The best books about how brains actually work

Mark Humphries Author Of The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds
By Mark Humphries

The Books I Picked & Why

The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

By Matthew Cobb

The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

Why this book?

A fast-moving, endlessly fascinating, yet deeply scholarly history of how we know what we know about the brain. Cobb’s magnum opus traces how our definition of the brain has evolved over the centuries, and is still evolving now. I’ve called it a history, and it says as much on the cover of the UK version, but a good third of the book is actually about the cutting edge of neuroscience, of the marvellous ways we now have of interrogating the brain, and where they may take us in the future.


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Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology

By Valentino Braitenberg

Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology

Why this book?

The author’s opening line calls this slim volume “fictional science”, a genre all of its own. It remains a unique and compelling book, a set of simply stated ideas that show how apparently complex behaviour can emerge from the simplest of brains. On another reading, it is a parts list for what functions brains must have evolved. However I read it, it’s been instrumental in shaping how I think about the brain.


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Spikes: Exploring the Neural Code

By Fred Rieke, David Warland, Rob de Ruyter van Steveninck, William Bialek

Spikes: Exploring the Neural Code

Why this book?

A magnificent synthesis of Bialek and colleagues’ research into how spikes from neurons send information. A strong contender for the most readable serious science book ever published. Even if you only understand a quarter of it (as I did on first reading as a math-shy grad student), the sheer quantity of ideas and the flow of the prose is mind-blowing. As essential a read now as it was in 1997, these ideas have not dated one bit.


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Principles of Neural Design

By Peter Sterling, Simon Laughlin

Principles of Neural Design

Why this book?

The authors hilariously claim in their acknowledgements that this is a short book. It is not. Instead, it is a volume that explains ten key principles of why brains work the way they do, from why they do so much computation with chemistry to the irreducible smallness of a brain’s components. A densely argued, fiercely detailed book, not one for the faint of heart – but one that has pride of place on the shelves of many neuroscientists, mine included.


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Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are

By Kevin J. Mitchell

Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are

Why this book?

We neuroscientists know a lot about how brains are, but not how they come to be. This book fills that huge hole: it explains how genetics and development shape the growing brain, and the consequences this has for our personalities and our mental disorders. Mitchell’s thesis is that the stochastic nature of development is key to understanding much of the variation between brains, and it has changed the way I think about the wiring of brains.


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