Five minutes with Robert Burton

Robert Burton is a neurologist and novelist who has recently turned his attentions to the complexities of belief and the brain.

Unlike the recent trend for focusing exclusively on religious belief and the neuroscience of mystical experience, Burton explores something much more essential – how do we have beliefs, any beliefs, at all?

His recent book, On Being Certain, tackles the neuropsychology of belief, certainty and conviction and has garnered some excellent reviews along the way, including one in this month’s Scientific American Mind.

As well as wrestling with the fundamentals of human cognition, he’s also been kind enough to share his beliefs about belief with Mind Hacks.

Some philosophers argue that the concept of belief is so incoherent that, like the four humours theory of medicine, we’ll eventually reject it as a scientific concept. So, do you believe in belief?

Ordinary language and scientific terminology often have different expiration dates. I suspect that belief will persist indefinitely as a powerful expression of conviction and knowledge even though the concept is already too vague to have real scientific value. In everyday usage, we move effortless back and forth between belief as noun and verb, thought and feeling. Belief is used interchangeably to describe mystical experiences, religious dogma, empirical observations such as the sun will rise in the east, the moral value of parliamentary procedures, conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and even assumptions we don’t know that we have, such as tigers don’t wear pink pajamas. A host of quite different brain activities are lumped together; after all, when we say, “I believe,” it’s the intensity of the feeling of knowing that we are right that we are trying to convey, not the underlying neural mechanisms.

On the other hand, to understand belief’s physiology, neuroscientists will need to break down belief into smaller and smaller processes—the old dictum of “subdivide and conquer.” For example, to unravel the visual system, we eventually get down to the study of individual neurons involved in one aspect of vision such as processing movement or color. Understanding each of these elements gives us a better appreciation for how the visual system works, but isn’t likely to result in “seeing the bigger picture.” For me, the likelihood is high that belief will eventually assume the same philosophical status as “qualia,” an endlessly fascinating but ultimately irreducible set of subjective mental states. Just as your red isn’t my red, your beliefs aren’t my beliefs.

The most hard-to-swallow implication: studying the irreducible will yield tantalizing but incomplete information about subjective experience at the same time as it will lead to profound embarrassments. Pronouncements like “The states of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty differentially activated distinct regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia” will become the scientific equivalents of palpating the skull for the bumps of altruism or love of children. By the way, on my personal R.F. Freda phrenology head (left to me by a famous Oxford neurologist with a sense a humor), there is no specific region designated for belief. Rather there are discrete brain regions associated with components of belief such as Trust, Faith, Causality, and Reasoning…. Even Freda the bumpologist didn’t conceive of belief as a single mental state.

In your book you mention evidence that ‘certainty’ and ‘knowing’ are feelings, rather than conscious conclusions, and you suggest they happen to us as if we‚Äôre passive recipients of an automatic process. Most people would think (as famously did psychologist Zinda Kunda) that we can be motivated or deliberately biased to come to certain conclusions. How do these match up?

If we think of cognition as being shaped by the complex interplay of biological predispositions and prior experience, it isn’t surprising that our “lines of reasoning” contain hidden biases and unconscious tendencies to reach a particular conclusion. Given how thought arises out of this crazy-quilt of stored desires, long-forgotten slights, gut feelings, and dimly perceived or purely unconscious motivations, it would be surprising if this were not the case.

The same biases also inform our meta-cognition—how we feel about our thoughts. I think we all recognize that we cannot volitionally will the feeling of “Eureka!” Rather, the a-ha feeling happens to us. At the most basic level, I suspect that such feelings of utter conviction are mental sensations that arise out of unconscious calculations as to the likelihood that a thought is correct.

The common ground between motivated reasoning and the “feeling of knowing” that a thought is correct is their origination in inherently biased subliminal mental activity.

As an aside, neurophysiologist Ben Libet once told me that we can’t control the origin of thoughts, but we do retain the veto power over whether or not to act on them. In other words, we can’t control bias, but we can exert conscious control over how we act on this bias.

Owing to the fallibility of belief, you recommend that we should use ‘I believe’ every time we’re tempted to say ‘I know’. Have you tried it and how has it gone?

It works on several levels. In a series of book talks, I’ve peppered my comments with “I don’t know.” So far, so good. When someone in the audience has voiced a hard-headed opinion, the others have smirked and even hissed; it’s as though once you’ve adopted the conversational rhythm of doubt, expressions of certainty are suddenly obvious and jarring.

There is also the very self-serving bonus of playing the fool. As you are no longer committed to defending your position, a simple shrug is enough to deflect the most nonsensical or irrational questions. At the same time, there’s a peculiar calm, both in yourself and the audience, as though we’re all sharing the normally unmentionable secret that we don’t really know anything with certainty. I suspect that any downside of appearing less than fully knowledgeable is offset by the upside of others being relieved of a similar burden. Perhaps it’s nothing more than “misery loves company,” but constantly uttering disclaimers of not knowing seems to elicit an almost palpable sense of relief.

Name three under-rated things.

The beauty of silence.
During last week’s power outage I was stunned by the lovely sense of space that rises up only in the absence of background electrical hum.

Older women and wrinkles.
I prefer history to re-invention, so please don’t push the botox delete button.

Kid speak.
During a recent fireworks show, a four-year-old girl pointed to a brilliant multi-colored pinwheel and said, “Loud flower.” Now that’s real language.

1 thought on “Five minutes with Robert Burton”

  1. This will certainly land on my “to read” list since this addresses exactly the issue I find myself constantly thinking about: Why do humans believe. Not in gods and demons, ghost and spirits, but why do they do this action? Why is it so important to them? Why does is lead them to the greatest heights and the lowest lows?
    Unlike this gentleman, though, I actually have made a conscientious effort to eliminate “I believe” from my vocabulary on a daily basis, and it is difficult. We use that phrase for a lot of things, but primarily we use it to really mean “I think” or “My opinion is”.
    My own description of belief is that it is nothing more than an opinion with conviction behind it.
    In day to day conversation, also, I do wonder how often we preface any sentence with “I know”? We most often use it at a confirmation in “Yes, I know.” More often, we use “We know that” or “Here’s what we know” which seems like a subtle way of saying “This information is out there and we all have seen it, therefore it is known reality.”
    Thank for posting this book up. I will be interested in what he has to say about my current favorite thought obsession.

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