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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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