The best books for understanding the brain and behavior

Gordon M. Shepherd Author Of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters
By Gordon M. Shepherd

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...

Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters

By Gordon M. Shepherd,

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.

The books I picked & why

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Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

By Richard Wrangham,

Book cover of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Why 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.


Birth of Intelligence: From RNA to Artificial Intelligence

By Daeyeol Lee,

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

Why 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.


Ignorance: How It Drives Science

By Stuart Firestein,

Book cover of Ignorance: How It Drives Science

Why 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.


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

By Miguel Nicolellis,

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

Why 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.


The Deep Learning Revolution

By Terrence J. Sejnowski,

Book cover of The Deep Learning Revolution

Why 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.


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