The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths To Political Convictions

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9781780335292: The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths To Political Convictions

Synthesizing thirty years of research, psychologist and science historian 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. Using sensory data that flow in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning, forming beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, accelerating the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop.

In The Believing Brain, Shermer provides countless real-world examples of how this process operates, from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal. And ultimately, he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not our beliefs match reality.

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About the Author:

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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Mr. D’Arpino’s Dilemma

The voice was as distinct as the message it delivered was unmistakable. Emilio “Chick” D’Arpino bolted upright from his bed, startled that the words he heard so clearly were not spoken by anyone in the room. It was 4 a.m. on February 11, 1966, and Mr. D’Arpino was alone in his bedroom, seemingly unperturbed by what he was hearing. It wasn’t a masculine voice, yet neither was it feminine. And even though he had no reference guide built by experience from which to compare, Mr. D’Arpino somehow knew that the source was not of this world.

*   *   *

I met Chick D’Arpino on my forty-seventh birthday, September 8, 2001, just three days before the calamitous event that would henceforth cleave history into pre- and post-9/11. Chick wanted to know if I would be willing to write an essay to answer this question: Is it possible to know if there is a source out there that knows we are here?

“Uh? You mean God?” I queried.

“Not necessarily,” Chick replied.

“ET?”

“Maybe,” Chick continued, “but I don’t want to specify the nature of the source, just that it is out there and not here.”

Who would ask such a question, I wondered, and more important, why? Chick explained that he was a retired bricklayer interested in pursuing answers to deep questions through essay contests and one-day conferences he was sponsoring at San Jose State University and at Stanford University, near his home in Silicon Valley. I had never heard of a retired bricklayer sponsoring conferences before, so this got my attention, as I have long admired autodidacts.

Over the years, as Chick and I became close friends, I grew more and more curious to know why a bricklayer would spend what little money he had on funding essay contests and conferences to answer life’s big questions. I had a sense that Chick already knew the answers to the questions he was posing, but for a decade he took the Fifth with me until one day, when I probed one more time, he gave me a hint:

I had an experience.

An experience. Okay! Now we’re talking my language—the language of belief systems grounded in experiences. What type of experience?

Chick clammed up again, but I pushed and prodded for details. When was this experience?

Back in 1966.

What time of day did it happen?

Four in the morning.

Did you see or hear something?

I don’t want to talk about that aspect of it.

But if it was a profound enough experience to be driving you to this day to explore such big questions, it is surely worth sharing with someone.

Nope, it’s private.

Come on, Chick, I’ve known you practically a decade. We’re the best of friends. I’m genuinely curious.

Okay, it was a voice.

A voice. Um.

I know what you’re thinking, Michael—I’ve read all your stuff about auditory hallucinations, lucid dreams, and sleep paralysis. But that’s not what happened to me. This was clearly, distinctly, unmistakably not from my mind. It was from an outside source.

Now we were getting somewhere. Here is a man I’ve come to know and love as a dear friend, a man who otherwise is as sane as the next guy and as smart as a whip. I needed to know more. Where did this happen?

At my sister’s house.

What were you doing sleeping at your sister’s house?

I was separated from my wife and going through a divorce.

Aha, right, the stress of divorce.

I know, I know, my psychiatrist thought the same thing you’re thinking now—stress caused the experience.

A psychiatrist? How does a bricklayer end up in the office of a psychiatrist?

Well, see, the authorities sent me to see this psychiatrist up at Agnews State Hospital.

What?! Why?

I wanted to see the president.

Okay, let’s see ... 1966 ... President Lyndon Johnson ... Vietnam War protests ... construction worker wants to see the president ... mental hospital. There’s a compelling story here for someone who studies the power of belief for a living, so I pressed for more.

Why did you want to see the president?

To deliver to him the message from the source of the voice.

What was the message?

That I will never tell you, Michael—I have never told anyone and I’m taking it to my grave. I haven’t even told my children.

