The Believing Brain

Book Review: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership, Book Reviews

We cannot separate human behavior from human biology. That much seems clear even to the lay person. Michael Shermer manages to shed even more light on that view of how things come to be accepted by individuals as “truth.” The brain, as Shermer demonstrates, “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.”

We see this time and time again in business. Executives get then largely ignore data including product life cycle data that might greatly influence how your brand is affected. Many of us have also experienced the way some folks might look at the same data, document and/or specification and draw exactly the opposite conclusion. “Thus,” says Shermer, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.” Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature, “hard” data and anecdotal data we gather from the physical world. Shermer goes so far as to state that “There is only one surefire method of proper pattern recognition, and that is science.”

What this means for business (as well as personal life, of course) is that we should be a lot less certain that the way we “see things” is the only way to see things. Especially, we should give up thinking that the way we see things actually represents reality; it most assuredly does not! Since our brains filter everything based on not only the physical wiring (nature), but also the wiring from experience (environment or nature), we necessarily do not see things as they actually are, but rather as we interpret the patterns we discern. Of course the same is even more true about our memories of events. Our brains reconstruct things as we sleep and stores them away in “permanent” memories that comprise what we think we saw, with logical additions based on our experience and mixed with the emotion so necessary to make an event into a long term memory. This process is not only fallible, but has been shown time and time again to be downright inaccurate much of the time. That is why the police are so skeptical of accounts by eye witnesses. They’ve learned that the accounts are wildly off base much of the time.

We each have a piece of the truth. Ours is ONE right way to do things. There is no one reality – Shermer has compelling arguments to make that case!

Click here to see the book on Amazon.