Book Review: The Believing Brain

The Believing BrainBasically, people believe first and decide why later, oftentimes ignoring contradictory facts and finding support in illogical places. It’s called the confirmation bias and it has been demonstrated by psychologists repeatedly. Back in the days when a person needed to believe that the rustling sound in the trees was an unseen predator, it helped us out. But now people are genetically predisposed to see connections where there are none, and it results in some rather strange beliefs.

I really liked this book and i agreed with most everything in it, and that made me rather uncomfortable just because of what the book is about. Michael Shermer covered a wide range of topics that interest me, from politics to psychology to religion, and i believed every word of what he argued. But… I don’t think it’s that he convinced me, i think it’s that i already held those beliefs going into it, and as the book proclaims repeatedly, i as a human being pay special attention to arguments that support what i already believe.

When i was about halfway through the book, i read a review on Goodreads that warned me not to fall victim while reading it to the very trap that the book is about; believing so-called “facts” just because i want to believe them. So, i tried and failed to see fault with Shermer’s logic, and it made me feel like i’m obviously no different form people who hold the opposite views.

I wish this book had been shorter and more focused, even though i loved everything in it. Shermer couldn’t resist the temptation to single out specific popularly held beliefs—such as the 9/11 conspiracy theory, the idea that extra terrestrials have visited Earth, and the existence of God—and argue their invalidity. And before he does this he admits that it’s possible that he sees things the way he does because he, too, is only human and believes what he wants to believe, but he goes ahead and knocks other people’s beliefs anyway. Science reveals the truth in any situation, he says, but then he also shows that scientists’ findings are sometimes colored by their beliefs, too. So what’s a girl to believe? Well, whatever she wants to, it seems. It would’ve been interesting to learn even more about the believing brain, specifically, rather than what the believing brain tends to believe.

Maybe if the tone of the book had just been a little more humble, i would’ve been able to read it with more confidence. Shermer introduced the book by saying that what was to follow was going to be more “huh, isn’t that interesting?” and less “these are the facts and this is how it is,” but i think the latter is a better representation of the book’s attitude. Shermer doesn’t just talk about how people form and reinforce their belief in God, for example, but he also essentially declares that God does not in fact exist, and gives his reasons. And as an atheist i’m normally more than fine with that, just not in this particular context. Shermer also apparently likes to take the ideas of actual scientists and coin catchy new terms for them, and it makes him come across as a little overconfident about his stature in the scientific community.

I would’ve liked to have seen Shermer deal with more concrete stuff, like the political topics. I felt like he only touched on politics, and it was mostly to tell me why i should be a libertarian. And i didn’t mind that, but i thought that section of the book could’ve been more in-depth. And while i’m criticizing, i must say that i found the anecdotes at the beginning of the book to be quite unnecessary.

Having said all of that, i do think people should read this book. It will shake your belief in whatever you believe in, even if it’s nothing. And if it doesn’t, well, it should still make you wonder what that says about you and your beautiful brain.


Why I Want A Big Wedding

I talked to my dad last night to update him on my progress with the wedding planning (hi Dad!). I wanted to let him know that i have purchased a dress and that plans are coming along nicely. He was enthusiastic and supportive, as always, but there was one thing he had to ask: why would an offbeat sort of girl like me want such a big, traditional wedding anyway?

For the most part i’m a pretty normal American girl; i graduated from public high school and a four-year university, i work my nine-to-five every weekday, i drive an SUV and i eat a largely unrestricted diet. I like shopping for clothes and watching reality TV. I’m an enthusiastic sci-fi fan so one might label me a geek, but any label like that rings more of conformity than anomaly. George Lucas would cheerfully tell you that i’m not the only one who has ever grown to love Star Wars.

Some of the things i’m most passionate about, however, are fairly unpopular and do set me somewhat apart. Indie music, atheism and the desire to remove myself from the gene pool are the big ones that come to mind, although i’d be willing to bet that those things tend to go hand-in-hand in people (i.e. there are probably proportionally a lot more atheists who don’t want babies than Christians who feel the same way). Music aside, this point of view does tend to color the whole world in a slightly different hue for me. I’m a skeptic. I question things. I take the world at face value, and for the most part i’m totally enchanted by it anyway.

So if i see things from such a different point of view, why is this whole materialistic wedding thing still so important to me? What do the gown and the flowers and the cake all have to do with my commitment to my husband-to-be?

