The best books for understanding the brain and behavior

Who am I?

I was stimulated by Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics” to study circuits in the brain that control behavior. For my graduate studies, I chose the olfactory bulb for its experimental advantages, which led to constructing the first computer models of brain neurons and microcircuits. Then I got interested in how the smell patterns are activated when we eat food, which led to a new field called Neurogastronomy, which is the neuroscience of the circuits that create the perception of food flavor. Finally, because all animals use their brains to find and eat food, the olfactory system has provided new insights into the evolution of the mammalian brain and the basic organization of the cerebral cortex.

I wrote...

Book cover of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters

What is my book about?

I begin Neurogastronomy with a little-known fact about smell: when we eat, it stimulates the nose from the back of the mouth, called retronasal smell. The smells set up activity patterns in the brain, and from these and the other senses the brain constructs the perception of flavor. We may believe flavor comes from the mouth, but it actually is due mostly to retronasal smell. Thus surprisingly, our perception is an illusion, which is true of many perceptions we think are real.

Flavor further engages the brain regions that control emotion, memory, and cravings. Through food preferences, flavor impacts global issues such as the environment and climate change. Flavor is thus a powerful example of the global reach of the brain’s realities and illusions.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Gordon M. Shepherd Why did I love this book?

Wrangham collected the evidence that the ability of early humans to control fire was the key to the evolution of our large brains, because it made it possible to soften food to make it easily digestible, which had two advantages: the food had higher energy, which enabled humans to develop larger energy-demanding brains with a larger cortex and greater cognitive abilities, and it freed humans from lengthy chewing of uncooked food so that they could devote their time to exploring and exploiting their habitat and social organization

Cooking also gave food heightened flavors, which added to its attractiveness and was a driving force in human evolution, a keystone of the new field of Neurogastronomy.  All of these factors mean that simple ideas about diets to enhance health need to recognize that food flavors are built deep in our brains, and the better we understand this the better we can select and maintain healthy diets.  This understanding of a central human behavior and its role in the evolution of our large brains is wonderfully insightful into how we humans became who we are.

By Richard Wrangham,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this stunningly original book, Richard Wrangham argues that it was cooking that caused the extraordinary transformation of our ancestors from apelike beings to Homo erectus. At the heart of Catching Fire lies an explosive new idea: The habit of eating cooked rather than raw food permitted the digestive tract to shrink and the human brain to grow, helped structure human society, and created the male-female division of labour. As our ancestors adapted to using fire, humans emerged as "the cooking apes".

Covering everything from food-labelling and overweight pets to raw-food faddists, Catching Fire offers a startlingly original argument about…

Book cover of Birth of Intelligence: From RNA to Artificial Intelligence

Gordon M. Shepherd Why did I love this book?

If flavorful food has been a critical element in the evolution of our large brains, how did large brains give rise to our high intelligence?  This is to be found in the circuits of our cerebral cortex and the regions to which it is connected. Daeyeol Lee is one of the leaders in research on how the cerebral cortex generates behavior in monkeys, for its insights into how this occurs in humans.  This is providing new ways to define the neural basis of intelligence based on the application of new single-cell recording techniques in primates and brain scanning techniques in humans.  

With his approach based on a deep understanding of how primates gave rise to humans, Lee asks the critical questions: What is intelligence? How did it evolve from monkeys to humans? Can computers and artificial intelligence ever equal human biological intelligence in all its complexity?   Based on Lee’s research on the biological and computational underpinnings of decision making and intelligent behaviors, Birth of Intelligence proposes that true intelligence requires the living brain in its living organism, one of the basic issues at stake in the brain vs AI debate.

By Daeyeol Lee,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

What is intelligence? How did it begin and evolve to human intelligence? Does a high level of biological intelligence require a complex brain? Can man-made machines be truly intelligent? Is AI fundamentally different from human intelligence? In Birth of Intelligence, distinguished neuroscientist Daeyeol Lee tackles these pressing fundamental issues. To better prepare for future society and its technology, including how the use of AI will impact our lives, it
is essential to understand the biological root and limits of human intelligence. After systematically reviewing biological and computational underpinnings of decision making and intelligent behaviors, Birth of Intelligence proposes that true…

Book cover of Ignorance: How It Drives Science

Gordon M. Shepherd Why did I love this book?

How does science actually work? In the quest for understanding nature, taking the brain as an example, scientists are traditionally believed to carry out experiments to accumulate new facts which added together reveal new knowledge. Stuart Firestein puts forth a revolutionary view: that piling new facts one on the other is not how scientists work. Progress is measured in how far each step is able to remove our ignorance of that aspect of nature, and how much new ignorance it reveals that stimulates the next efforts along the way.

Firestein highlights this view with real-life stories of how four scientists by different means stumble on new ways to push back ignorance. His own story begins with him as a theater director with no college degree and ends with him in graduate school recording the first signals from a receptor cell for smell which opens olfaction to modern electrophysiology, followed by the first evidence that the newly discovered olfactory genes make the smell receptors. The take-home message is that in the study of the neural basis of behavior, what matters is not what we have learned as much as what is revealed that remains to be learned.

