Beyond belief

Salon has a provocative article by neurologist Robert Burton who discusses what the neuroscience of belief means for how we understand the world, drawn from his new book, On Being Certain.

We’re going to be posting an interview with Burton on Mind Hacks in the near future, but the Salon article should give you a flavour of some of his thoughts the brain and belief.

What’s most curious about work on the neuropsychology of belief is that it barely touches upon the memory research where they’ve had many of these things under the microscope for years.

I’m a huge fan of the work of Israeli psychologist Asher Koriat who has done some absolutely stunning work on the control of memory.

This may seem a relatively dry topic, but think for a minute about how you use your memory.

For example, you’ve almost certainly had the experience where you know that you know something but can’t remember the details, or that you know you recognise something, but can’t remember the occasion when you encountered it before.

Also, we seem able to judge when we’ve remembered something to our satisfaction, but this is quite a remarkable feat in itself. Think about how we could possibly do this.

You could say we know because the memory matches other memories we have in mind, but then these are subject to the same problem – how do we know that we’ve remembered them correctly?

In other words, there must be another system at work, and one of the primary components of this is what psychologists call the ‘feeling of knowing’ that communicates between our unconscious pool of stored information and our conscious sense of how successfully our memory is operating.

Koriat discussed these processes in a 2000 paper [pdf] that was a revelation for me when I read it. It convinced me of the importance of these wormhole-like processes that connect the conscious and unconscious mind.

In his article, Burton suggests what social implications arise from the science of belief, suggesting we should be a little more humble when we state what we ‘know’.

Link to Salon article ‘The certainty epidemic’.
pdf of Koriat’s 2001 paper on the ‘feeling of knowing’.

One Comment

  1. srid
    Posted March 18, 2008 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    How “certain” is the author that “Certainty is not biologically possible.”??
    At least one person on earth appears to disagree – http://www.actualfreedom.com.au/introduction/actualfreedom1.htm


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