The best books on mind-body

Who am I?

I’ve been baffled by everything, especially myself, for as long as I can remember. In my late 20s, after years as a wandering hippy poet, I decided that science is our best hope for answers, and I became a science journalist. The mystery at the heart of science—as well as religion, philosophy, and the arts--is the mind-body problem. In a narrow, technical sense, the mind-body problem investigates how matter generates the mind, but it really asks: What are we, what can we be, what should we be? Below are some of my favorite books touching on these questions.

I wrote...

Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are

By John Horgan,

Book cover of Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are

What is my book about?

After decades of obsessing over the mind-body problem, the riddle of who we really are, I began to suspect that it is unsolvable. Or rather, there is no single, objective, universal solution, one that applies to everyone. Each person must discover her own solution, which reflects her own identity, experiences, fears and desires. I explore this theme in my 2018 book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity and Who We Really Are, which presents in-depth portraits of nine prominent thinkers who have struggled with the mind-body problem on a personal as well as professional level.

The books I picked & why

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Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

By Douglas R. Hofstadter,

Book cover of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Why this book?

Douglas Hofstadter is one of the most original thinkers alive, and the mind-body problem is his great obsession. Godel, Escher, Bach, his magnum opus, argues that the mind is a “strange loop”, a thing that does something to itself. This playful, deadly serious book, which draws upon mathematics, computer science, physics, genetics, art, and music, remains as provocative and challenging today as it was when it was published in 1979.

The Center Cannot Hold

By Elyn R. Saks,

Book cover of The Center Cannot Hold

Why this book?

Books on mental illness usually describe it either from the outside or the inside. Elyn Saks does both, integrating a subjective, first-person view with an objective, scholarly perspective. Saks is a legal scholar and psychoanalyst who has struggled with schizophrenia since her childhood. She combines vivid descriptions of what it feels like to be psychotic with clear-eyed discussions of the scientific, medical, and legal issues raised by schizophrenia. I haven’t read a better book on mental illness.

Crossing: A Transgender Memoir

By Deirdre N. McCloskey,

Book cover of Crossing: A Transgender Memoir

Why this book?

Sex is an essential part of who we are. What determines our sexual preferences? Do they stem primarily from nature or nurture? Deirdre McCloskey, an eminent economist, is especially qualified to answer these questions. She began her life as Donald, who was married and in his 50s when he realized that he was really a she and became a woman. Crossing, a memoir of McCloskey’s agonizing, exhilarating transformation, is a fascinating deep dive into sexual identity.

The Mind-Body Problem

By Rebecca Goldstein,

Book cover of The Mind-Body Problem

Why this book?

Literature, because it is less rule-bound than science and philosophy, may be more suited to exploring the question of who we really are, can be, and should be. Rebecca Goldstein, who earned degrees in physics and philosophy before turning to fiction, has written several novels that touch on the mind-body problem. My favorite is her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, the funny, sexy, poignant tale of a young philosopher’s quest to solve the mind-body problem.

Q is for Quantum

By Terry Rudolph,

Book cover of Q is for Quantum

Why this book?

The mind-body problem complicates quantum mechanics, our most powerful, precise theory of nature. According to the theory, our observation of electrons and other particles determines their behavior. I’ve read many books that try to explain this so-called measurement problem, as well as other quantum riddles. None succeeds as well as Q Is for Quantum, which strips quantum mechanics down to its counter-intuitive mathematical essence.

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