The best books to understand the history and future of bioelectricity

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a science and technology journalist who has reported on neurotech and bioelectricity for over 15 years, for publications including New Scientist, IEEE Spectrum and Quartz. After a formative experience in a DARPA brain-stimulation experiment, I began to dig into the history and science of bioelectricity, trying to understand both the science at the level of membrane biophysics, and the history and psychology of how biology lost custody of electricity. My resulting book is an effort to create a repository of the real, rigorous studies that have advanced our understanding of this fascinating science at an accelerating rate in the past 20 to 40 years - and what the new science means about the future.

I wrote...

Book cover of We Are Electric: Inside the 200-Year Hunt for Our Body's Bioelectric Code, and What the Future Holds

What is my book about?

Every cell in our bodies - bones, skin, nerves, muscle - has a voltage, like a tiny battery. We’ve suspected since the 1700s that this bioelectricity is integral to the brain’s ability to send and receive the body’s messages, underpinning all motion, sensation, and thought. And yet even as it became clear that bioelectric signaling does that and much more, the study of bioelectricity kept being sidelined. Incredible new tools have allowed us to begin to appreciate the true depth and breadth of our electrification. 

Bioelectricity is why we develop the way we do in the womb and how our bodies know to heal themselves from injury. When these signals go awry, illness, deformity, and cancer can result. We Are Electric introduces the next frontier of scientific understanding: the body's electrome.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Shocking Frogs: Galvani, Volta, and the Electric Origins of Neuroscience

Sally Adee Why did I love this book?

Luigi Galvani found the first evidence that the signals between the brain and the body are electric at the end of the 18th century in Italy.

But his discovery was almost immediately overshadowed by the much more immediately useful invention of the battery. After this, the very idea of bioelectricity fell into disrepute along with Galvani’s reputation.

Neurophysiologist Marco Piccolino and historian of science Marco Bresadola dig into the original controversy over animal electricity and detail how this schism would shape the next 200 years of neuroscience and electrophysiology.

The authors draw on deep-cut archival source material to conclusively restore the unfairly tarnished reputation of Galvani.

This is not a book for people with a mild interest, but will nourish those with an obsessive interest in every detail around the controversy. 

By Marco Piccolino, Marco Bresadola,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"... and still we could never suppose that fortune were to be so friendly to us, such as to allow us to be perhaps the first in handling, as it were, the electricity concealed in nerves, in extracting it from nerves, and, in some way, in putting it under everyone's eyes."

With these words, Luigi Galvani announced to the world in 1791 his discovery that nervous conduction and muscle excitation are electrical phenomena. The result of more than years of intense experimental work, Galvani's milestone achievement concluded a thousand-year scientific search, in a field long dominated by the antiquated beliefs…

Book cover of Shocking Bodies: Life, Death and Electricity in Victorian England

Sally Adee Why did I love this book?

Gruesome experiments extended Luigi Galvani’s early work with frog cadavers into human ones.

Victorian-era scientists shocked the bodies of executed prisoners, or sold improbably electrical cures, all in the hopes of finding the answers to questions about the boundary between life and death.

Iwan Rhys Morus chooses four case studies that explain how science got to grips with electricity and its effects on the human body, and what the intersection implied about both.

The book provides lasting insights into why electric medicine is still widely associated with pseudoscience today.

By Iwan Rhys Morus,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

For the Victorians, electricity was the science of spectacle and of wonder. It provided them with new ways of probing the nature of reality and understanding themselves. Luigi Galvani's discovery of 'animal electricity' at the end of the eighteenth century opened up a whole new world of possibilities, in which electricity could cure sickness, restore sexual potency and even raise the dead. In Shocking Bodies, Iwan Rhys Morus explores how the Victorians thought about electricity, and how they tried to use its intimate and corporeal force to answer fundamental questions about life and death. Some even believed that electricity was…

Book cover of The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

Sally Adee Why did I love this book?

This book tells the story of how bioelectricity was finally accepted in modern neuroscience, how it interacts with biochemical elements of the nervous signal, and how its manipulation led to great medica and scientific advances in the late 20th century.

The author knew several of the leading figures who made these discoveries and provides personal anecdotes about them, as well as illuminating episodes from the history of neuroscience. 

By Frances Ashcroft,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

What happens during a heart attack? Can someone really die of fright? What is death, anyway? How does electroshock treatment affect the brain? What is consciousness? The answers to these questions lie in the electrical signals constantly traveling through our bodies, driving our thoughts, our movements, and even the beating of our hearts.

