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Blow Out Sale on Skeptic VHS Lecture Tapes

Skeptic is holding a blow out sale on all of our lecture series at Caltech VHS tapes, now reduced to $7.99 each, discounted from the regular price of $19.95, as long as supplies last. Order lecture recordings of your favorite scientists and skeptics, including: James Randi, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Carol Tavris, Philip Zimbardo, Michael Shermer, Jared Diamond, Nancy Segal, Frank Sulloway, Victor Stenger, Susan Blackmore, Jack Horner, Robert Zubrin, Donald Prothero, John McWhorter, Timothy Ferris, Peter Ward, Robert Kirshner, Christof Koch, David Brin, Edward Tufte, Michio Kaku, Bill Nye (the science guy), and dozens more. Our lecture series is a veritable Who’s Who in science, and now you can see their lectures first hand on VHS tape. These tapes are being discontinued as all lectures will now be available only on DVD, CDs, and audio cassettes.

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geology tour reminder …

Oceanview Mine in Pala, California

Sunday, December 2, 2007

tourmaline crystal

Tourmaline from the famous mines of Pala, California

The geology tour is filling up fast! The Oceanview Mine in the Pala mining district of northern San Diego County is the last operating mine from a region that once had 73 mines, producing beautiful tourmalines (some with “watermelon” colors of green and pink), lavender lepidolite mica, plus beautiful crystals of quartz, morganite, beryl, kunzite, garnet, spodumene, and many other rare gems. You get to screen as many buckets of fresh material from the mine as you like and keep any gems you find!

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In this week’s eSkeptic, David Ludden reviews by Cordelia Fine’s book entitled A Mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (W.W. Norton, 2006, ISBN 0393062139). David Ludden is an associate professor of psychology at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, where he teaches courses in cognitive, physiological and evolutionary psychology.

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The Matrix of the Brain

a book review by David Ludden

In the 1999 science-fantasy film The Matrix, people have been plugged into a giant computer that creates a virtual reality that is both pleasing and plausible. A few renegade humans have unplugged themselves from the Matrix, only to wake up to a miserable underground existence below a war-scorched Earth. In a similar fashion, our brains generate a comforting version of reality that protects us from the desolation and despair of the real world.

We implicitly trust the products of our brains — our perceptions, our memories, our judgments, our sense of self. We say, “I know what I saw,” and we ask, “How could I forget?” After all, if you cannot trust your own brain, who can you trust? But all is not as it seems. More than half a century of cognitive and social psychology research has shown that much of what we see, remember, and think is an illusion. In her new book A Mind of its Own, Cordelia Fine lays out in a highly entertaining fashion the myriad ways in which our vain, immoral, pig-headed brains are constantly deceiving us.

Although we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, our brains covertly strive to create for us a view of the world and of ourselves that is self serving but not necessarily consistent with reality. Beliefs and opinions are formed quickly and become part of how we define ourselves, so the brain selectively perceives and recalls evidence that supports cherished beliefs while disregarding or forgetting evidence that contradicts our beliefs. Fine calls this “motivated skepticism.” We are naturally skeptical of anything that challenges our beliefs, but accepting of anything that bolsters our beliefs, and hence our egos. For example, it is for us easy to mock the tenets of other religions — “How could they possibly believe that?” — while swallowing whole the equally far-fetched teachings of our own church.

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Motivated skepticism can even lead to belief polarization, a process whereby counterevidence only strengthens the convictions of our beliefs. The counterevidence is strenuously scrutinized for any weakness, which is then used to diminish the validity of evidence for our opponent’s point of view. Our selective perceptions are further bolstered by illusory correlations. These are caused largely by selective memory, in which we remember only supporting examples but not counterexamples. For instance, if you already believe the stereotype that all Asians are shy, you will only recall experiences that support this stereotype. When confronted with an assertive Asian, the reaction is likely to be: “Yes, but she grew up in America.” In such a fashion, counterexamples are simply dismissed as aberrations.

Our brains also trick us into believing we have more control over situations than we really do. We blow on dice and perform other rituals to influence events. We also feel safer driving than flying because we think we are in control behind the steering wheel. This is especially true when things turn out in our favor. For instance, we take the credit for picking a winning lottery ticket, but blame a losing ticket on bad luck. It would seem that going through life deluded by our own brains would not be a good thing, but that is not necessarily the case. Some people have markedly more balanced self-perceptions than normal people — they know clearly what their limitations are and how little control they actually have over their lives. They are also clinically depressed, and seeing reality for what it is, they become overwhelmed and lose the desire to go on living. So it seems that our brains delude us to keep us happy, healthy and ready to face life’s challenges. In fact, people who are generally optimistic tend to live longer.

