The best books on what makes humans so smart

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of what is innate and what is learned, and how the two things interact to issue in ourselves. It turns out that the innate human capacity for controlled uses of working memory, combined with a suite of other cognitive enhancements, then interact with culture and cultural learning to enable distinctively human forms of life; and that those cognitive enhancements are themselves a product of gene-culture co-evolution.


I wrote...

The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought

By Peter Carruthers,

Book cover of The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought

What is my book about?

This book builds on my previous work on the nature of self-knowledge and the architecture of human and animal minds. Drawing on my knowledge of the scientific literature on working memory and related topics, here I develop an argument that challenges central assumptions about the mind made by many philosophers, scientists, and ordinary people. I argue that our non-sensory goals, judgments, decisions, and intentions can only ever operate unconsciously behind the scenes, selecting and manipulating the sensory-based images that figure consciously in working memory (most notably visual imagery and inner speech). I also show that so-called “propositional attitudes” like judgments and decisions are never under direct intentional control, whereas our capacity to control the sensory attentional system lies at the heart of human intelligence.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Peter Carruthers Why did I love this book?

How have human groups been able to adapt themselves to almost every kind of ecology on the planet – from rain forests, to savannah, to deserts, to high altitudes, and even to the frozen arctic itself?

Henrich shows how our capacity for cultural learning is the key, enabling knowledge and skills to accumulate across generations. And that capacity, in turn, depends on a suite of cognitive adaptations (for mentalizing, for language, for moral thinking) that likely evolved through forms of gene-culture co-evolution from simpler versions previously present in other animals.

By Joseph Henrich,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Secret of Our Success as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into a vast range of diverse environments. What has enabled us to dominate the globe, more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? This book shows that the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in…


Book cover of Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

Peter Carruthers Why did I love this book?

What is it for a thought to be conscious? Dehaene reviews evidence (much of it from his own lab) supporting the global workspace theory of consciousness. Entry into that workspace enables a wide range of cognitive systems (for affective responding, for reasoning, and for decision making) to consume and respond to signals generated elsewhere within specialized subsystems of the mind. And the “gatekeeper” of entry into the workspace is directed attention.

By Stanislas Dehaene,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2014 BRAIN PRIZE

From the acclaimed author of Reading in the Brain and How We Learn, a breathtaking look at the new science that can track consciousness deep in the brain

How does our brain generate a conscious thought? And why does so much of our knowledge remain unconscious? Thanks to clever psychological and brain-imaging experiments, scientists are closer to cracking this mystery than ever before.

In this lively book, Stanislas Dehaene describes the pioneering work his lab and the labs of other cognitive neuroscientists worldwide have accomplished in defining, testing, and explaining the brain events behind…


Book cover of In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind

Peter Carruthers Why did I love this book?

This is an earlier incarnation of the global workspace theory of consciousness (which in turn follows up on Baars’ book from nearly a decade earlier, titled A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness). Although some of the evidence Baars draws on is a little bit dated today, the theory is still valid, and the book is a great read.

By Bernard J. Baars,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Theater of Consciousness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The study of conscious experience has seen remarkable strides in the last ten years, reflecting important technological breakthroughs and the enormous efforts of researchers in disciplines as varied as neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy. Although still embroiled in debate, scientists are now beginning to find common ground in their understanding of consciousness, which may pave the way for a unified explanation of how and why we experience and understand
the world around us. Written by eminent psychologist Bernard J. Baars, Inside the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind brings us to the frontlines of this exciting discipline, offering…


Book cover of Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count

Peter Carruthers Why did I love this book?

Is intelligence innate, or is it a product of upbringing and circumstances? Of course, it is both. Nisbett reviews the nature-nurture debate with an emphasis on nurture, showing how cultural practices (even as simple as how frequently young children get spoken to by adults) and later schooling collectively make an immense difference.

By Richard E. Nisbett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Intelligence and How to Get It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who are smarter, Asians or Westerners? Are there genetic explanations for group differences in test scores? From the damning research of The Bell Curve to the more recent controversy surrounding geneticist James Watson's statements, one factor has been consistently left out of the equation: culture. In the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, world-class social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett takes on the idea of intelligence as biologically determined and impervious to culture with vast implications for the role of education as it relates to social and economic development. Intelligence and How to Get It asserts that intellect…


Book cover of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Peter Carruthers Why did I love this book?

Wrangham makes a powerful case that the critical cultural innovation underlying the evolution of distinctively human intelligence was the capacity to harness fire and cook food. Since cooking makes food more digestible, the practice enabled our ancestors to swap out the large guts that are characteristic of the other great apes like chimpanzees, replacing them with much larger brains instead.

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…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the brain, culture, and neuroscience?

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

The Brain Explore 143 books about the brain
Culture Explore 103 books about culture
Neuroscience Explore 133 books about neuroscience