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

Who am I?

Michael Corballis is a psychologist and brain scientist. His interests lie in how the mind works, how it maps onto the brain, and how it evolved. Much of his work is published in books and scientific articles, but he has also written books aimed at a general readership. These include Pieces of Mind, The Lopsided Ape, The Recursive Mind, The Wandering Mind, and The Truth about Language.

I wrote...

Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind

By Michael C. Corballis,

Book cover of Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind

What is my book about?

The book is an autobiography of my life, from growing up on a sheep farm in New Zealand, to several attempts to find a career, to eventual employment in Canada and New Zealand as an academic psychologist and researcher. Over the past 60 years, I saw scientific psychology transform, from behaviourism, to the cognitive revolution, then to the discovery of the brain. I worked with pigeons, long-suffering undergraduate volunteers, and split-brained patients. I pondered the various aspects that make up the mind: memory, imagination, the two sides of the brain, language, and its evolution. Four of the books recommended below feature in this book; One of them (the fourth) appeared too recently for inclusion.

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The books I picked & why

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

Michael C. Corballis Why did I love 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.

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

To imagine-to see what is not there-is the startling ability that has fueled human development and innovation through the centuries. As a species we stand alone in our remarkable capacity to refashion the world after the picture in our minds.

Traversing the realms of science, politics, religion, culture, philosophy and history, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto reveals the thrilling and disquieting tales of our imaginative leaps-from the first Homo sapiens to the present day. Through groundbreaking insights in cognitive science, Fernandez-Armesto explores how and why we have ideas in the first place, providing a tantalizing glimpse into who we are and what we…

Book cover of The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology

Michael C. Corballis Why did I love 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.

By Daniel Dor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The book suggests a new perspective on the essence of human language. This enormous achievement of our species is best characterized as a communication technology - not unlike the social media on the Net today - that was collectively invented by ancient humans for a very particular communicative function: the instruction of imagination. All other systems of communication in the biological world target the interlocutors' senses; language allows speakers to
systematically instruct their interlocutors in the process of imagining the intended meaning - instead of directly experiencing it. This revolutionary function has changed human life forever, and in the book…

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

Michael C. Corballis Why did I love 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.

By Luke Dittrich,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1953, maverick neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville performed a groundbreaking operation on an epileptic patient named Henry Molaison. But it was a catastrophic failure, leaving Henry unable to create long-term memories.

Scoville's grandson, Luke Dittrich, takes us on an astonishing journey through the history of neuroscience, from the first brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the New England asylum where his grandfather developed a taste for human experimentation. Dittrich's investigation confronts unsettling family secrets and reveals the dark roots of modern neuroscience, raising troubling questions that echo into the present day.

Book cover of The World Before Us: The New Science Behind Our Human Origins

Michael C. Corballis Why did I love 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.

By Tom Higham,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A fascinating investigation of the origin of humans, based on incredible new discoveries and advanced scientific technology

"Conveys the thrill of archaeological discovery.”—Alexander Larman, The Observer

"Packs in startling discoveries, impressive insights and the occasional debunking of a foolish idea.”—Michael Marshall, New Scientist

Fifty thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was not the only species of humans in the world. There were also Neanderthals in what is now Europe, the Near East, and parts of Eurasia; Hobbits (H. floresiensis) on the island of Flores in Indonesia; Denisovans in Siberia and eastern Eurasia; and H. luzonensis in the Philippines. Tom Higham investigates…

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

Michael C. Corballis Why did I love 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.

By Steven Pinker,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Enlightenment Now as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


"My new favorite book of all time." --Bill Gates

If you think the world is coming to an end, think again: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science. By the author of the new book, Rationality.

Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third…

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A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

By Nita Sweeney,

Book cover of A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

Nita Sweeney Author Of How to Make Every Move a Meditation: Mindful Movement for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Insight

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a thirty-year meditator, certified meditation leader, and award-winning author, it’s my job to keep up on the latest books about mindfulness and Zen practice. Despite seeing new volumes being published regularly, I return to these books as great sources of solid practice information. Each of these authors explains meditation in accessible terms, easy for readers to follow and understand. I can’t remember who said that a confused reader is an antagonistic reader, but they are right. The books I’ve suggested offer clarity. They help readers begin or continue their practice and understand how and why meditation is worth their time.

Nita's book list on why meditation is worth your time and effort

What is my book about?

Reduce stress, ease anxiety, and increase inner peace—one day at a time—with a year of easy-to-follow mindfulness meditation techniques. Certified mindfulness teacher, bestselling author, ultramarathoner, wife, and dog-mom Nita Sweeney shares mindfulness meditation practices to help anyone break free from worry and self-judgment.

Mindfulness meditation trains you to live in the present moment—the now. Feel calmer. Think more clearly. Respond more effectively and enjoy a more fulfilling life. Even in tiny doses, mindfulness is scientifically proven to enhance physical and mental health, boost creativity, and improve cognition function.

A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

By Nita Sweeney,

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the brain, the Age of Enlightenment, and neanderthals?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the brain, the Age of Enlightenment, and neanderthals.

The Brain Explore 143 books about the brain
The Age Of Enlightenment Explore 127 books about the Age of Enlightenment
Neanderthals Explore 18 books about neanderthals