The best books on how we “make ourselves” through meaningful engagement with objects and people

Linda T. Kaastra Author Of Grounding the Analysis of Cognitive Processes in Music Performance: Distributed Cognition in Musical Activity
By Linda T. Kaastra

Who am I?

As an interdisciplinary scholar with professional musical training, I surveyed the literature in cognitive science for conceptual frameworks that would shed light on tacit processes in musical activity. I was tired of research that treats the musician either as a “lab rat” not quite capable of fully understanding what they do or as a “channel” for the mysterious and divine. I view musicians as human beings who engage in meaningful activity with instruments and with each other. Musicians are knowledgeable, skilled, and deeply creative. The authors on this list turn a scientific lens on human activity that further defines how we make ourselves through meaningful work and interactions.


I wrote...

Grounding the Analysis of Cognitive Processes in Music Performance: Distributed Cognition in Musical Activity

By Linda T. Kaastra,

Book cover of Grounding the Analysis of Cognitive Processes in Music Performance: Distributed Cognition in Musical Activity

What is my book about?

This book presents four case studies of expert thinking in instrumental music performance. It draws uniquely on dominant paradigms from the fields of cognitive science, ethnography, anthropology, psychology, and psycholinguistics to develop an ecologically valid framework for the analysis of cognitive processes in musical activity. By presenting a close analysis of activities, including instrumental performance on the bassoon, lessons on the guitar, and a group rehearsal, Kaastra provides new insights into the person/instrument system, the musician’s use of informational resources, and the organization of perceptual experience during a musical performance. Engaging in musical activity is shown to be a highly dynamic and collaborative process invoking tacit knowledge and coordination as musicians identify targets of focal awareness for themselves, their colleagues, and their students.

The books I picked & why

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Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

By Barry Schwartz, Kenneth Sharpe,

Book cover of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

Why this book?

I love this book because it demonstrates the human value of being excellent in personal and professional contexts. Like many musicians, I strive for excellence and in this book Schwartz &  Sharpe draw a picture of excellence that includes “practical wisdom” – knowing how to do the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reasons. A lovely book that is sure to be a helpful guide for those of us seeking personal fulfillment through any kind of meaningful activity.


The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

By Matthew B. Crawford,

Book cover of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

Why this book?

This is a moving and profound book about how to reclaim our sense of self through meaningful activities and relationships. Crawford carefully studies how our attention is manipulated in various modern contexts, and what we can do to reclaim our sense of individuality. It is a book that underscores the importance of dealing with the real world—the people we encounter and the objects we use. This is the book that might convince you to take up knitting or the guitar. At the very least, it will help you understand some of what you gain by doing those things.  


How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement

By Lambros Malafouris,

Book cover of How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement

Why this book?

I love the way Malafouris delves into deeply philosophical questions about the boundaries of the mind. Working from the perspective of cognitive archeology, he broadly examines what makes us human in our engagement with objects and each other. Why does it help to understand the mind this way? Whenever we want to learn more about how we do the things we do, theories like Malafouris’ material engagement theory can help us to organize familiar tasks and situations in a way that makes the underlying cognitive processes transparent. If you want to improve your performance in any area, conceptual frameworks like this one (and the one in my book) can bring tacit processes into focus. 


The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason

By Mark Johnson,

Book cover of The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason

Why this book?

When I was a musician encountering theory in cognitive science for the first time, this book really moved me. I was searching for conceptual lenses on cognition in instrumental practice and this book is aimed at grounding the study of cognition in the body. I can still see myself sitting at a huge ugly desk under a tiny window thoroughly absorbed in this thrilling page-turner in the philosophy of mind. The book moved me so profoundly that I cried when I approached the last page, and gently closed the back cover. It is a precious book. It changed my world. 


Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

By Peter Godfrey-Smith,

Book cover of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Why this book?

I love the way this accessible book presents evolutionary theory of mind through an exploration of cephalopod intelligence. If we wish to explore alien intelligence, it helps to recognize the varieties of intelligent life right here on earth. Godfrey-Smith’s telling is intriguing, intelligent, heartwarming, and touching. At such a critical time on our planet, how can we better understand and care for our fellow earthlings? And, What does this teach us about ourselves?  


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