The history of how scientists discovered the role of electricity in the human body is a colorful one, filled with extraordinary personalities, fierce debates, and brilliant experiments. Moreover, present-day research on electricity and ion channels has created one of the most exciting fields in science, shedding light…

Book cover of The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

Sally Adee Why did I love this book?

One of the most common category errors in neuroscience is the conflation of brains with computers.

Matthew Cobb, who is both a scientist and a historian of science provides a breathtaking and sweeping history of our understanding of the brain - and how it always seems to be epitomised by humanity’s most impressive engineering achievements.

So in the 19th century, the nervous system was described as a telegraph; in the 20th and 21st century, it became a computer.

Cobb shows how these evolving metaphors helped advance neuroscience, but also how overindexing on that computer metaphor is beginning to seriously limit our ability to grasp what the brain really is.

By Matthew Cobb,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize

A New Statesman Book of the Year

This is the story of our quest to understand the most mysterious object in the universe: the human brain.

Today we tend to picture it as a computer. Earlier scientists thought about it in their own technological terms: as a telephone switchboard, or a clock, or all manner of fantastic mechanical or hydraulic devices. Could the right metaphor unlock the its deepest secrets once and for all?

Galloping through centuries of wild speculation and ingenious, sometimes macabre anatomical investigations, scientist and historian Matthew Cobb reveals how…

Book cover of The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology

Sally Adee Why did I love this book?

They say the law is perpetually at least five years behind new developments in technology.

Nowhere is it more important to reverse this phenomenon than in neurotechnology. We may not understand the brain, but that hasn’t stopped neurotech startups and big tech companies from trying to eavesdrop on and interpret its bioelectric signals.

Farahany, a bioethics professor at Duke University, says that this market is expected to reach $21 billion by 2026 largely because it will be a boon for surveillance capitalism. The devices don’t even have to actually tell you what a person is thinking or feeling for the information to be used that way by companies and governments.

People become credulous when AI tells them something, whether it’s a policing or recidivism algorithms. Wearable says you are about to commit a crime or have an affair? 

Farahany makes an impassioned argument to build the legal framework that will protect us against these overreaches now, before the tech is too ubiquitous to stop.

Her questions for neurotech will apply broadly as the science of bioelectricity demonstrates its power over and within the rest of the body.

By Nita A. Farahany,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Battle for Your Brain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new dawn of brain tracking and hacking is coming. Will you be prepared for what comes next?

Imagine a world where your brain can be interrogated to learn your political beliefs, your thoughts can be used as evidence of a crime, and your own feelings can be held against you. A world where people who suffer from epilepsy receive alerts moments before a seizure, and the average person can peer into their own mind to eliminate painful memories or cure addictions.

Neuroscience has already made all of this possible today, and neurotechnology will soon become the “universal controller” for…

You might also like...

Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

Book cover of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

Edward Benzel Author Of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Coming from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, I have witnessed many successes and failures over more than four decades. I recognized decades ago that communication with patients at a level that involves emotions is a necessary part of being a complete physician. This involves being empathetic and, henceforth, digging deep to find the strength to be transparent, vulnerable, compassionate, understanding, and, when needed, forceful (some would call this paternalism). Although the five books I have chosen to highlight vary widely in content, they have one common theme – finding within us the will and wherewithal to succeed.

Edward's book list on awakening of the strengths that are hidden deep inside each of us

What is my book about?

My book is a collection of monthly Editor-in-Chief letters to the readership of World Neurosurgery, a journal that I edit. Each essay is short and sweet. The letters were written for neurosurgeons but have been re-edited so that they apply to all human beings. They cover topics such as leadership, empathy, vulnerability, stress, burnout, and on and on…. These essays are relevant for all who strive to craft a better version of themselves.

Life lessons learned by the author during his 40+ year neurosurgery career are shared and translated into real-life scenarios. Between the covers are many lessons that are derived from the experiences of the author and then applied to all humans. The mastering of these lessons should translate into a sense of pride and satisfaction. In keeping with the theme of the book, this process should culminate in the feeling at the end of the day that ‘Today was, indeed, a good day.’

Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

What is this book about?

About the Book
Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon features many topics that pertain to how neurosurgeons interact with others and how each of us can use introspection to modify how we are using tools and strategies such as empathy, respect, stress management, and much more.
This book provides some insights into leadership, effective communication, and fulfillment from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, and it causes the reader to think about and consider many, many attributes of a leader.
We all want to have a good day. This book provides strategies…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in neuroscience, the brain, and physiology?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about neuroscience, the brain, and physiology.

Neuroscience Explore 141 books about neuroscience
The Brain Explore 155 books about the brain
Physiology Explore 83 books about physiology