The Believing Brain: Our Brains as Belief-Machines

by Kara Kaloplastos

This past May, Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, released his book The Believing Brain, which takes modern cognitive research and applies it to the notion that our brains are “belief-machines,” or, in other words, that brains naturally “look for and find patterns” and then automatically provide meaning to them. The idea that our brains tend to seek information that already confirms our own beliefs is not at all new. I remember this from my Psych 101 class, actually. But Shermer delves beyond basic psychology and considers game theory and neuroscience as well. He gives an example about our ancestors: if a man hears a rustle in the grass, he asks himself if it is a lion or the wind. If he assumes it is the wind, and it is in fact a lion, he no longer exists. This theory might explain our inclination to believe in conspiracy theories. Sometimes reason is trumped and patterns prevail.

On the subject of neuroscience, Shermer explains that even for people with normal chemical levels in their brains, coming across information that we already believe gives us a jolt of dopamine. With this research and information, Shermer goes on to explain its significance in relation to God, ghosts, and politics. It’s an interesting concept, and one that is making me more aware of my own beliefs and actions.