On Being Certain Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

  • ISBN13:


  • ISBN10:


  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-03-17
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

Note: Supplemental materials are not guaranteed with Rental or Used book purchases.

Purchase Benefits

  • Free Shipping On Orders Over $35!
    Your order must be $35 or more to qualify for free economy shipping. Bulk sales, PO's, Marketplace items, eBooks and apparel do not qualify for this offer.
  • Get Rewarded for Ordering Your Textbooks! Enroll Now
List Price: $17.99 Save up to $14.27
  • Rent Book $5.40
    Add to Cart Free Shipping

    *This item is part of an exclusive publisher rental program and requires an additional convenience fee. This fee will be reflected in the shopping cart.

Supplemental Materials

What is included with this book?


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 shows that feeling certain'ā€¯feeling that we know something-- is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. 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. In other words, 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 challenges what we know (or think we know) about the mind, knowledge, and reason.

Author Biography

ROBERT BURTON, M.D. graduated from Yale University and University of California at San Francisco medical school. At age thirty-three, 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, CA. Visit his website at

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
The Feeling of Knowingp. 1
How Do We Know What We Know?p. 7
Conviction Isn't a Choicep. 21
The Classification of Mental Statesp. 35
Neural Networksp. 41
Modularity and Emergencep. 55
When Does a Thought Begin?p. 66
Perceptual Thoughts: A Further Clarificationp. 81
The Pleasure of Your Thoughtsp. 86
Genes and Thoughtp. 102
Sensational Thoughtsp. 124
The Twin Pillars of Certainty: Reason and Objectivityp. 140
Faithp. 177
Mind Speculationsp. 198
Final Thoughtsp. 216
Notesp. 225
Acknowledgmentsp. 243
Indexp. 245
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


On Being Certain
The Feeling of Knowing
IAM 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 Iwillkill 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 REELSwith 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, thefeeling 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 sensationsfeel), I've chosen to use the term thefeeling of knowing(in italics). However, when talking about the underlying science, I'll useknowing(in italics). Later I will expand this category to include feelings of familiarity and realness--qualities that enhance our sense of correctness.
EVERYONE IS FAMILIARwith the most commonly recognizedfeeling 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 suddenlymakes sense. We "see the light." Thisahais 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.
Mostfeelings of knowingare 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.
Thefeeling of knowingis 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 thefeeling 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 afeeling 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 thisfeeling of knowingmakes 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" thatkitewas 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 toknowing?
• 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 thefeeling of knowingthatkiteis the correct answer from a reasoned understanding that the answer is correct?
• Are you sure thatkiteis 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.

Rewards Program

Write a Review