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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 363-364 ( 7 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/glantz.html

Book Review

Pathologies Of Belief 
edited by Max Coltheart & Martin Davies
Blackwell Publishers 
Oxford, 2000

Reviewed by Kalman Glantz.

It really isn’t fair to judge a book by what it isn’t, so my disappointment with this edited volume probably isn’t relevant. Nevertheless, it might important to potential readers to know what the book is not, as well as what it is. When I saw the title, I thought that the book was going to deal with cultural beliefs-the beliefs of normal people. I wanted to know how it is that various peoples come to believe in such things as a world of spirits, a pantheon of gods, a Marxist version of history, a Nazi conception of race, etc.-when these beliefs fly in the face of all the available evidence. That isn’t what the book is about.

The book is, rather, about pathologies of individual belief-the beliefs of the mentally ill and the brain-damaged. The authors provide analyses of the “bizarrely-false hypotheses” that are entertained by people with schizophrenia or brain injuries. These beliefs are fascinating. There is for example the Capgras Delusion; people with this condition believe that one or more of their loved ones are impostors. There is the Cotard Delusion; people with this condition believe they are dead. People with the Fregoli Delusion believe that they keep seeing one of their friends or relatives wherever they go, or that they are being followed by someone they know who is in disguise. And of course there are the more familiar delusions of schizophrenics, who may believe that someone is controlling their actions or inserting thoughts into their heads.

The eight articles in this compendium struggle to understand how these kinds of delusions are possible. One major question is this: Is a delusion a rational conclusion based on a false perceptual experience? In other words, does it make sense in light of the individual’s experience? Or does it reveal a problem with the reasoning faculty?

The evidence indicates that both the perceptual and the reasoning faculty can play a role. Many patients are deluded about one specific topic, but seem to reason well on other topics. Brain-injury clearly alters perception; an injury to one side of the brain can make the visual field on the other side simply disappear. On the other hand, schizophrenics can’t seem to make any sense out of their experiences. But their experiences also tend to be bizarre. It’s a murky area but the authors shed some light.

Unfortunately, none of the authors seem even remotely familiar with evolutionary psychology. For example, in their introduction, the editors naively speculate as follows: “If the reasoning system were to be made up of many components, then it might be that impairment to, or abolition of, one component would have … [serious consequences].” This is astonishing. They feel no compulsion to mention Darwinian algorithms or the modular structure of the brain. Similarly, there is no discussion of origins: How or when did belief arise? How or when did pathologies of belief arise?

There are lots of unexplored possibilities. One of the theories of pathological belief has to do with the “misidentification of imagination.” Some people, it is theorized, have no mechanism to differentiate between what they imagine and what is real. Since an increase in the ability to imagine was obviously one of the great gifts of the expansion of the brain, here was an opportunity for a fruitful discussion of evolutionary significance. None was forthcoming. Nor is there much functional analysis. At one point, they bring up the possibility that persecutory delusions “may have the function of protecting the individual against feelings of low self-esteem.” But this is in a quote from a passage in another work.

Despite its lack of an evolutionary perspective, the book has some value for specialists interested in the pathologies of individual belief. The classification of the varieties of delusions and of the regularities underlying bizarre beliefs are useful. The book makes it clear that many many mental modules have to be working properly in order for individuals to create a model of their environment that is consistent both with their perceptions AND with the view of reality that prevails in their society. Any impairment in any of those systems can produce bizarre belief. The complexity of the cognitive system helps to explain why mass psychoses-like the belief that evolution can be ignored by social and behavioral scientists-can spread and persist through time and space.

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© Kalman Glantz.


Glantz, K. (2002). Review of Pathologies of Belief edited by Max Coltheart and Martin Davies. Human Nature Review. 2: 363-364.

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