The best books on consciousness

The Books I Picked & Why

Consciousness Explained

By Daniel C. Dennett

Consciousness Explained

Why this book?

We tend to picture an observer inside our heads experiencing consciousness as if watching a movie. But that just pushes explanation back a level: What’s inside that observer? The prolific philosopher Daniel Dennett dismantles many common intuitions about awareness, showing them to be illusions hiding the intricate and deceptive mechanics of the mind and brain. This was one of the first books on consciousness I read. I don’t agree with everything Dennett has to say on the matter, but he’s a great guide to think with.


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Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

By V. S. Ramachandran, Sandra Blakeslee

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

Why this book?

Nothing reveals a healthy brain’s quirks like cases of brain damage. In the style of Oliver Sacks (who wrote a foreword), the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and science writer Sandra Blakeslee take us on a tour of several illuminating clinical case studies. You may know about phantom limbs, in which amputees feel like a limb is still attached. But what about people who deny ownership of a limb obviously attached to their bodies and active on their behalf? How do we piece conflicting senses into stories that make sense to us? It makes me wonder what phantoms lurk in my brain.


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The Illusion of Conscious Will

By Daniel M. Wegner

The Illusion of Conscious Will

Why this book?

One of the most penetrating illusions is that of free will, the feeling that some immaterial consciousness—an “uncaused cause”—controls one’s body and behavior. Our notions of self and society are founded on this idea. We ascribe agency and moral responsibility to a soul or an “I” at the center of the storm. But conscious experience, including the feeling of causing things, may be just a side effect of the brain’s operation. The late psychologist Daniel Wegner argued that unconscious stirrings in the brain are responsible for it all. Even if you don’t give up on free will, you’ll call into question some of its purported powers. 


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Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

By Christof Koch

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Why this book?

Christoph Koch, a physicist-turned-neuroscientist, is a colorful character. I’ve spoken with him and heard him speak many times, and he never fails to entertain. Here he explains the neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness, arguing that someday it will all be explained (which I don’t personally believe), while giving a personal take on why the topic interests him and how he got to where he is. For a long time, the C-word was to be avoided in science, but his mentor Francis Crick (co-discoverer of DNA’s structure) helped bring it into the mainstream.


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Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

By Stanislas Dehaene

Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

Why this book?

In this thorough and rewarding book, the neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene describes his ingenious attempts to locate the neural correlates of consciousness, using experiments to tease them apart from the signatures of related phenomena like attention. He argues that he can identify awareness in babies or locked-in patients, who have no way to communicate. It’s a great scientific detective story. 


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