The best books on the creative mind

Who am I?

I’m a professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA, and also a poet. Growing up on a dairy farm in British Columbia, I immersed myself in the world of books. My mother showed me her well-worn copy of a poetry book written by her Scottish great-great-aunt, and I longed to create my own arrangements of words. Later, as a student at the University of British Columbia and then Stanford, my interest in creativity was channeled into research on how people think. I’ve studied how people use analogies and metaphors to create new ideas. In addition to books on the psychology of thinking and reasoning, I’ve written several volumes of poetry.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

What is my book about?

I’ve approached creativity as both psychologist and poet, but I always kept a mental curtain drawn between the two points of view—until I wrote The Spider’s Thread. Taking poetry as a microcosm for human creativity, I explore it simultaneously from the “outside” view of a scientist and the “inside” view of a poet. I draw on the ideas of scientists— psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, and computer scientists— as well as thinkers from the humanities—poets, philosophers, and critics. Each chapter begins with a poem (by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Du Fu, William Butler Yeats, and Pablo Neruda), and then steps back to explore wider connections to metaphor, mind, and the human brain. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain

Keith J. Holyoak Why did I love this book?

Did you ever have a sudden insight, a new idea—something that made you go, “Aha!”? It’s as if your brain had been doing unconscious work, then suddenly “reported up” to your conscious mind. This book by two prominent cognitive neuroscientists gives a clear picture of what scientists have learned about how brain networks connecting the two hemispheres give rise to creative insights. Their book helped me think about how new metaphors might be discovered—just one example of what the creative mind can do.

By John Kounios, Mark Beeman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Where do great ideas come from? What actually happens in your brain during a 'Eureka' moment? And how can we have more of them?

It has been two millenia since Archimedes supposedly first shouted 'Eureka!' as he sat in his bath. The word - Greek for 'I have found it' - captures the feeling we have all experienced during moments of sudden insight. Despite a century of scientific inquiry into the nature of these particular moments, their origin has remained a mystery.

Mark Beeman and John Kounios, leading experts on the neural bases of insight and creative thinking, have conducted…

Book cover of The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms

Keith J. Holyoak Why did I love this book?

What is creativity, and what makes it possible? If a new idea came from nothing, would it be magic? If a new idea were generated by recombining old ones, would it really be “creative”? In this book, Margaret Boden, a distinguished philosopher of science, thinks through what creativity really is, whether it takes the form of a world-altering advance in science or a novel jazz improvisation. To help understand human creativity, the book compares it to the workings of computer programs—ones capable of generating art or music that at least appears creative. Readers who have followed more recent developments in artificial intelligence will be able to consider for themselves whether machine creativity is, or could be, a reality. The book helped me think about what it means to create an “authentic” poem.

By Margaret A. Boden,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How is it possible to think new thoughts? What is creativity and can science explain it? And just how did Coleridge dream up the creatures of The Ancient Mariner?

When The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms was first published, Margaret A. Boden's bold and provocative exploration of creativity broke new ground. Boden uses examples such as jazz improvisation, chess, story writing, physics, and the music of Mozart, together with computing models from the field of artificial intelligence to uncover the nature of human creativity in the arts.

The second edition of The Creative Mind has been updated to include recent…

Book cover of The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

Keith J. Holyoak Why did I love this book?

It’s not really six songs, but six human needs that songs fulfill: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, love—needs that largely define “human nature.” This book combines the perspective of a neuroscientist and musician (Dan Levitin is both), describing why songs may have arisen, and how they impact emotion, memory, and the place of an individual in a society. A song combines music with lyrics—the near relative of a poem. For me (a non-musician), the book was especially useful in clarifying the ways in which song lyrics and poems are both similar and different. Songs derive their power by combining the creative potential of language and music.

By Daniel J. Levitin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World in Six Songs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

The author of the New York Times bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music reveals music’s role in the evolution of human culture in this thought-provoking book that “will leave you awestruck” (The New York Times).

Daniel J. Levitin's astounding debut bestseller, This Is Your Brain on Music, enthralled and delighted readers as it transformed our understanding of how music gets in our heads and stays there. Now in his second New York Times bestseller, his genius for combining science and art reveals how music shaped humanity across cultures and throughout history.

Here he identifies six fundamental song functions or…

Book cover of Making Comics

Keith J. Holyoak Why did I love this book?

Would you like to try your hand (literally) at being creative? This book is your personal class on how to draw—and write—comics. You can be a kid again. As the author says, “Stories show up on their own when kids draw—the drawing itself propels the story, changing it in a living way.” And you don’t have to know how to draw! In fact, expertise can be the enemy of creativity. From the book: “It’s hard for something original to make it past ‘already knowing how.’ Being good at something is its own curse…” Have fun!

By Lynda Barry,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Hello students, meet Professor Skeletor. Be on time, don t miss class, and turn off your phones. No time for introductions, we start drawing right away. The goal is more rock, less talk, and we communicate only through images. For more than five years the cartoonist Lynda Barry has been an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin Madison art department and at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, teaching students from all majors, both graduate and undergraduate, how to make comics, how to be creative, how to not think. There is no academic lecture in this classroom. Doodling is enthusiastically…

Book cover of This Craft of Verse

Keith J. Holyoak Why did I love this book?

If you love Borges, and thought you’d read everything he wrote, this is the book for you—a collection of his “lost lectures,” delivered at Harvard in 1967-68 and finally published in 2000. And if you want to hear the actual voice of a creative genius, as if risen from the dead, the recordings are also available. Best known for his intricate short stories and essays, Borges was also—perhaps foremost—a poet. As he puts it in the book, “The central fact of my life has been the existence of words and the possibility of weaving those words into poetry.” Starting from the creation of poems, Borges explores the creation of metaphors, meaning, and life’s irreducible mystery.

By Jorge Luis Borges,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Available in cloth, paper, or audio CD

Through a twist of fate that the author of Labyrinths himself would have relished, these lost lectures given in English at Harvard in 1967-1968 by Jorge Luis Borges return to us now, a recovered tale of a life-long love affair with literature and the English language. Transcribed from tapes only recently discovered, This Craft of Verse captures the cadences, candor, wit, and remarkable erudition of one of the most extraordinary and enduring literary voices of the twentieth century. In its wide-ranging commentary and exquisite insights, the book stands as a deeply personal yet…

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Anatomy of Embodied Education: Creating Pathways to Brain-Mind Evolution

By E. Timothy Burns, Jim Brown,

Book cover of Anatomy of Embodied Education: Creating Pathways to Brain-Mind Evolution

E. Timothy Burns

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The vast mysterious terrain explored in this book encompasses the embodied human brain, the processes through which humans grow, develop, and learn, and the mystery of consciousness itself. We authors offer this guidebook to assist you in entering and exploring that terrain.

As parents and educators come to understand this terrain and these vital processes more fully, we also begin to see how we have been unnecessarily hampered by erroneous assumptions and flawed educational practices common to our culture. Then, seeing those impediments, we can create ways to move beyond them, allowing our children’s growth, development, and learning to proceed more freely and naturally.

Anatomy of Embodied Education: Creating Pathways to Brain-Mind Evolution

By E. Timothy Burns, Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

Imagine that you have obtained a guidebook for exploring a vast, mysterious forest that you have heard of, but have never known how to approach-a forest so intricate and lush that most people feel reluctant to enter it without an experienced guide, and yet so alluring that you long to wander its paths, follow its streams to their source, gain access to its panoramic views of terrains that have barely begun to be mapped.

What makes this terrain so alluring is that it enfolds largely untold knowledge of the processes through which humans grow, develop, learn. And as explorers understand…

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