Dr. Robert Burton On Being Certain


In our recent podcast episode, we shared our in-depth interview with neurologist and author, Dr. Robert Burton. We reached out to Dr. Burton after reading an article he wrote for Aeon Digital Magazine titled, Our World Outsmarts Us. The article showcased Dr. Burton’s intellectual curiosity and humility as he addressed the idea that our human brains are perhaps more limited than we have assumed. He argued that our social problems have become immensely complex and that many of our current challenges result “in part from a basic lack of ability to sense how the present world works”. His assessment on our mental limitations originally stem from his book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, in which he explored the paradoxical relationship between our thoughts and what we actually know. Dr. Burton has researched the concept of certainty with the use of medical data, experiments and personal stories. His lifelong research has led him to question many present-day assumptions about the human mind, but his discoveries on the feeling of certainty are especially fascinating. He has described certainty as a mental sensation which happens to us and has claimed we cannot make it happen.

Just consider anytime you have had an “ah-ha” moment, do you believe you made it happen? Or did that ah-ha come to you all of a sudden? This ah-ha feeling is in fact our brain’s reward system, which often occurs when something makes sense to us for the first time. Our brain rewards us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns.

Dr. Burton explains that this mental sensation is the feeling of certainty and it occurs even if we complete a pattern with inaccuracy, so our brain’s pattern-recognition reward system activates even if we are wrong, because we have completed the task, to understand and to create meaning. We need this reward system to drive us to make meaning of the world around us, but it is this same reward system that causes us to feel certain about our understanding of the world. Dr. Burton’s research on our pattern-recognition system has identified an important limitation in our cognitive abilities and it is our recognition and appreciation for this very human limitation that is severely needed in society.  

As humans, we somehow have to resist our biological urge to feel certain and embrace the very uncomfortable notion of uncertainty in order to navigate the complexity of the world around us. Understanding our own biology is a good place to start, although even then we become trapped in a paradox while on our path to self discovery. As Dr. Burton has concisely stated, “our mental limitations prevent us from recognizing our mental limitations”.    

So where does this leave us?

The best defense against combative ideologies isn’t more facts, but an admission of the limits to our knowledge.
— Dr. Robert Burton

The idea presented in Dr. Burton's Aeon article was that we need more tolerance, compassion, and humility, rather than more facts or science to address our societal issues. (To be clear, Dr. Burton has not downplayed the importance of facts and science, but rather has emphasized the importance of humility as a starting point. ) It is a profound idea coming from anyone, but especially a neuroscientist who has specialized in researching the limitations of the human mind.  Dr. Burton suggested that by admitting our limitations in the face of immense complexity, we could avoid counterproductive, and often unintended, consequences that arise out of arrogance and a certainty mindset. He believes that tolerance and humility are needed more than ever to begin the tough conversations our society needs to propel forward. 

There is much irony in the idea that in order to navigate our biological constraints we need to activate the very characteristics that make us the most human. But, maybe it isn’t irony, maybe it’s just the undeniable fact that we cannot escape our own humanity, and maybe that’s not so bad after all.

The end point of rationality is to demonstrate the limits of rationality.
— Blaise Pascal

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Be sure to check out our recent interview with Dr. Robert Burton!

Comment