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

Where does our “Feel­ing of Know­ing” come from? Have you ever felt cer­tain that you knew an answer even though you could­n’t think of it right off? Where does that “feel­ing of know­ing” come from? The answer to this ques­tion is the focus of neu­rol­o­gist Robert Bur­ton’s new book On Being Cer­tain: Believ­ing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.

I recent­ly reviewed Dr. Bur­ton’s book on the Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast and last week I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­view him for the show. He explained that one of the ori­gins for his book was his expe­ri­ence with patients with con­di­tions like Cotard’s syn­drome (where the patient thinks he is dead or does not exist). What Dr. Bur­ton calls the “feel­ing of know­ing” is so strong that peo­ple con­sis­tent­ly trust it even when their beliefs con­tra­dict the evi­dence. At first it might seem sur­pris­ing that this feel­ing is gen­er­at­ed at an uncon­scious lev­el in our brain, yet the same sort of pro­cess­ing cre­ates the world we see and hear. It is well-known that what we see is not what enters our eyes, but rather a high­ly processed sig­nal that is actu­al­ly part­ly deter­mined by our expec­ta­tions. We can’t real­ly con­trol what we see, and sim­i­lar­ly we do not have any con­scious access to, or con­trol over, the “feel­ing of know­ing.” Keep that in mind then next time you can’t con­vince a friend to change their opin­ion.

One impli­ca­tion of this idea is that it argues for try­ing to be more tol­er­ant of those whose beliefs are dif­fer­ent from our own. How­ev­er, it also has an impor­tant impli­ca­tion for brain health. Recent­ly it is has become quite pop­u­lar to tout pro­grams that claim to improve one’s intu­ition or abil­i­ty to access gut feel­ings. While it might be true that one can learn to become more aware of the emo­tion­al sig­nals com­ing from one’s body, Dr. Bur­ton argues that “gut feel­ings” or intu­ition should not be assumed to be true with­out test­ing.

This is dif­fi­cult to accept because the emo­tion­al weight of the “feel­ing of know­ing” tends to out­weigh our attempts at log­i­cal rea­son­ing. How­ev­er by becom­ing aware that our intu­itions and hunch­es are gen­er­at­ed by the brain, we can also learn to sub­ject them to the same scruti­ny that we apply to opti­cal illu­sions. We can’t con­trol the “feel­ing of know­ing,” but we can become aware of how it effects our behav­iors and deci­sions.


- Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast #42: Dr. Camp­bell dis­cuss­es On Being Cer­tain: Believ­ing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by Robert Bur­ton.

- Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast #43: Inter­view with Dr. Robert A Bur­ton. (Note: a com­plete tran­script of this inter­view is now avail­able.)

- Robert Bur­ton’s new book: On Being Cer­tain: Believ­ing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.

Gin­ger Camp­bell, MD grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma School of Med­i­cine. She also has a Mas­ter’s Degree in Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing and spent sev­er­al years teach­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma in Birm­ing­ham. Dr. Camp­bell has been prac­tic­ing emer­gency med­i­cine since 1992. She start­ed the Brain Sci­ence Pod­cast in 2006. Her goal is to help gen­er­al audi­ences under­stand how recent dis­cov­er­ies in neu­ro­science are unrav­el­ing the mys­ter­ies of how our brains make us who we are.

If inter­est­ed in the top­ic on intu­ition vs. log­ic, you may also enjoy this relat­ed essay:

- To Think or to Blink?, by Madeleine Van Hecke.

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4 Responses

  1. The feel­ing of being cer­tain was described by John Nash as the same whether it was his intu­itions about a the­o­rem or his schizo voic­es.

    Does Bur­ton’s book have an expla­na­tion of this?

  2. The focus of Dr. Bur­ton’s book is nor­mal peo­ple, but in his inter­view he men­tioned that he was inspired by patients with rare prob­lems like Cotard’s Syn­drome (where the per­son thinks they are dead or don’t exist). I sug­gest you write to him about the ques­tion of schiz­o­phre­nia.

    Gin­ger Camp­bell, MD

  3. Hi, Michael — Robert Bur­ton describes exact­ly this com­ment by Nash as one of his exam­ples (pages 38–39). His book as a whole attempts to explain where the feel­ing of cer­tain­ty comes from and to show that the degree of cer­tain­ty we feel isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly relat­ed to the accu­ra­cy of our beliefs — I think it’s a very stim­u­lat­ing book and rec­om­mend it as the first book I’m aware of to address our sense of cer­tain­ty from the view­point of neu­ro­science.

  4. Indeed, talk­ing about that gap between the “degree of cer­tain­ty we feel” and the “accu­ra­cy of our beliefs” is an excel­lent way to dis­cuss the work­ings of our minds-and brains. I think. Hmmm.

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