First of all, i love my family. I have family all over the country, and a wedding is a great way to get all of them together for an evening. We don’t really do family reunions, so weddings and funerals are the way it happens. This gathering is also a way of officially welcoming Nathan into the family, because to me that’s what marriage essentially is: becoming family. Besides, i want a celebration, and what could possibly make a single day better than gathering all the people i love together to share in the joy? I’m going to need some of my dearest friends to be there, too, and Nathan will of course have his closest friends and relatives there as well. Say, about 100 people.

This necessitates food, because Nathan and i love to feed people and family gatherings are almost never without a meal of some sort. I don’t want to do the cheaper cocktail hour thing; we’re doing dinner. And drinks. And we’re gong to need a dessert, so why not a cake? While we’re at it, let’s make everything look beautiful and taste delicious so that everyone will really enjoy themselves. Food. Flowers. Music. Linens. Candles. That’s probably 75% of the cost of the whole wedding, right there.

More importantly, i’m going to be taking a vow which i want all of those people i love to witnesses. Getting married is practical in its own way, but it’s also symbolic. I’m pledging my love and loyalty to Nathan, and i’m taking it very seriously. I want people to see my sincerity – not because their observation will make me more sincere, but because each of them is a part of my life and i want them to see firsthand this terribly important moment.

And this, of course, necessitates that i wear a really fabulous dress when all of those eyes are falling on me. And my hands can’t just be empty, so i’ll need some beautiful flowers to carry. And petals to walk on, so that i’m not just shuffling across the grass. And [Science!] knows i need professional help with my hair, because i’m absolutely impaired when it comes to hairdos.

I’m a designer. I value aesthetic beauty, and i’m willing to pay other designers to create a visually – and delectably – fantastic day for us. I’m not saying i’m spending top-dollar for everything (otherwise i’d be getting married in some sort of castle, right?) and i highly doubt that “traditional” will be the word people use to describe this wedding after it happens. But to me a wedding should involve plenty of people, food, drink, flowers, candles, music, and one very flattering, stunningly beautiful white dress.

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

or, as i like to call it, The Benefits of being Rich and Having No Children.

eat, pray, love
Despite all the buzz that’s been filling the media of all sorts for years about Eat, Pray, Love, i never had any interest in the book solely because of that ominous middle word, pray. A book like this is meant for entertainment and when you see the world one way and the author sees it another, it’s just hard to get anything out of it. However, having read and enjoyed the sequel Committed (which contained very little mention of religion or spirituality) and seeing that the movie was set to come out on my birthday, i decided to give Eat, Pray, Love a shot anyway.

First of all, i was hoping to learn more about why Elizabeth Gilbert decided to leave her marriage. The book does a good job of illustrating how completely incapacitated she was by the unhappiness she felt with her marriage and suggests that there was definitely a very good reason for all that misery, but fails to actually disclose what exactly the problem was. Gilbert says the reasons are “too sad and too personal” to write about, and so she doesn’t. And so i still can’t feel for her at all.

Here’s my problem with this: she chose to write this book. She disclosed a lot of personal stuff in the book (like the page about masturbation that made me want to go bury my head deep in a sand dune). She didn’t want to tell her ex-husband’s secrets, but he hates her anyway so why not go ahead and write about it and maybe help someone else’s marriage in so doing? Her divorce made her miserable, which made her have to go on a spiritual journey, which ended when she forgave herself for destroying her marriage. I see some sort of animal eating its own tail here. And the weirdest part is that she ends up getting married again. I’m sure that all of this is more complicated than i’m making it out to be and i definitely agree that marriages just need to end sometimes, but Elizabeth Gilbert has told me everything about these five years of her life except for what sparked it all and i’m left just wishing to know WHY.

Whatever it was that happened, it made her decide to pursue pleasure, spirituality, and a balance between the two. So she goes to Italy and that’s all fun and good. And then she goes to India and subjects herself to little sleep, little social interaction, a lot of hard work and a ton of chanting and meditation. This is the part i couldn’t relate to at all. Except maybe the beginning of it when she’s all whiny about the whole thing, ’cause that’s what i would feel like, too, in a place like that. But then it gets pretty mystical and i couldn’t help thinking “of course you’re going to start seeing electric snakes and stuff when you do that sort of thing to your brain.”

By the way – i’m going to excuse myself if i’ve used tenses incorrectly here because this is a blog and nobody is paying me for it, but Elizabeth Gilbert bounces from one tense to another in this book with a truly distracting frequency that to me just makes no sense. I think someone needs to go back and edit it one more time.