Wow, this must be some message, like Moses on the mountaintop taking dictation from Yahweh. Must have gone on for quite some time. How long?

Less than a minute.

Less than a minute?

It was thirteen words.

Do you remember the thirteen words?

Of course!

Come on, Chick, tell me what they were.

Nope.

Did you write them down somewhere?

Nope.

Can I guess what the theme of the message was?

Sure, go ahead, take a guess.

Love.

Michael! Yes! That’s exactly right. Love. The source not only knows we’re here, but it loves us and we can have a relationship with it.

The Source

I would like to understand what happened to my friend Chick D’Arpino on that early morning in February 1966 and how that experience changed his life in profound ways ever since. I want to comprehend what happened to Chick because I want to know what happens to all of us when we form beliefs.

In Chick’s case the experience happened while separated from his wife and children. The details of the separation are not important (and he wishes to protect the privacy of his family), but its effects are. “I was a broken man,” Chick told me.1 “I was broke in every way you can think of: financially, physically, emotionally, and psychologically.”

To this day Chick maintains that what he experienced was unquestionably outside of his mind. I strongly suspect otherwise, so what follows is my interpretation. Lying alone in bed, Chick was awake and perhaps anxious about the new dawn that would soon break over his day and life. Away from his beloved wife and children, Chick was troubled by the uncertainty of where his life would go from there, restless about which path before him to take, and especially apprehensive about whether he was loved. Those of us who have felt the sting of unrequited love, the anguish of relationship uncertainty, the torturous suffering of a troubled marriage, or the soul-shattering desolation of divorce, well know the painful inner turmoil that stirs the emotional lees—stomach-churning, heart-pounding, stress-hormone-pumping fight-or-flight emotional overdrive—especially in the wee hours of the morning before the sun signals the possibility of redemption.

I have experienced such emotions myself, so perhaps I am projecting. My parents divorced when I was four, and although detailed memories of the separation and disruption are foggy, one memory is as clear to me now as it was those late nights and early mornings while lying awake: I had an almost vertigo sense of spiraling down and shrinking into my bed, as the room I was in expanded outward in all directions, leaving me feeling ever smaller and insignificant, frightened and anxious about ... well ... everything, including and especially being loved. And although the ever-shrinking-room experience has mercifully receded, today there are still too many late nights and early mornings when lost-love anxieties return to haunt me, emotions that I usually wash away with productive work or physical exercise, sometimes (but not always) successfully.

What happened to Chick next can best be described as surreal, ethereal, and otherworldly. On that early morning in February 1966, a soothing, tranquil voice calmly delivered a message of what I imagine a mind racked in turmoil longed to hear:

You are loved by a higher source that wants your love in return.

I do not know if these are the exact thirteen words heard by Chick D’Arpino that morning, and he’s still not talking, other than to exposit:

The meaning was love between the source and me. The source identified its relationship to me and my relationship to it. And it dealt with L-O-V-E. If I had to say what it was about, it was about the mutual love we have for one another, me and the source, the source and me.

*   *   *

How does one make sense of a supernatural occurrence with natural explanations? This is Mr. D’Arpino’s dilemma.

I am burdened by no such dilemma because I do not believe in otherworldly forces. Chick’s experience follows from the plausible causal scenario I am constructing here for what I believe to be an inner source of that outer voice. Since the brain does not perceive itself or its inner operations, and our normal experience is of stimuli entering the brain through the senses from the outside, when a neural network misfires or otherwise sends a signal to some other part of the brain that resembles an outside stimulus, the brain naturally interprets these internal events as external phenomena. This happens both naturally and artificially—lots of people experience auditory and visual hallucinations under varying conditions, including stress, and copious research that I will review in detail later demonstrates how easy it is to artificially trigger such illusory ephemera.

Regardless of the actual source of the voice, what does one do after such an experience? Chick picked up the story and recounted for me one of the most transfixing tales I’ve ever heard.

*   *   *

It happened on a Friday. The next Monday—I...

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