The best books on consciousness and how our brain works

Who am I?

I’m a freelance science reporter and Contributing Writer at The New Yorker, with degrees in cognitive neuroscience and science writing. Growing up, I wanted to understand the fundamental nature of the universe—who doesn’t?!—and grew interested in physics, before realizing our only contact with outside reality (if it exists) is through consciousness. Today I cover psychology and artificial intelligence, among other topics. Can machines be conscious? I don’t know. Why does consciousness exist at all? I don’t know that either. But if there’s anything at all that’s magic in the universe, it’s consciousness.

I wrote...

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

By Matthew Hutson,

Book cover of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

What is my book about?

What is so special about touching a piano John Lennon once owned? Why do we yell at our laptops? And why do people like to say “everything happens for a reason”? Drawing on cognitive science, anthropology, and neuroscience, my book shows that magical thinking is hardwired into our brains through evolution. It helps us believe that we have free will and an underlying purpose, as it protects us from the paralyzing awareness of our own mortality. Interweaving stories, reflections, and research, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking reveals just how this seemingly irrational process informs and improves the lives of even the most hardened skeptics, the author included.

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The books I picked & why

Consciousness Explained

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Book cover of Consciousness Explained

Why did I love 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.

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Consciousness Explained as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett reveals the secrets of one of the last remaining mysteries of the universe: the human brain.

Daniel C. Dennett's now-classic book blends philosophy, psychology and neuroscience - with the aid of numerous examples and thought-experiments - to explore how consciousness has evolved, and how a modern understanding of the human mind is radically different from conventional explanations of consciousness.

What people think of as the stream of consciousness is not a single, unified sequence, the author argues, but 'multiple drafts' of reality composed by a computer-like 'virtual machine'.

Dennett explains how science has exploded…

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

Why did I love 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.

By V.S. Ramachandran, Sandra Blakeslee,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Phantoms in the Brain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran is internationally renowned for uncovering answers to the deep and quirky questions of human nature that few scientists have dared to address. His bold insights about the brain are matched only by the stunning simplicity of his experiments -- using such low-tech tools as cotton swabs, glasses of water and dime-store mirrors. In Phantoms in the Brain, Dr. Ramachandran recounts how his work with patients who have bizarre neurological disorders has shed new light on the deep architecture of the brain, and what these findings tell us about who we are, how we construct our body image,…

Book cover of The Illusion of Conscious Will

Why did I love 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. 

By Daniel M. Wegner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Illusion of Conscious Will as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A novel contribution to the age-old debate about free will versus determinism.

Do we consciously cause our actions, or do they happen to us? Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, theologians, and lawyers have long debated the existence of free will versus determinism. In this book Daniel Wegner offers a novel understanding of the issue. Like actions, he argues, the feeling of conscious will is created by the mind and brain. Yet if psychological and neural mechanisms are responsible for all human behavior, how could we have conscious will? The feeling of conscious will, Wegner shows, helps us to appreciate and remember our…

Book cover of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Why did I love 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.

By Christof Koch,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A fascinating exploration of the human brain that combines “the leading edge of consciousness science with surprisingly personal and philosophical reflection . . . shedding light on how scientists really think”—this is “science writing at its best” (Times Higher Education).
In which a scientist searches for an empirical explanation for phenomenal experience, spurred by his instinctual belief that life is meaningful.
What links conscious experience of pain, joy, color, and smell to bioelectrical activity in the brain? How can anything physical give rise to nonphysical, subjective, conscious states? Christof Koch has devoted much of his career to bridging the seemingly…

Book cover of Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

Why did I love 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. 

By Stanislas Dehaene,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Consciousness and the Brain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


From the acclaimed author of Reading in the Brain and How We Learn, a breathtaking look at the new science that can track consciousness deep in the brain

How does our brain generate a conscious thought? And why does so much of our knowledge remain unconscious? Thanks to clever psychological and brain-imaging experiments, scientists are closer to cracking this mystery than ever before.

In this lively book, Stanislas Dehaene describes the pioneering work his lab and the labs of other cognitive neuroscientists worldwide have accomplished in defining, testing, and explaining the brain events behind…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the brain, existential philosophy, and neuroscience?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the brain, existential philosophy, and neuroscience.

The Brain Explore 131 books about the brain
Existential Philosophy Explore 10 books about existential philosophy
Neuroscience Explore 121 books about neuroscience

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Priceless, and Time and Chance if you like this list.