The best books that challenge everything you know about the brain

Why am I passionate about this?

I am trained in physics but moved over to psychology and neuroscience partway through graduate school at Cornell University because I became fascinated with the stupefying complexity of brains. I found that a lot of the main ideas and approaches in these fields seemed flawed and limited—things like defining something to study such as “emotion” or “perception” without specifying what measurable quantities are necessary and sufficient to understand those things. Luckily, I was (and continue to be) mentored by independent thinkers like neuroanatomist Barbara Finlay and computational neuroscientist David Field, who instilled in me their spirit of free and deeply informed inquiry. Today, more and more brain researchers are rethinking established ideas.


I wrote...

An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works

By Daniel Graham,

Book cover of An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works

What is my book about?

Whether we realize it or not, we think of our brains as computers. In neuroscience, the metaphor of the brain as a computer has defined the field for much of the modern era. But as neuroscientists increasingly reevaluate their assumptions about how brains work, we need a new metaphor to help us ask better questions.

The computational neuroscientist Daniel Graham offers an innovative new paradigm for understanding the brain. He argues that the brain is not like a single computer—it is a communication system, like the internet. Both are networks whose power comes from their flexibility and reliability. An Internet in Your Head presents a clear-eyed and engaging tour of brain science as it stands today and where the new paradigm might take it next. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

Daniel Graham Why did I love this book?

Lisa Barrett is one of the most respected researchers in psychology today in part because she is unafraid to debunk the comforting misconceptions we have about our minds, and especially about our emotions. Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain dispels myths about emotion, and about our reptilian brain, among others. One of the most important lessons in the book is that your brain is not for thinking—it is primarily for myriad other processes of maintaining internal organs, blood oxygenation, energy consumption level, balance, and for performing a host of other tasks. But for Barrett, it’s not just about debunking. She has a compelling vision of how the brain actually does work. Not only does she have deep expertise in human behavior, brain anatomy, evolution, and neurochemistry, her vision of how our minds work is also described in energetic prose.

By Lisa Feldman Barrett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Highly accessible, content-rich and eminently readable . . . Fascinating and informative . . . popular science at its best.' - The Observer

'Subtly radical . . . It presents a revelatory model of consciousness that will be completely new to most readers' - The Guardian 'Best Reads For Summer'

Have you ever wondered why you have a brain? Let renowned neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, bestselling author of How Emotions Are Made, demystify that big grey blob between your ears . . .

In seven short chapters (plus a brief history of how brains evolved), this slim, entertaining, and accessible…


Book cover of The Brain from Inside Out

Daniel Graham Why did I love this book?

For most of the time that humans have studied the brain, the approach has been to go from the outside to the inside. That is, we probe the brain with “stimuli” from the outside—images, sounds, electric shocks, social scenarios—and see what happens inside. This has led to progress but we need more fundamental understanding about how brains work intrinsically. This is the “inside-out” neuroscience Buzsaki describes: it is about asking about the logic of the internal processes of the brain. Buzsaki is a highly respected researcher who has for decades probed and listened to neurons in the mouse hippocampus. This book, which is both accessible and entertaining, summarizes just a portion of his life’s work, and draws on a staggering amount of knowledge about brain physiology and evolution to paint an entirely new picture of how the brain works. Along the way, all kinds of popular misconceptions such as our “reactive” nature fall by the wayside and are replaced with new and exciting alternatives.

By Gyorgy Buzsaki,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Brain from Inside Out as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gyoergy Buzsaki's The Brain from Inside Out examines why the outside-in framework for understanding brain function have become stagnate and points to new directions for understanding neural function. Building upon the success of Rhythms of the Brain, Professor Buzsaki presents the brain as a foretelling device that interacts with its environment through action and the examination of action's consequence. Instead of a brain that
represents the world, consider that it is initially filled with nonsense patterns, all of which are gibberish until grounded by action-based interactions. By matching these nonsense "words" to the outcomes of action, they acquire meaning.

The…


Book cover of The Mind Is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain

Daniel Graham Why did I love this book?

Thanks to Freud, one of the most cherished ideas in psychology is that we have an unconscious. Yet because it is by definition inaccessible, our unconscious is almost impossible to study scientifically. Freud himself certainly didn’t provide much reliable evidence for its existence. Nick Chater, a respected researcher of language and perception, argues that little if any evidence for an unconscious drive exists even now, almost a century after Freud. With lively and pugnacious arguments drawn from fascinating and diverse discoveries about language and perception, Chater deconstructs the unconscious and argues instead for a human mind that is inherently dynamic and in-the-moment. When I have assigned this book to my undergraduate students studying perception it has provoked some of the most heated debates, which is how I know it is a great book!

By Nick Chater,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mind Is Flat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A radical reinterpretation of how your mind works - and why it could change your life

'An astonishing achievement. Nick Chater has blown my mind' Tim Harford

'A total assault on all lingering psychiatric and psychoanalytic notions of mental depths ... Light the touchpaper and stand well back' New Scientist

We all like to think we have a hidden inner life. Most of us assume that our beliefs and desires arise from the murky depths of our minds, and, if only we could work out how to access this mysterious world, we could truly understand ourselves. For more than a…


Book cover of Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures

Daniel Graham Why did I love this book?

A popular myth that refuses to die is the idea that the left brain and right brain do quite different things. Chris McManus, a researcher of human perception, as well as a medical doctor, wrote the delightful book Right Hand, Left Hand in part to dispel these myths, but also to explore the wonderous world of laterality. From handedness, to how development builds a symmetrical organism, to asymmetries in subatomic particles, this exuberant book takes you on a grand tour of fascinating ideas and observations, told with the detail, color, and organization of a great symphony. 

By Chris McManus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Right Hand, Left Hand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A labor of love and enthusiasm as well as deep scientific knowledge, Right Hand, Left Hand takes the reader on a trip through history, around the world, and into the cosmos, to explore the place of handedness in nature and culture. Chris McManus considers evidence from anthropology, particle physics, the history of medicine, and the notebooks of Leonardo to answer questions like: Why are most people right-handed? Are left-handed people cognitively different from right-handers? Why is the heart almost always on the left side of the body? Why does European writing go from left to right, while Arabic and Hebrew…


Book cover of Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

Daniel Graham Why did I love this book?

No idea in psychology is more attractive than the notion that we have evolved to be super-amazing in terms of certain traits: our logic, mating strategies, food gathering techniques, emotional reactions, are all the best that they can be because evolution settles for nothing less. Daniel Milo, a philosopher of biology, shows instead that evolution almost always settles for “good enough” rather than what is optimal. From the size of our kidneys to our procreative abilities, what matters is what is workable, not what is best. This idea is widely supported, but still unorthodox in evolutionary psychology—and even in parts of evolutionary biology. Breaking out of rigid beliefs that the way things are is the best of all possible worlds is a liberating experience, and one well articulated by Milo.

By Daniel S. Milo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Good Enough as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this spirited and irreverent critique of Darwin's long hold over our imagination, a distinguished philosopher of science makes the case that, in culture as well as nature, not only the fittest survive: the world is full of the "good enough" that persist too.

Why is the genome of a salamander forty times larger than that of a human? Why does the avocado tree produce a million flowers and only a hundred fruits? Why, in short, is there so much waste in nature? In this lively and wide-ranging meditation on the curious accidents and unexpected detours on the path of…


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Book cover of The Cowboy's Lost Family

Roxanne Snopek

New book alert!

What is my book about?

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What is this book about?

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