Emotional arousal also plays an important role in cognitive functions. Brain damage can create a mismatch between emotion and rational thought. People who cannot experience arousal during the decision making process, for example, become incapable of making decisions or consistently make poor choices. It seems that the gut feeling we get when faced with a choice is more important than any rational decision-making process.

The experience of emotion is also integral to our sense of self. In a condition known as Capgras syndrome, patients no longer feel any sort of arousal in the presence of family members, and so they become convinced that their loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Others lose the ability to feel emotion altogether; they also feel detached from themselves and lose all interest in life. Even healthy individuals experience this depersonalization sometimes, particularly during traumatic experiences. Afterward, people report a feeling of detachment from the events around them and even from themselves. This seems to be a coping mechanism of the brain to keep it from becoming overwhelmed.

By three quarters of the way through the book, the reader is yearning for a return to blissful ignorance, as there seems to be no escape from what Fine calls “our innate lack of scientific rigor.” But still there is hope. Fine advises that we “[t]reat with the greatest suspicion the proof of [our] own eyes.” In other words, we need to trust in the scientific method to lead us out of the tangle of deceptions our brains weave around us. As with any other behavior, modes of thinking can be practiced until they become automatic, and so Fine is hopeful that practice in critical thinking can help guard us from the extravagances of our own brains.

One of the strongest points of this book is the way Fine deftly describes how research is done in psychology. She does not just tell what is known about how the brain deceives, she explains how we know it. In friendly terms, she presents hypotheses to test, clearly describes how experiments are set up, and shows us how reasonable conclusions are drawn from the data. Thus, she demonstrates how the scientific method can be used to overcome our false beliefs and misconceptions.

Life is pleasant inside the virtual reality of our minds. So what if we think we are more intelligent or virtuous than others and believe we are more in control than we really are? Such minor self-deceptions are, for the most part, harmless, and they may help us to get through the day. But we are not necessarily prisoners of our minds. When the deceptions become harmful to ourselves and others, there is a way out. Science gives us a way to unplug ourselves from the Matrix of our brains.

Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine

Stephen L. Gibson, author of A Secret of the Universe

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A Secret of the Universe

Many Skeptic readers are all too aware of The Secret, a slick repackaging of the principles of New Thought and Unity Christianity.

This week, Skepticality tackles an altogether different secret. Derek & Swoopy talk with author and podcaster Stephen L. Gibson about his own new book, A Secret of the Universe. A far cry from most books that offer up a secret message, A Secret of the Universe is a work of dramatic allegory about how we come to form knowledge about the Big Questions: God, sexual ethics, morals, political ideology — and how those beliefs affect our actions, our lives, and the world around us.

Then Derek gets an update from Jeff Wagg, General Manager of the James Randi Educational Foundation, about a recently administered Million Dollar Challenge in which Jeff himself became a test subject…

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Dinesh D’souza and Michael Shermer

lecture reminder …

The Great Debate

Dinesh D’Souza v. Michael Shermer

Sunday, December 9th, 2pm
Beckman Auditorium (download the campus map)

In this debate on what are arguably two of the most important questions in the culture wars today — Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil? and Can you be Good without God? — the conservative Christian author and cultural scholar Dinesh D’Souza and the libertarian skeptic writer and social scientist Michael Shermer, square off to resolve these and related issues …

READ more about this lecture >

Important ticket information

Tickets are first come first served at the door. Sorry, no advance ticket sales for this lecture. Seating is limited. Notice to our regular lecture goers: we have raised our prices for the first time in 15 years. $8 Skeptics Society members & Caltech/JPL Community; $10 General Public.

Correction to last week’s eSkeptic …
Answering Public Questions on UFOs and Aliens

This is a correction to the short introduction and photo caption for David Morrison’s essay in last week’s eSkeptic. Not “all” amateur astronomers saw the rise in brightness of Comet Holmes, of course, but the point was that enough did to show that there are lots of people scanning the skies each night. Dr. Morrison’s job at NASA includes answering questions about astrobiology sent to “Ask an Astrobiologist.” Although he has encountered questions about UFOs in his career (which is why he wrote this commentary), this is not a part of his duties at NASA.

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