In Bali she meets a lot of interesting people and falls in love and seems to be a normal person again. Elizabeth Gilbert certainly is good at making friends with people, and i can imagine that traveling the world eating delicious food and talking to interesting people would be pretty great. I didn’t get the whole spiritual bit though, and i think the book was hyped way beyond its actual value. Overall, i’d say it was an okay book.

I did go see the movie on my birthday, and i thought the beginning where she just up and leaves her husband was even sadder on screen than in the book. I felt really sorry for her ex-husband. The spirituality was down-played and some plot elements were added for effect, but i think for the most part the movie was true to the story and, much like the book, all-in-all it was pretty alright. Save your $5.50-9 and get it at the Red Box some day.


If i believed all the things that the people i love have been trying to convince me of lately, i would believe that: the government has been secretly spraying us with mysterious toxic chemicals by way of commercial airliners; the president is on the side of terrorists and is slowly turning our country into a communist regime; there is a mystical power in the universe that is real the same way physical objects are real except that it can only be experienced by people of faith; and that because i don’t have that faith my immortal soul is bound for eternal hellfire and dragging my fiance’s soul with it.

How do you people sleep at night?

2009 Wrap-Up: Books

Since i’ve procrastinated and am now left with three posts to write today, i’m going to keep my books post rather short. I’ve already written about every book i read this year, so you know what my opinions of them are. I only finished nine books this year (and re-read two) but i started several others, and for me this is a pretty significant increase in reading. I haven’t read this many books cover-to-cover since high school. Reading has finally gripped me, and i think my mother must be proud.

(Mom has become a recurring theme in my end-of-year posts. Maybe i should continue referring to what i think she thinks of me in the two to follow.)

Early this year i became sort of fascinated with pregnancy. Since my latter two years of college, i’ve had quite a few dreams in which i am pregnant or have a very tiny baby, so that’s probably what got me interested. That and reading dooce and subsequently watching videos on momversation, and also just being at that age where a lot of people i know are starting their adventures in procreation.

So i read a couple of tales of pregnancy; Accidentally On Purpose and It Sucked and then I Cried (dooce’s book). I learned all kinds of things, like what an episiotomy is and what post-partum depression is like and how very, very little sleep new parents get – and good stuff, like that giving birth can be an almost spiritual experience that may make you feel even more deeply connected to your husband. And guess what? I’m never, ever having a baby. EVER. I got really tired of hearing about the whole thing, especially what’s coming out of either end of a baby at any given moment. I’m definitely over it.

The other topic that my reading this year covered was, of course, atheism. For a while there i was really passionate about it and i enjoyed writing about it until my writings garnered what i maintain were some really unfair accusations. And i noticed that i was really pissing off some of my close friends and relatives, and i was forced to realize that i don’t have the power to change the way people think about things. I decided that it just isn’t worth damaging personal relationships to keep trying. Religion is a topic i really wish people could discuss and talk freely about, but the world isn’t ready yet. I’ve given up on being passionate about this, just like i gave up on being passionate about liberalism and vegetarianism and environmentalism in the past because i realized that it was not making me happy, it was making me miserable. Wanting to change the world is a miserable thing, so this year i want to focus on what i love about it, and read more on that.

Weekend Movie Review

This weekend was beautiful and cozy and reminded me once again of why i love fall so much. Part of the cozy bit was watching several movies, all of which are pretty noteworthy.

On Friday we saw The Invention of Lying. I was really excited to see this film because i came up with the idea of an alternate universe where people haven’t evolved the ability to lie a couple of years ago. I contemplated writing some sort of script or book about it, but that sort of thing takes far too much patience for me and it never happened. Thankfully, someone else had the very same idea and turned it into a movie.

I loved the part about religion, of course. Surprisingly, i hadn’t even thought of that aspect of a world without lying. In the movie, there is no religion until the main character invents the lie, and subsequently tells a big fib about what happens after death. Everyone is overjoyed to hear that you go to the most wonderful place you can think of after death. It makes plenty of sense that they would be. But when the main character goes on to describe the “man in the sky” who decides whether we go to that good place or instead to a bad place, the headlines read “finally, a reason to be good.”

I don’t understand this bit. In a world with no lying, everyone would have to own up to the bad things they did immediately, and face the consequences right away as well. Wouldn’t there be plenty of reasons to be good in a world like that?

Anyway. Onward.

The characters were terribly flat. Apparently “no lying” also means “disclose everything” and nobody really has a personality to speak of. The chemistry between the two main characters wasn’t believable at all. The complete lack of graphic design in this universe rather confused me, considering that the fashion was plenty imaginative, and the characters are able to dream up images and talk about them. I decided back when i came up with this idea that there would still be acting and art if there was no lying. I feel like the movie hinted at the fact that life without lies would just be colorless and unhappy, but i think they could have explored the possibilities so much more deeply. The Invention of Lying is ultimately just another romantic comedy, and i think it could have been so much more.

