MIND Reviews Books: March/April 2011

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 shufed 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 article was originally published with the title "Books."

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