The Belief Instinct
by Jesse Bering. W.W. Norton, 2010
Why do so many people believe in God? Evolutionary psychologist and Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering has a novel answer to this tired question. In The Belief Instinct, he
explains that although the evolution of language was beneficial—allowing us to communicate easily and disseminate important information—it also brought with it a deeply troubling problem for early humans. Language allowed onlookers to report on someone else’s behavior long after the event had occurred. This meant that if you were caught doing something objectionable, such as stealing, you had “foolishly gambled away” your reputation and consequently your reproductive prospects. Thus, believing in a supernatural being who monitored and judged anyone at all times encouraged people to avoid acting on their immoral impulses, helping them survive, Bering says.
Gossiping, however, was not the only trait that prompted humans to believe in God. Bering argues that our ability to think about what others think, known as “theory of mind,” also played an important role. He writes that our “overzealous” theory of mind motivates us to get “into God’s head” and look for hidden meaning or messages embedded in any event, such as if your alarm clock fails to go off or a hurricane oods your basement. In fact, without this cognitive bias, “much of religion as we know it would never have gotten off the ground,” Bering asserts.
While building his case, Bering tells us about intriguing research, including studies that explored whether chimpanzees have a theory of mind (a definite answer remains elusive) and whether older children are more likely to be superstitious (surprisingly, Bering’s work
shows that children six to seven years old see hidden messages in events for which those three to four years old find only rational explanations).
The book’s sharp humor is refreshing and entertaining, but one of its greatest strengths is its clarity. Bering does not use jargon or tiptoe around what he thinks. Of course, we may never know whether his theory is correct, but it certainly injects a breath of fresh air into what seems to have become a stale discussion. —Nicole Branan
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer. Penguin Press, 2011
When Joshua Foer showed up at the U.S. Memory Championships in 2005, he thought
he was going to write a quirky story about some brainy oddballs with impressive memories. He didn’t suspect that this venture would introduce him to the complexities of mnemonic devices, teach him some ancient history and lead him to uncover his own mental prowess. He returned the following year as a top contender.
While researching Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer learned that becoming a grand master of memory requires accomplishing several seemingly impossible objectives. You have to remember the order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in less than an hour, 1,000 digits in the same amount of time, and one shuf ed deck in less than two minutes. The winner takes home a trophy and a ticket to the World Memory Championships in London.
Foer knew he had an average, even slipshod, memory—one that could retain about seven items in the short term. Somehow, though, he learned how to jam his brain with more random information than he ever thought possible.
He was able to beef up his memory by learning mnemonic techniques. These methods, first employed by a Greek poet in the fifth century B.C. and later by artists and intellectuals from Cicero to Mark Twain, are based on a concept called elaborative encoding, which posits that the more meaningful something is, the easier it is to remember. Our brains are ill equipped to remember symbols, such asnumbers and playing cards. But by translating
dull sets of digits into vivid (even lewd) images, it is possible to remember large amounts of information. For example, when Foer wanted to remember “email Sophia,” he conjured up an image of Sophia Loren sitting on the lap of a “shemale” who was typing on a computer in the den in his childhood home.
This memorization process engages areas of the brain involved in spatial navigation
and visual recognition, including the right posterior hippocampus. In ancient Rome, these mnemonic techniques were considered so routine that they did not merit elaboration, but by the 20th century they had nearly vanished, until the World Memory Championships
began in 1991.
Foer’s history of memory is rich with information about the nature of memory and how it makes us who we are. Now that he has committed the story to paper, perhaps there is far less chance we will forget how to remember. —Frank Bures
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010 ($27)
Most of us understand what it is like to have an emotional connection with a cherished possession. How about that ratty rabbit you’ve owned since you were three? The sentimental value attached to this stuffed pet makes even the thought of parting with it painful. But imagine you felt as strongly about every single item in your room, including the magazines from two decades ago and the clothes that no longer fit. Hoarders form intense attachments to even their most trivial possessions—everything seems worth keeping.
In the riveting new read Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, Randy O. Frost, a Smith College psychologist, and Gail Steketee, dean of the Boston University School of Social Work, reveal the world of hoarding disorders. The homes of hardcore hoarders, who represent up to 5 percent of the population, are more trash dumps than living spaces. It is only possible to navigate their interiors using “goat paths,” narrow trails that wind through the mounds of books, old food, clothes, trinkets and containers.
Frost and Steketee explore why hoarders find their compulsive behaviors so pleasurable (hoarding may activate the same reward centers in the brain as addictive drugs such as cocaine do), where the compulsion to hoard originates (at least one study suggests the
impulses are imprinted in our genes), and how hoarders live.
To illustrate this pathology, the authors describe several case studies. Meet Pamela, a lmmaker who kept more than 200 cats, until her neighbors and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals intervened. And Daniel, a 50-yearold man who scavenged so many objects from the streets of Manhattan cockroaches stained the walls of his apartment brown with their dung.
The authors argue that hoarders see potential and value in objects most of us do not. In fact, hoarders have exceptional powers of observation and attention to detail that far surpass the average Joe. They notice every hue on the cover of a magazine, every crack
in a vase. “When I am trying to decide what to keep, this outdated coupon seems as important as my grandmother’s picture,” says Irene, a librarian whose disorder led to divorce.
Stuff also demonstrates that hoarding disorders can be treated. Over a period of 18 months the authors worked with Irene to change the thoughts and behaviors responsible for the disarray of her home. They helped Irene create an efficient ling system for all her belongings and taught her to remove or hide objects before she could develop superfluous attachments. Eventually Irene and her family began to live in a home that was virtually clutter-free—a kind of freedom they had not known for years.