On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not / Edition 1

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"On Being Certain challenges our understanding of the very nature of thought and provokes readers to ask what Burton calls “the most basic of questions”: How do we know what we know?”—Scientific American Mind

“In his brilliant new book, Burton systematically and convincingly shows that certainty is a mental state, a feeling like anger or pride that can help guide us, but that doesn't dependably reflect objective truth… In the polarizing atmosphere of the 2008 election, On Being Certain ought to be required reading for every candidate — and for every citizen.”—ForbesLife

“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

Seed Magazine
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."
The day after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, a psychology professor names Ulric Neisser had his students write precisely where they'd been when they heard about the explosion. Two and a half years later, he asked them for the same information. While fewer than one in ten got the details right, almost all were certain that their memories were accurate, and many couldn't be dissuaded even after seeing their original notes. For neurologist Robert A. Burton, the Challenger study is emblematic of an essential quality of the human mind and evocative of the psychology underlying everything from nationalism to fundamentalism. In his brilliant new book, Bur-ton systematically shows that certainty is a mental state, a feeling like anger or pride that can help guide us, but that doesn't dependably reflect object truth. Evidence for Burrton's fascinating insight is everywhere around us, and On Being Certain expertly weaves together studies from Science and The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as the front page of The New York Times, to consider the myriad ways in which the brain constructs a useful worldview-often by manipulating details for the sake of consistency-and sometimes, as in the case of schizophrenia, takes untenable liberties. Faces with inherent unreliability of the human mind, a lesser author might become cynical. Burton, however, is able to appreciate the cultural of unjustified certainty, which fuels the impulsive creativity of scientists and artists alike. Equally important, he argues that :if science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance an increased willingness to consideralternative ideas." In the polarizing atmosphere of the 2008 election. On Being Certain ought to be required reading for every candidate-and for every citizen.—Jonathon Keats
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312359201
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/5/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.15 (w) x 8.13 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

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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Read an Excerpt

On Being Certain


The Feeling of Knowing

I AM STUCK IN AN OBLIGATORY NEIGHBORHOOD COCKTAIL party during the first week of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A middle-aged, pin-striped lawyer announces that he'd love to be in the front lines when the troops reach Baghdad. "Door-to-door fighting," he says, puffing up his chest. He says he's certain he could shoot an Iraqi soldier, although he's never been in a conflict bigger than a schoolyard brawl.

"I don't know," I say. "I'd have trouble shooting some young kid who was being forced to fight."

"Not me. We're down to dog-eat-dog."

He nods at his frowning wife, who's anti-invasion. "All's fair in love and war." Then back to me. "You're not one of those peacenik softies, are you?"

"It wouldn't bother you to kill someone?"

"Not a bit."

"You're sure?"


He's a neighbor and I can't escape. So I tell him one of my father's favorite self-mocking stories.

During the 1930s and '40s, my father had a pharmacy in one of the tougher areas of San Francisco. He kept a small revolver hidden beneath the back cash register. One night, a man approached, pulled out a knife, and demanded all the money in the register. My father reached under the counter, grabbed his gun, and aimed it at the robber.

"Drop it," the robber said, his knife at my father's throat. "You're not going to shoot me, but I will kill you."

For a moment it was a Hollywood standoff, mano a mano. Then my father put down his gun, emptied out the register, and handed over the money.

"What's your point?" the lawyer asks. "Your father should have shot him."

"Just the obvious," I say. "You don't always know what you're going to do until you're in the moment."

"Sure you do. I know with absolute certainty that I'd shoot anyone who was threatening me."

"No chance of any hesitation?"

"None at all. I know myself. I know what I would do. End of discussion."


MY MIND REELS with seemingly impossible questions. What kind of knowledge is "I know myself and what I would do"? Is it a conscious decision based upon deep self-contemplation or is it a "gut feeling"? But what is a gut feeling—an unconscious decision, a mood or emotion, an ill-defined but clearly recognizable mental state, or a combination of all these ingredients? If we are tounderstand how we know what we know, we first need some ground rules, including a general classification of mental states that create our sense of knowledge about our knowledge.

For simplicity, I have chosen to lump together the closely allied feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction, and correctness under the all-inclusive term, the feeling of knowing. Whether or not these are separate sensations or merely shades or degrees of a common feeling isn't important. What they do share is a common quality: Each is a form of metaknowledge—knowledge about our knowledge—that qualifies or colors our thoughts, imbuing them with a sense of rightness or wrongness. When focusing on the phenomenology (how these sensations feel), I've chosen to use the term the feeling of knowing (in italics). However, when talking about the underlying science, I'll use knowing (in italics). Later I will expand this category to include feelings of familiarity and realness—qualities that enhance our sense of correctness.


EVERYONE IS FAMILIAR with the most commonly recognized feeling of knowing. When asked a question, you feel strongly that you know an answer that you cannot immediately recall. Psychologists refer to this hard-to-describe but easily recognizable feeling as a tip-of-the-tongue sensation. The frequent accompanying comment as you scan your mental Rolodex for the forgotten name or phone number: "I know it, but I just can't think of it." In this example, you are aware of knowing something, without knowing what this sense of knowing refers to.

Anyone who's been frustrated with a difficult math problem has appreciated the delicious moment of relief when an incomprehensible equation suddenly makes sense. We "see the light." This aha is a notification from a subterranean portion of ourmind, an involuntary all-clear signal that we have grasped the heart of a problem. It isn't just that we can solve the problem; we also "know" that we understand it.

