On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

Robert A. Burton

Language: English

Pages: 272

ISBN: 031254152X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


You recognize when you know something for certain, right? You "know" the sky is blue, or that the traffic light had turned green, or where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001--you know these things, well, because you just do.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton shows that feeling certain―feeling that we know something--- is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. An increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. In other words, the feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.

Bringing together cutting-edge neuroscience, experimental data, and fascinating anecdotes, Robert Burton explores the inconsistent and sometimes paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. Provocative and groundbreaking, On Being Certain challenges what we know (or think we know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason.

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sound of the bell reached areas of subcortical brain capable of triggering the fear response without the rat consciously hearing the bell. LeDoux was able to demonstrate the presence of neural pathways that bypass the auditory cortex, connecting directly with a tempo­ ral lobe structure—the amygdala—long known to be crucial to the recognizing, processing, and remembering of emotional reactions, including the fear response. From the amygdala these nerve fiber pathways continue to regions of the

brain isn't large enough to carry the information. There are no termite engineers, architects, or critics; all termites are low-level laborers operating without blueprints, or even a mind's eye notion of a termite mound. Yet the mound is built. Somehow the inter­ action of lower-level capabilities produces a higher-level activity. 3 The same process applies to the human brain. Each neuron is like a termite. It cannot contain a complete memory or hold an intelli­ gent discussion. There are no

hidden layer where they silently duke it out. If the fear of rejection is greater than missing the plane, the husband will quickly agree with his wife. His relief at not being criticized or laughed at might even block out his awareness of any underly­ ing anxiety over missing the flight. Though the gene played a major role in his decision making, it wouldn't be detectable. The problem that cannot be addressed is that if a gene creates counterbalancing desires and needs, it may not be seen in any

to experience the pure euphoria of a particular se­ quence of cards (the straight flush, for example). To provide this range of pleasures, the mesolimbic dopamine reward system is in­ timately linked to our entire emotional palette, including all of our feelings and mood states. At the top of this list and a neces­ sary prerequisite is the feeling of knowing. First we learn the strate­ gies, and then we can experience the joy of implementation. Ironically, it is this feeling state that others

A patient has a stroke that selectively destroys his occipital cortex—the portion of the brain that receives primary visual in­ puts. His retina still records incoming information, but his mal­ functioning visual cortex does not register the images sent from the retina. The result is that the patient consciously sees nothing. Now flash a light in various quadrants of his visual field. The pa­ tient reports that he sees nothing, yet he can fairly accurately lo­ calize the flashing light to the

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