The best books on what makes humans so smart

Peter Carruthers Author Of The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought
By Peter Carruthers

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.

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Joseph Henrich,

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

Why 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.


Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

By Stanislas Dehaene,

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

Why 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.


In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind

By Bernard J. Baars,

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

Why 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.


Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count

By Richard E. Nisbett,

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

Why 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.


Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

By Richard Wrangham,

Book cover of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Why 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.


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