The best books on the mind: how it works and where it came from

Michael C. Corballis Author Of Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind
By Michael C. Corballis

The Books I Picked & Why

Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It

Why this book?

Much of what we do and think comes from imagination, generated by our minds rather than by the physical world. This includes art, literature, music, religion, even science. Our dreams are spontaneous acts of creativity, and even memory itself can be distorted by the restless mind.  Fernandez-Armesto argues that many animals have better memories than we do, because the human system produces spontaneously creative thoughts at the expense of fidelity. That’s why memories are often false. The author is a historian with an interest in how the mind works, and his book is an amazingly comprehensive history of the human imagination.


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The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology

By Daniel Dor

The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology

Why this book?

For more than half a century, the science and philosophy of language have been dominated by Noam Chomsky, who holds that language depends on an innate, uniquely human capacity to generate complex structures. In this view, language is an aspect of thought, and communication is of little interest or relevance. In his own words, Daniel Dor “turns Chomsky on his head,” so that communication itself becomes the focus. Language is a means of expression, collectively invented by our ancient forebears, to go where the senses do not go—into our minds. This book should help transform our understanding of language as a practical technology rather than a biological oddity.


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Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

By Luke Dittrich

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

Why this book?

Henry Molaison is surely the most famous patient in the history of neurology, widely known in the scientific literature and to psychology and medical students throughout the world as H.M. In 1953, he underwent brain surgery for the relief of epilepsy, which left him mentally stuck in the present, unable to remember past events or imagine future ones. Although the case is a tragic one, it led to significant advances in the scientific understanding of how the brain works. But the book is more than that; it is as fascinating for the backstory as for the case of Henry himself. Luke Dittrich is the grandson of H.M.’s surgeon, a maverick figure in the history of psychosurgery. It is an often uncomfortable but always fascinating tale of intrigue, ambition, secrecy, and surgical recklessness.


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The World Before Us: The New Science Behind Our Human Origins

By Tom Higham

The World Before Us: The New Science Behind Our Human Origins

Why this book?

We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as a species mentally superior to all others. This view was challenged in the 19th century with the discovery in Europe of the Neanderthals, an extinct large-brained human-like species. Our superiority seemed to be restored by evidence that Neanderthal extinction followed the arrival in Europe of seemingly dominant Homo sapiens from Africa. Accumulating archaeological and genetic evidence is changing that comfortable picture. Another large-brained but extinct human-like species, the Denisovans, are now also known to have existed in widespread regions of Russia, Asia, and Oceania. Not only were these archaic species technologically and culturally on a par with sapiens, but they also mated occasionally with each other and with our own species. Many people throughout the world carry genetic material from them, and these have contributed to our own regional adaptations. This book challenges our view of ourselves, and implies greater affinity and continuity with our forebears.


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Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

By Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Why this book?

We live in a time of intellectual and social turmoil, with distrust of many of the foundations of modern western life, including science, democracy, rationality, and a commitment to material progress. This book is a reminder of how the Enlightenment, flowing out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century but reaching its fuller definition in the 18th century, has immeasurably improved our lives. We live longer, are wealthier and less prone to violence, are more satisfied with life, have technologies that add pleasure, and reduce drudgery. The book is remorselessly packed with statistical and quantitative detail, but Pinker is an entertaining writer. He is at pains to establish that the benefits of the Enlightenment are not restricted to Western society, but have global relevance. This book may be especially timely in the post-Covid era, where a return to science and humanism will be needed to restore progress and optimism.


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