Category Archives: About Belief

Wrapping Your Mind Around Identity Politics

Of all the viruses that equally infect both the left and right of the political spectrum, ‘identity politics’ may be the most virulent.  But since it’s a non-partisan bug, merrily hopping from one political bent to the next, it’s also one of the most interesting.  Here’s a working definition:

Political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of social groups identified mainly on the basis of class, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

During this U.S. presidential election, the germ has reached full-term infection on the right – with the Republican camp having relied on it for weeks now, chiefly manifesting in Sarah Palin, self-described duchess of ‘joe six pack’ America – the latest marquis oppressed social group; victims, in Palin’s words, of the “liberal elite.”  In this narrative scheme, certain parts of the U.S. are “the real America,” while others, and those who live in them, are presumably “un-American” or merely don’t count. 

In terms of mind, this is intriguing stuff – because in order for a narrative so extreme to actually influence peoples’ perceptions and beliefs, it must resonate at an unconscious level.  The term “real America” must have a visceral effect, tapping into an array of presuppositional beliefs and biases. For those who react as such, the result is strong galvanization as a group – the “Us” of Us and Them. 

On that note, The Situationist has a good short piece about Us and Them politics worth checking out.   And for a primer on the role of emotionalism in politics–a major component of identity politics–check out Drew Westen’s discussion of “The Political Brain” below. 



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Certainty Takes the Stand: A Discussion with Robert Burton

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges his readers to ask one of the most basic—and crucial—of questions: how do we know what we know?  With an engaging, conversational style, he tackles the neuropsychological underpinnings of belief and certainty, carefully examining these ubiquitous dynamics in light of what is known about how the mind works.

Garnering excellent reviews from Scientific American Mind, The Wall Street Journal, and Seed Magazine, to name a few, the book has struck a deeply resonant chord. To quote from the Scientific American Mind review, “On Being Certain challenges our understanding of the very nature of thought.”      

In the midst of a dizzying lecture and writing schedule (he’s also a contributor to Dr. Burton was gracious enough to spend a few minutes with Neuronarrative.   

Your book touches on some of the most hotly debated issues of our time—the nature of belief high among them.  What led you to write it and who did you have in mind as the audience? 

I’ve always been fascinated by why some people seem so certain of their opinions, while I seem plagued by a persistent, overriding sense of doubt that my opinions are definitely correct. As neuroscience is increasingly revealing how our behavior has a significant underlying biological component, I began jotting down some personal observations and thought experiments as to how thoughts might be biologically influenced. Most importantly I began to ruminate over how we actually tell ourselves when a thought is correct or incorrect. 

Initially I didn’t have any particular audience in mind other than myself. As you may know, my last several books were novels. I am dreadful with preconceived plots or story outlines; it’s much more fun to start with a character in a situation and simply sit back and see what happens as your fingers type the story.

On Being Certain began in the same general manner. While I was gathering notes, research articles, and generally noodling, I wasn’t even aware that I was writing a book. It took several years of rumination to realize that I was thinking about an aspect of meta-cognition — how we know what we know. It took another couple years before I realized that the “feeling of knowing” was an involuntary mental sensation created by the brain, rather than a logical conclusion to a line of reasoning. 

You say in the book that “we know the nature and quality of our thoughts via feelings, not reason.”  On the face of it, this seems like a difficult concept to swallow, since many of us are prone to think that our ability to reason is what really defines us. How have the book’s challenging assertions, like this one, been received since it came out earlier this year?   

It’s hard to say how a book is received. For starters, I suspected that this would be a quiet book read by relatively few.  I was unprepared for the book to be enjoyed by such seemingly dissimilar readers as traditional Buddhists, Krishnamurti followers, stock traders, science buffs and hard-core skeptics. The common thread seems to be that many of us are now questioning the role and value of certainty and conviction. In part this is probably related to the frightening rise of fundamentalism, both in terms of religious philosophy and political doctrine.

Perhaps the most surprising to me is that the book has also been praised as an exercise in philosophy.  I have no academic background in philosophy; the little that I do know was acquired while writing the book. Perhaps I would’ve saved myself a great deal of time if I had realized that hundreds of years ago philosophers such as David Hume were already describing mental sensations as contributing to our personal sense of knowledge. But then, if I had known this, I might not have written the book.  

You suggest in the book that substituting “I believe” for “I know” serves as a constant reminder of the limits of knowledge and objectivity.  Many people, of course, would rather not do that, believing it somehow weakens their position. I’m curious to know what sort of reaction you receive when putting this suggestion into practice.

At a strictly linguistic level, this may be one of the more difficult points in the book, as the word ‘believe’ strikes fear into the heart of those who pride themselves on being rational. For example, few scientists are willing to substitute the word ‘believe’ for ‘know’ when talking about such nearly universally agreed-upon scientific facts such as evolution. If I were rewriting the book, I might substitute the phrase ‘I think that’ or ‘it is my understanding that,’ rather than using the word ‘believe,’ primarily to avoid the negative connotations normally associated with belief.

Nevertheless, I do feel strongly that we all need to step back from the stance of certainty and make our claims based upon probability. The phrase ‘It is likely that’ is far superior to ‘is absolutely true that,’ even when the odds are 99.999% that you are correct.

