

Feelings of control are essential for our well-being – we think clearer and make better decisions when we feel we are in control. Lacking control is highly aversive, and one fundamental way we can bolster our sense of control is to understand what’s going on. So we instinctively seek out patterns to regain control – even if those patterns are illusory.

Interestingly, it appears that a negative event, such as a sporting game loss or a failure to achieve a goal, produces even faster causal links and support for those links, especially if it is an unexpected event.



As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a ‘theory of mind’ – the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others – we practice what Shermer calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. 

One of the most effective means we have of understanding how the brain works is when it doesn’t work well, when something goes wrong, or under extreme stress or conditions.

Our brains consist of many independent neural networks that at any given moment are working away at various problems in daily living. And yet we do not feel like we’re a bundle of networks.

Sacks concluded, “We now have a fairly sound understanding of the machinery, thereby rendering the theater of the mind an illusion. There is no theater, and no agent sitting inside the theater watching the world go by on the screen. Yet our intuitions tell us that there is. This is the foundation of agenticity in the brain that further reinforces belief-dependent realism.”

Our consciousness integrates inputs from all the senses into a meaningful narrative arc that makes sense of both senseful and senseless data.

Tie this process into our body schema, theory of mind, and dualistic agenticity and it becomes clear how easy it is to develop a plot in which we are the lead character whose meaning and importance is central to the story and whose future is eternal.


Neurons and building up to belief:

The mind is what the brain does. The neuron and its actions are to psychology what the atom and gravity are to physics. To understand belief we have to understand how neurons work.

It’s an on-or-off, all-or-nothing system. Neurons do not fire ‘soft’ in response to a weak stimulus, nor do they fire ‘hard’ in response to a strong stimulus. They either fire or they do not fire.

Therefore, neurons communicate information in one of three ways: (1) firing frequency (the number of action potentials per second), (2) firing location (which neurons fire), and (3) firing number (how many neurons fire).

How do we build a system from the bottom up, starting with a chemical transmitter substance such as dopamine, and bind the inputs into an integrated belief system? Through behavior.

The release of dopamine is a form of information, a message that tells the organism ‘Do that again.’


Some see more patterns then others:

‘Schizophrenics who are delusional see patterns like this all the time and think they are relevant. Their PFC and their ACC neuronal systems are not functioning to weed out the unlikely patterns, but instead see all patterns and give them equal weight for relevance.’

Here a plausible explanation for the link between patternicity, creativity, and madness presents itself. We are all pattern seekers, but some people find more patterns than others, depending on how indiscriminately they connect the dots between random events and how much meaning they put into such patterns.

‘As you lose vision, as the visual parts of the brain are no longer getting any inputs from the outside world, they become hyperactive and excitable and they start to fire spontaneously and you start to see things.’


Mirror Neurons help Identify Intent:

There are neurons specialised for discriminating between different intentions: grasping in order to place versus grasping in order to eat. More generally, this implicates mirror neurons in both predicting others’ actions and inferring their intentions, which is the very foundation of agenticity.


We are Quick to Believe:

This research supports what Shermer calls Spinoza’s conjecture: belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.

The scientific principle that a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly.


Believing in the supernatural and science:

The fact that we cannot fully explain a mystery with natural means does not mean it requires a supernatural explanation.

Invoking such words as supernatural and paranormal just provides a linguistic placeholder until we find natural and normal causes, or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest. This is what usually happens in science.

For example, when cosmologists reference ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark matter’ to the so-called missing energy and mass needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters, they do not intend these descriptors to be causal explanations. Dark energy and dark matter are merely cognitive conveniences until the actual sources of the energy and matter are discovered.

The missing 10 percent – what is sometimes called the ‘residual problem’ in science because for any given theory there will always be a residual of unexplained anomalies – just means that we can’t explain everything.


The Skeptic Manifesto:

Michael Shermer: “Despite the fact that virtually everyone labels me an atheist, I prefer to call myself a skeptic. Why? Words matter and labels carry baggage. When most people employ the word atheist, they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position.”

A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise).


What is Love?

It is deeply interesting to know that when you fall in love with someone your initial lustful feelings are enhanced by dopamine, a neurohormone produced by the hypothalamus that triggers the release of testosterone, the hormone that drives sexual desire, and that your deeper feelings of attachment are reinforced by oxytocin, a hormone synthesizsd in the hypothalamus and secreted into the blood by the pituitary.

Further, it is instructive to know that such hormone-induced neural pathways are exclusive to monogamous pair-bonded species as an evolutionary adaptation for the long-term care of helpless infants. We fall in love because our children need us!


What is Memory:

We have the fantastic ability to project ourselves into other worlds of make-believe, and the line between conscious fiction and subconscious imagining is a fine one. Reality and fantasy may blur in the recesses of the mind and come to the forefront under certain conditions, such as hypnosis and sleep.

The metaphor of memory as a videotape-playback system is completely wrong. There is no recording device in the brain. Memories are formed as part of the association learning system of making connections between things and events in the environment, and repetitive associations between them generate new dendritic and synaptic connections between neurons, which are then strengthened through additional repetition or weakened through disuse. Use it or lose it.

That is, some fantasies are indistinguishable from reality and they can be just as traumatic. McNally noted in his 2003 book, Remembering Trauma, ‘The fact that people who believe they have been abducted by space aliens respond like PTSD patients to audiotaped scripts describing their alleged abductions, underscores the power of belief to drive a physiology consistent with actual traumatic experience.’

Clancy concluded her study by noting: The abductees taught me that people go through life trying on belief systems for size. Some of these belief systems speak to powerful emotional needs that have little to do with science – the need to feel less alone in the world, the desire to have special powers or abilities, the longing to know that there is something out there, something more important than you that’s watching over you.


Conspiracy Theories:

What are some of the characteristics of a conspiracy theory that indicate that it is likely untrue? 

1. There is an obvious pattern of connected dots that may or may not be connected in a causal way.

2. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy are elevated to near superhuman power to pull it off. We must always remember how flawed human behavior is, and the natural tendency we all have to make mistakes.

3. The more complex the conspiracy, and the more elements involved for it to unfold successfully, the less likely it is to be true. 

4. The more people involved in the conspiracy, the less likely they will all be able to keep silent about their secret goings-on.

The grander and more worldly the conspiracy is believed to be – the control of an entire nation, economy, or political system, especially if it suggests world domination – the less likely it is to be true.

The tendency to commingle facts and speculation without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability of factuality, the less likely the conspiracy theory represents reality.

Conspiracy theorists connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns, and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency. Add to those propensities the confirmation bias and the hindsight bias (in which we tailor after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition.

The belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking. It is easily refuted by noting that beliefs and theories are not built on single facts alone, but on a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry.


The Realistic Vision of human nature:

The evidence from history, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology reveals just how deep our tribal instincts run. Good fences make good neighbours because evil people really are part of the moral landscape.

The Realistic Vision recognizes the need for strict moral education through parents, family, friends, and community members because people have a dual nature of being selfish and selfless, competitive and cooperative, greedy and generous, and so we need rules and guidelines and encouragement to do the right thing.

I believe that the Realistic Vision of human nature is what James Madison was thinking of when he penned his famous dictum in ‘Federalist Paper Number 51’: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.’