On Saturday we watched Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s oldest films. It’s older than i am, in fact. I think i first saw Princess Mononoke almost exactly ten years ago, which makes me feel slightly old. I read a few of the Nausicaa graphic novels not long after that, so the film has been a long time coming for me – especially since i never got to the end of the story. This movie was more similar to PM than Miyazaki’s other works, and i enjoyed it immensely. I think it’s now my second-favorite. If you like Miyazaki, post-apocalyptic stuff and/or really imaginative stories, watch this one for sure.

Finally, last night we saw Where The Wild Things Are. Knowing that the book is very short, i expected a lot of embellishment on the story. There was indeed much added action, and yet the plot was almost as simple as that of the original book. I thought it was funny at times and spectacular at others and imaginative through and through, but the wild things had strangely human personalities – and stupid ones at that. I felt like i was watching a childish drama play out among a group of trashy white people. Nothing was resolved at the end. Really, the movie took the book and added a bunch of loose ends to it. The most important thing was the way Max learned and changed while he was away from home – or at least, we can assume that he changed his ways upon returning. The film felt awkward at times, but it was definitely entertaining and somewhat thought-provoking, so i give it a thumbs-up.

And i believe that brings the total number of movies i’ve seen so far this year to forty-seven.

My Thoughts on The Lost Symbol

After reading Angels & Demons on a whim back in 2007 within the whirlwind (for me) span of a single week, i hadn’t given much thought to Dan Brown’s other works despite having enjoyed the book. I had seen The Da Vinci Code movie and have now seen Angels & Demons as well, but i didn’t actually anticipate wanting to read another Dan Brown book. However, several weeks ago as i was driving to Ankeny for class, i heard an interview with Dan Brown on NPR regarding his latest addition to the Robert Langdon series, The Lost Symbol. I learned that the man wakes up at FOUR every morning and writes seven days a week, 365 days a year (“even on Christmas”). Maybe it’s just the fact that i’m taking a break from nonfiction, i don’t know, but from that moment i felt compelled to actually purchase the new book, hardcover and all, and devour it as quickly as possible. Which is more or less what i did.

Two weeks after purchasing the book, i found myself unenthusiastically getting through the last forty pages of The Lost Symbol. Up until that point it was a regular Dan Brown page-turner; formulaic but entertaining with a nice little twist toward the end that i didn’t see coming. The one thing that really bothered me was the usual heroine scientist’s discussions of her research in the field of Noetic Science which would, once published, prove beyond a doubt that people are more than just flesh and blood. People have souls and can use their mind-power to alter matter outside of the body, and God most definitely exists. I asked myself why that pissed me off, and i decided that if such research was actually published, i would learn about it and grant it whatever it did in fact prove, but at this point i can’t conceive of any science that could do any such thing. The mere idea is a little aggravating.

The last forty pages of The Lost Symbol really drove the metaphysical point home, though. Apparently the thesis of this action-packed work of fiction is that God is within all of us, and our belief in him is what has always unified people and will bring peace to the world (never mind the fact that there are very peaceful people – and whole cultures, in fact – who don’t believe in any god).

My first thought was, okay, whatever, this little fiction book, like many other things, was not created with people like me in mind. Perhaps Dan Brown is trying to smooth the ruffled feathers of believers with this book by emphasizing the importance of religious belief in general and no particular church (especially not the Catholic church) in particular. But, then again, i know a lot of religious people who might be put off by the idea, maniacally pursued by several of the book’s main characters, that God is literally in us; that we people are all gods or can become gods. Not that i think anyone will ban the book from their libraries for that reason, nor that atheists, who are perhaps the latest victims of Brown’s feather-ruffling novels, ought to. I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing Dan Brown could have written about religion or God without rubbing somebody out there the wrong way. And after all, it’s only a novel.

As far as the book goes, i wasn’t as enamored with it as i was with Angels and Demons, partly because i’m not familiar with Washington, D.C., whereas i had enjoyed the memory-lane tour of Rome in the latter book. The Lost Symbol seemed to drag a little at first. Robert Langdon was tricked into solving the puzzles this time, and dragged his feet for half the plot line accordingly. Once things got cooking, it was fun to read. I’d say it’s definitely worth a week of your time, especially if you’re patriotic and have your own particular brand of faith.