The best books that explain the mystery of consciousness

Stephen Palmer Author Of Beautiful Intelligence
By Stephen Palmer

Who am I?

For thirty-five years I’ve studied and written about consciousness, the evolution of the mind, and the development of human social and cultural forms. I think we’re all fascinated by who we are and why we have minds. In my case, that fundamental question, which we must all answer in some way during our lives, has become a drive to bridge our theory of consciousness with a full description of the human condition. I believe we cannot progress ethically without such a bridge. Although in my novels I don’t usually write explicitly on such themes, they’re always present, providing the framework in which my characters live their lives.


I wrote...

Beautiful Intelligence

By Stephen Palmer,

Book cover of Beautiful Intelligence

What is my book about?

Beautiful Intelligence tells the story of Leonora and Manfred Klee, formerly married and working for Ichikawa Labs in Japan. Now separated emotionally and through their AI research goals, Leonora is trying to create an artificial conscious being based on sheer computing power; her team is hidden in Malta. Manfred is trying to create artificial conscious beings based on social interaction; his team is concealed in America. As the pair develop their machines, they realise Ichikawa is hunting for them—and he is a dangerous man. As Ichikawa closes in on his former employees, Leonora and Manfred both come to unexpected realisations about the nature of artificial consciousness, as something very special is created…

The books I picked & why

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The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution

By Nicholas Humphrey,

Book cover of The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution

Why this book?

Nicholas Humphrey is our Darwin of the human mind. I first came across him in the mid-1980s when his television series The Inner Eye was broadcast. It was a revelation to me that such an elegant, comprehensive, and beautiful theory as his existed, explaining the evolution and nature of human consciousness. I bought the accompanying book at once, and it remains for me the best explanation of consciousness—a constant source of inspiration, including for my novels. Humphrey’s social intelligence theory remains, after forty years, the most widely accepted explanation of the evolution of consciousness.

The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution

By Nicholas Humphrey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Where does consciousness come from? What is it? Where is it taking us?
In 1971 Nicholas Humphrey spent three months at Dian Fossey's gorilla research centre in Rwanda. It was there, among the mountain gorillas that he began to focus on the philosphical and scientific puzzle that has fascinated him ever since: the problem of how a human being or animal can know what it is like to be itself. The Inner Eye describes where these original speculations led: to Humphrey's now celebrated theories of the 'social function of intellect' and of human beings as
natural born 'mind-readers'. Easy to…

The Sane Society

By Erich Fromm,

Book cover of The Sane Society

Why this book?

Although not Fromm’s best-known book, The Sane Society is crucial because it states for the first time a description of the human condition. I was astonished when I first read it, as it presented to me the possibility that the human condition could be described, and, therefore by implication, understood, something which had never before occurred to me. Fromm’s thesis is that society in the 20th century, when he was writing, can be characterised as insane, because it does not meet humanity’s real needs. Part of the revelation of this book is that such needs can be developed from an analysis of the human condition. Since reading the book, I have followed Fromm’s conviction that a real and true description of ourselves is crucial to humane ethical progress. 

The Sane Society

By Erich Fromm,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

First published in 1998. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

Beyond Fear

By Dorothy Rowe,

Book cover of Beyond Fear

Why this book?

Dorothy Rowe’s books I discovered by accident in a Winchester second-hand bookshop, placed in the psychology section. A woman of considerable wisdom gained through her psychotherapy practice and her experience of the vicissitudes of life, Beyond Fear deals with something we all have to encounter, yet which so few of us properly understand and therefore disempower. Rowe explains in this life-changing book how fear manifests through various conditions, such as depression, a subject on which she is an acknowledged expert. I love it that she refused to simplify life, confronting it in all its difficult complexities. Life isn’t easy—we all discover that.

Beyond Fear

By Dorothy Rowe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Dorothy Rowe shows us how to have the courage to acknowledge and face our fears - only through courage can we find a sustaining happiness.

'Beyond Fear', first published in 1987, has changed the lives of thousands of people. In this edition, the renowned psychologist Dorothy Rowe examines the changes in the psychiatric system since 1987 in the context of showing how most of our suffering comes from our greatest fear, that of being annihilated as a person, when we shall disappear like a puff of smoke in the wind, never to have existed.

We feel this fear whenever others…


A Short History of Myth

By Karen Armstrong,

Book cover of A Short History of Myth

Why this book?

I remember reading this slim volume for the first time and being amazed by its clarity. For elegance and power of explanation, it is impossible to beat. For me, it was the bridge between my understanding of the individual human mind and minds in societies and in culture—especially ancient and prehistoric societies. I have always been fascinated by the evolution of the mind, and books that dare to deal with that topic are rare indeed. This one stunned me with its sophisticated descriptions of the types of myth we use throughout our lives, a sophistication matched with clarity of vision rarely put down on paper. It has always been a profound inspiration to the themes of my novels.

A Short History of Myth

By Karen Armstrong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Short History of Myth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As long as we have been human, we have been mythmakers. In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong holds up the mirror of mythology to show us the history of ourselves, and embarks on a journey that begins at a Neanderthal graveside and ends buried in the heart of the modern novel.

Surprising, powerful and profound, A Short History of Myth examines the world's most ancient art form - the making and telling of stories - and why we still need it.

The Myths series brings together some of the world's finest writers, each of whom has retold a…


The Mind in the Cave

By David Lewis-Williams,

Book cover of The Mind in the Cave

Why this book?

There are many books on prehistoric cave paintings, but this one is an acknowledged masterpiece. For decades, the power, beauty, and intense enigma of the European cave paintings in particular have fascinated me, not least because they allow us a window into the most critical of periods of our evolution when we were anatomically and psychologically modern, yet when our cultural and social forms were newborn. I strongly believe that to complete a description of the human condition we have to get to grips with cave paintings and other forms of prehistoric art. This book presents a powerful and brilliantly argued theory of shamanism, the use of metaphor, and of burgeoning human creativity. A truly inspiring work.

The Mind in the Cave

By David Lewis-Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mind in the Cave as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What does the breathtakingly beautiful art depicted on the walls of caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira, tell us about the nature of the ancestral mind? How did these images spring, seemingly from nowhere into the human story?

The Mind in the Cave puts forward the most plausible explanation yet proposed for the origins of image-making and art. This is a masterful piece of detective work, casting light on the darkest mysteries of our earliest ancestors and on the nature of our own consciousness and experience.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in myth, intelligence, and capitalism?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about myth, intelligence, and capitalism.

Myth Explore 51 books about myth
Intelligence Explore 14 books about intelligence
Capitalism Explore 78 books about capitalism

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Myth, Oxford Companion to World Mythology, and Pathways to Bliss if you like this list.