By Stuart Firestein,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Knowledge is a big subject, says Stuart Firestein, but ignorance is a bigger one. And it is ignorance-not knowledge-that is the true engine of science.

Most of us have a false impression of science as a surefire, deliberate, step-by-step method for finding things out and getting things done. In fact, says Firestein, more often than not, science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, and there may not be a cat in the room. The process is more hit-or-miss than you might imagine, with much stumbling and groping after phantoms. But it is exactly this "not…

Book cover of The True Creator of Everything: How the Human Brain Shaped the Universe as We Know It

Gordon M. Shepherd Why did I love this book?

Many years ago a young neuroscientist asked to visit me; he had just come to the U.S. from Brazil and was seeking advice on a lab he could join to train in the function of nerve cells in the cerebral cortex. He soon became spectacularly successful, showing that the brain forms different perceptions and controls different movements by overlapping distributions of cortical neurons that constitute an internal reality of the external world.

Building on this knowledge, Nicolellis has led the way in constructing brain-machine interfaces to enable a patient, for example, to learn to walk after suffering a stroke. In doing so, he has come to realize that everything humans experience in our lives is due to the reality constructed by the brain to represent the reality of the external world. As he expresses it, brain reality is the true creator of everything. Some may find this new view disturbing, but all will find it important to grapple with. It is even more important as our reality becomes increasingly dependent on the enhancements as well as the distortions of artificial intelligence.

By Miguel Nicolellis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A radically new cosmological view from a groundbreaking neuroscientist who places the human brain at the center of humanity's universe

Renowned neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis introduces a revolutionary new theory of how the human brain evolved to become an organic computer without rival in the known universe. He undertakes the first attempt to explain the entirety of human history, culture, and civilization based on a series of recently uncovered key principles of brain function. This new cosmology is centered around three fundamental properties of the human brain: its insurmountable malleability to adapt and learn; its exquisite ability to allow multiple individuals…

Book cover of The Deep Learning Revolution

Gordon M. Shepherd Why did I love this book?

The other books in this series are mostly about the real brain. But artificial intelligence promises us a new enhanced brain. What does the future hold? Terrence Sejnowski is a neuroscientist who was one of the first to realize the potential of AI. Since he has been there from the start, in this book he gives the reader an exciting inside story on the people and the advances that are reshaping our lives.

Early attempts at AI were limited, but once computational power took off big computers running multilayer neural nets began proving that they could defeat humans at the most demanding games, enhance human capabilities such as pattern recognition, text recognition, language translation, and driverless vehicles, and work to obtain rewards, just like a human. While these advances are dramatic, it is well to remember that the networks are built not from representations of real neurons, but rather from nodes connected by wires based on systems in physics. Our challenge is to constantly test these artificial nets against the connectivity of the real brain in order to enhance human lives for the good and not for the bad.

By Terrence J. Sejnowski,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How deep learning—from Google Translate to driverless cars to personal cognitive assistants—is changing our lives and transforming every sector of the economy.

The deep learning revolution has brought us driverless cars, the greatly improved Google Translate, fluent conversations with Siri and Alexa, and enormous profits from automated trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Deep learning networks can play poker better than professional poker players and defeat a world champion at Go. In this book, Terry Sejnowski explains how deep learning went from being an arcane academic field to a disruptive technology in the information economy.

Sejnowski played an important…

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Deep Roots

By Sung J. Woo,

Book cover of Deep Roots

Sung J. Woo Author Of Deep Roots

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Novelist Tennis fan Cinephile Gamer

Sung's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

After solving her first case, private eye Siobhan O’Brien is hired by Phillip Ahn, an octogenarian billionaire with his own personal island in the Pacific Northwest. Ahn, a genius in artificial intelligence, swears that Duke, his youngest child and only son, is an impostor. Is Ahn crazy, or is Duke really someone else? As Siobhan attempts to arrive at the truth, her biggest challenge will be dealing with Ahn’s family, who all live under the same gilded roof: his current wife, his two ex-wives, and their awful, privileged children.

What is the real reason that Siobhan was brought to this isolated estate? If she can keep her head – literally and figuratively – she’ll learn that family secrets have some very deep roots.

Deep Roots

By Sung J. Woo,

What is this book about?

After solving her first case, Siobhan O’Brien faces her biggest challenge yet – Thanksgiving!  With her lawyer boyfriend Craig in tow, Siobhan travels to Minneapolis to endure small talk with the extended O’Brien clan and chow down on some seriously delicious turkey and dressing.  Everything’s swell until her sister-in-law Gwen tells her about her brother Sven's frequent late-night meetings with his co-workers.  Since Siobhan’s next case is just a ferry ride from their house in Washington state, she asks for Siobhan’s help.
Big sister is happy to oblige, though she’s got her hands full.  Hired by Phillip Ahn, a Korean…

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