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

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Macmillan, Feb 5, 2008 - Science - 256 pages
22 Reviews

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 challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But 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. 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, will challenge what you know (or think you know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason.

ROBERT BURTON, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaimed novels. He lives in Sausalito, California. Visit his website at http://www.rburton.com/

“What do we do when we recognize that a false certainty feels the same as certainty about the sky being blue? A lesser guide might get bogged down in nail-biting doubts about the limits of knowledge. Yet Burton not only makes clear the fascinating beauty of this tangled terrain, he also brings us out the other side with a clearer sense of how to navigate. It's a lovely piece of work; I'm all but certain you'll like it. “

--David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness; Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

“Burton has a great talent for combining wit and insight in a way both palatable and profound.”

--Johanna Shapiro PhD, professor of Family Medicine at UC Irvine School of Medicine

 “A new way of looking at knowledge that merits close reading by scientists and general readers alike.”

--Kirkus

 “This could be one of the most important books of the year. With so much riding on ‘certainty,’ and so little known about how people actually reach a state of certainty about anything, some plain speaking from a knowledgeable neuroscientist is called for. If Gladwell's Blink was fascinating but largely anecdotal, Burton's book drills down to the real science behind snap judgments and other decision-making.”

-- Howard Rheingold, futurist and author of Smart Mobs

“A fascinating read. Burton’s engaging prose takes us into the deepest corners of our subconscious, making us question our most solid contentions. Nobody who reads this book will walk away from it and say ‘I know this for sure’ ever again.”

--Sylvia Pagán Westphal, science reporter, The Wall Street Journal

“Burton provides a compelling and though-provoking case that we should be more skeptical about our beliefs. Along the way, he also provides a novel perspective on many lines of research that should be of interest to readers who are looking for a broad introduction to the cognitive sciences.”

--Seed Magazine

 

  

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

User Review  - Mindy - Goodreads

Overall, this was a well-researched book about a very interesting topic. I wish I liked it better, because I certainly was prepared to. However, I finally found myself skimming through it to just be finished. Read full review

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

User Review  - Steve - Goodreads

An intriguing and challenging book that will stay with me a long time, I think. The basic premise is that we are biologically incapable of "being certain." The being certain is actually a mental ... Read full review

Contents

1 The Feeling of Knowing
1
2 How Do We Know What We Know?
7
3 Conviction Isnt a Choice
21
4 The Classification of Mental States
35
5 Neural Networks
41
6 Modularity and Emergence
55
7 When Does a Thought Begin?
66
A Further Clarification
81
11 Sensational Thoughts
124
Reason and Objectivity
140
13 Faith
177
14 Mind Speculations
198
15 Final Thoughts
216
Notes
225
Acknowledgments
243
Index
245

9 The Pleasure of Your Thoughts
86
10 Genes and Thought
102

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About the author (2008)

ROBERT BURTON, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school, where he also completed his neurology residency. At age 33, he was appointed chief of the Division of Neurology at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital, where he subsequently became Associate Chief of the Department of Neurosciences. His non-neurology writing career includes three critically acclaimed novels. He lives in Sausalito, California.

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