One of the peculiar side effects of so qualifying your opinions is the relief that your listeners often experience. On multiple occasions, when giving book readings or talks, I have prefaced an answer with the caveat that I’m not really sure this is correct. Ironically, this admission tends to put the audiences at ease, even less combative in presenting alternative views. At times I have felt a nearly palpable sense of relief from an audience — that it was not going to hear yet another polemic from a “so-called expert.”   

Since we’re so close to electing our next President, one final question about political debates: do you think televised debates play a role in helping people make up or even change their minds, or are they merely tools to reinforce already existing beliefs? 

I am quite cynical about the value of presidential debates as they are presently held. You’d never interview someone for an important job and ask such open-ended questions and accept such evasive, non-committal or tangential answers.

I feel it is the obligation of each interviewer to keep pressing each candidate until they get a specific answer to a question. After all this is a job interview for perhaps the most important position around; it is not a beauty contest or popularity poll.

In this vein, we need to rethink what questions are most revealing. For me, the key element in choosing a president is to see how he/she makes tough decisions under pressure. To evaluate this aspect of character, the debate questions should challenge the candidates to respond to a unique set of problems for which they had not been previously prepared and coached. At present, presidential debates are no more than cynical sound bites designed to make each candidate maximally attractive and to make voters feel good about their candidate for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve written about this in a recent article. The link is 


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Marcus on Kluge

Here’s Gary Marcus discussing his book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

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What are the Chances?

Scientific American has a nice piece by Michael Shermer on why our brains have difficulty grasping far reaching probabilities.   Every time you pick up the phone to call someone and they just happen to be trying to call you at the same time, you’ve witnessed a minor miracle — if by minor miracle we mean something occuring that is improbable – though quite statistically possible. If you have a dream that someone is going to die, and not long after, they do, then you might be tempted to conclude that you’ve witnessed something tragically incredible – but again, though improbable, this event is also statistically possible. From the article:

The average person has about five dreams a night, or 1,825 dreams a year. If we remember only a tenth of our dreams, then we recall 182.5 dreams a year. There are 300 million Americans, who thus produce 54.7 billion remembered dreams a year. Sociologists tell us that each of us knows about 150 people fairly well, thus producing a social-network grid of 45 billion personal relationship connections. With an annual death rate of 2.4 million Americans, it is inevitable that some of those 54.7 billion remembered dreams will be about some of these 2.4 million deaths among the 300 million Americans and their 45 billion relationship connections. In fact, it would be a miracle if some death premonition dreams did not happen to come true!

How much easier it would be to blow holes through new age shibboleths if we could grasp the understanding that, statistically, every alleged act of clairvoyance, ESP, astrological prediction, etc can be explained without relying on supernatural reasoning. Imagine, if this triumph of the mundane came to be, how many fragile sensibilities would be shattered, how many books would not be sold, and charlatans would not be successful in hoodwinking mystified audiences.  But really, what are the chances of that?

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Undecided…you sure?

A new study suggests that automatic associations, lurking outside of awareness, are a better indicator of an “undecided” voter’s actual position than his or her conscious response. Here’s an article about the study in Science News.  This study seems to confirm what I think most of us intuitively know – that claims of indecision often veil an unconscious embrace of a given position. This isn’t, of course, the same as overtly lying about a stance on a position. The study suggests that the respondents who claim to be undecided certainly believe themselves to be just that. But, what’s at play in the black box of the unconscious may be hinting at a different stance, one already colored by influences the respondent may not be in touch with.

What’s interesting about this to me are the implications going the other way — claims of rationally “knowing” a position to be the correct one. To take a line from Robert Burton’s book On Being Certain, “knowing what we know” is not necessarily a rational business. More on that in future posts. Below is a an excerpt from the Science News article:

“Political pollsters might learn that there are some questions better left unasked,” remarks psychologist Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The new findings suggest that pollsters should be skeptical of voters who label themselves as undecided because those voters’ unconscious minds may have other ideas. The conscious answers these people give could be misleading.

Here’s a great post at The Frontal Cortex about this study as well.

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What You See Ain’t (Necessarily) What It Be

Three big time magicians, the ‘Amazing’ James Randi, Teller (of Penn and Teller) and the ‘The Great Tomsoni’ recently teamed up with the Barrow Neurolological Insitute of Phoenix to participate in a bit of the ole’ neuroscience research . The result is a paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience on how magicians exploit nuances in how the brain works to accomplish an illusion.  Here’s an article in the Times all about it.  In a nutshell, ‘objective’ reality ain’t all that objective,  especially when someone knows how to manipulate the brain’s perception mechanisms. From the article:

One theory of perception, for instance, holds that the brain builds representations of the world, moment to moment, using the senses to provide clues that are fleshed out into a mental picture based on experience and context. The brain uses neural tricks to do this: approximating, cutting corners, instantaneously and subconsciously choosing what to “see” and what to let pass, neuroscientists say. Magic exposes the inseams, the neural stitching in the perceptual curtain.

And here’s a great post over at Mind Hacks that fills in the picture further.

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