Most feelings of knowing are far less dramatic. We don't ordinarily sense them as spontaneous emotions or moods like love or happiness; rather they feel like thoughts—elements of a correct line of reasoning. We learn to add 2 + 2. Our teacher tells us that 4 is the correct answer. Yes, we hear a portion of our mind say. Something within us tells us that we "know" that our answer is correct. At this simplest level of understanding, there are two components to our understanding—the knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4, and the judgment or assessment of this understanding. We know that our understanding that 2 + 2 = 4 is itself correct.

The feeling of knowing is also commonly recognized by its absence. Most of us are all too familiar with the frustration of being able to operate a computer without having any "sense" of how the computer really works. Or learning physics despite having no "feeling" for the rightness of what you've learned. I can fix a frayed electrical cord, yet am puzzled by the very essence of electricity. I can pick up iron filings with a magnet without having the slightest sense of what magnetism "is."

At a deeper level, most of us have agonized over those sickening "crises of faith" when firmly held personal beliefs are suddenly stripped of a visceral sense of correctness, rightness, or meaning. Our most considered beliefs suddenly don't "feel right." Similarly, most of us have been shocked to hear that a close friend or relative has died unexpectedly, and yet we "feel" that he is still alive. Such upsetting news often takes time to "sink in." This disbelief associated with hearing about a death is an example of the sometimes complete disassociation between intellectual and felt knowledge.

To begin our discussion of the feeling of knowing, read the following excerpt at normal speed. Don't skim, give up halfway through, or skip to the explanation. Because this experience can't be duplicated once you know the explanation, take a moment to ask yourself how you feel about the paragraph. After reading the clarifying word, reread the paragraph. As you do so, please pay close attention to the shifts in your mental state and your feeling about the paragraph.

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite. As you reread the paragraph, feel the prior discomfort of something amiss shifting to a pleasing sense of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. Reread the paragraph again; it is impossible to regain the sense of not understanding. In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infused with a feeling of knowing.

Try to imagine other interpretations for the paragraph. SupposeI tell you that this is a collaborative poem written by a third-grade class, or a collage of strung-together fortune cookie quotes. Your mind balks. The presence of this feeling of knowing makes contemplating alternatives physically difficult.

Each of us probably read the paragraph somewhat differently, but certain features seem universal. After seeing the word kite, we quickly go back and reread the paragraph, testing the sentences against this new piece of information. At some point, we are convinced. But when and how?

The kite paragraph raises several questions central to our understanding of how we "know" something. Though each will be discussed at greater length in subsequent chapters, here's a sneak preview.


• Did you consciously "decide" that kite was the correct explanation for the paragraph, or did this decision occur involuntarily, outside of conscious awareness?


• What brain mechanism(s) created the shift from not knowing to knowing?


• When did this shift take place? (Did you know that the explanation was correct before, during, or after you reread the paragraph?)


• After rereading the paragraph, are you able to consciously separate out the feeling of knowing that kite is the correct answer from a reasoned understanding that the answer is correct?


• Are you sure that kite is the correct answer? If so, how do you know?

ON BEING CERTAIN. Copyright © 2008 by Robert A. Burton, M.D. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Table of Contents

Preface     ix
The Feeling of Knowing     1
How Do We Know What We Know?     7
Conviction Isn't a Choice     21
The Classification of Mental States     35
Neural Networks     41
Modularity and Emergence     55
When Does a Thought Begin?     66
Perceptual Thoughts: A Further Clarification     81
The Pleasure of Your Thoughts     86
Genes and Thought     102
Sensational Thoughts     124
The Twin Pillars of Certainty: Reason and Objectivity     140
Faith     177
Mind Speculations     198
Final Thoughts     216
Notes     225
Acknowledgments     243
Index     245
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    very profound and important

    This is a profound book, possibly very important to understanding many different mental processes. The author posits a partly emotional and partly innate sense of certainty, the belief that one knows something to be certain, as a feature of brain function. He argues that immediate certainty is certainly a beneficial adaptation to uncertain environments, but its existence ought to make one cautious about feelings of absolute conviction.

    The message at the heart of this book is that the feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction, and certainty aren't deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.

    Although not restricted to a single area of the brain or a single definitive physiology, the most striking shared characteristic of these delusional misidentification syndromes is that the conflict between logic and a contrary feeling of knowing tends to be resolved in favor of feeling. Rather than rejecting ideas and beliefs that defy common sense and overwhelming contrary evidence, such patients end up using tortured logic to justify the more powerful sense of knowing what they know.

    Reason is not a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.1 (Italics mine.) Disembodied thought is not a physiological option. Neither is a purely rational mind free from bodily and mental sensations and perceptions. TO KNOW WHAT our minds are doing, we need some sensory system that monitors the sensation

    The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. To understand reason, we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding. Reason is not a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.1

    We know the nature and quality of our thoughts via feelings, not reason. Feelings such as certainty, conviction, rightness and wrongness, clarity, and faith arise out of involuntary mental sensory systems that are integral and inseparable components of the thoughts that they qualify

    Wittgenstein's famous aphorism: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

    We can, on the other hand, think rationally about the choices that other people make. We can do this because we do not know and are not trying to satisfy unconscious needs and childhood fantasies.

    Clarity is an involuntary mental sensation, not an objective determination.

    Whether an idea originates in a feeling of faith or appears to be the result of pure reason, it arises out of a personal hidden layer that we can neither see nor control.

    In The Crack-Up, F Scott Fitzgerald described an easy-to-accept but difficult-to-accomplish solution: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2008

    I'll Never be Certain Again

    Light, enjoyable, and to the point, Burton illustrates that the human brain is a wonderful, but not 100% reliable, biological device. From now forward, I'll re-examine every 'positive' thought 'before' speaking.

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