The best cognitive neuroscience books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about cognitive neuroscience and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

Social

By Matthew D. Lieberman,

Book cover of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

“The bad news is that as a society we’re blowing it.” Not because the GDP isn’t high enough, distinguished psychologist Matthew Lieberman argues, but because we don’t understand basic facts about our social brains: (1) Physical and social pain share the same neurocognitive processes, as do responses to physical and social rewards; (2) Our ability (and proclivity) to mentalize—to understand others’ actions as driven by their thoughts—relies on and competes with a different neural system than nonsocial thinking; (3) Our sense of self is a Trojan horse transmitting social influence and so harmonizing behavior in groups.  As a result, improving our social relations—not increasing our financial wealth—makes us happier; maximizing social capital increases our productivity at work; and engaging our social brains improves our learning. If that gets your attention, you’re ready to read Social


Who am I?

As a young sociologist, I shunned explanations of human behavior informed by psychology and biology, but over the years my research showed me that individual predispositions and capacities influence social structure, as well as the other way around.  Books like those I recommend helped me recognize how evolutionary dynamics gave rise to our intensely social nature and so explain many social processes.  And as I began this intellectual journey, events in my own life ripped off the psychological seal I had constructed over my childhood experiences of maternal abandonment and paternal suicide and finally enabled me to make sense of them. We can improve our individual and societal health by increasing our understanding of our fundamental social needs.   


I co-edited...

Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

By Russell K. Schutt (editor), Larry J. Seidman (editor), Matcheri Keshavan (editor)

Book cover of Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

What is my book about?

Human beings evolved in the company of others and flourish in proportion to their positive social ties. To understand the human brain, we must situate its biology in the wider context of society. To understand society, we must also consider how the brains and minds of individuals shape interactions with other human beings.

In Social Neuroscience, leading researchers in the fields of neurobiology, psychiatry, psychology, and sociology provide a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary explanation of the mutually reinforcing connections between brain, mind, and society. With a special focus on mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, the book’s chapters highlight the profound implications for human health of emotional damage due to severe social deprivation, neurological deficits resulting from parental abuse, cognitive deficits after neighborhood violence, and the gains in cognition and functioning that can result from systematic socially-oriented rehabilitation programs.

Consciousness and the Brain

By Stanislas Dehaene,

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

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.


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 Undoing Project

By Michael Lewis,

Book cover of The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

If I ever assumed my decisions were the result of a carefully reasoned analysis of factual information, The Undoing Project would derail that comfortable belief. It is the story of the creative collaboration of two remarkable thinkers, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work would overturn an idea at the center of most prior economic theory, the idea that people’s economic decisions are based on rational self-interest. The intense working friendship of these two men is a gripping story, and Michael Lewis brings the personal side to vivid life while also conveying the essence of their revolutionary thinking in lucid and approachable prose.


Who am I?

As a novelist, I am endlessly curious about people and like hearing their stories. As an erstwhile computer programmer and farmer, I also have a lifelong interest in science and natural history. When I find those two divergent interests have cross-pollinated in a single gracefully-written book, I am a very happy reader. I love books that weave together an intriguing scientific question with the human story of the scientists pursuing an answer to that question.


I wrote...

Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

By Edith Forbes,

Book cover of Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

What is my book about?

When I experienced my first episode of multiple sclerosis in 1993, no treatments existed. The doctors said there was nothing to be done. I was raised by a mother whose early widowhood had left her with seven young children, a ranch in Wyoming, and an ambition to change the world.  She did not like the phrase “nothing to be done” and neither did I.

I immersed myself in the medical literature, and thanks to my background in agriculture, I noticed a possible dietary factor in MS that was not being talked about. That observation launched me on a self-designed experiment that continues to this day. Tracking a Shadow tells the story of that experiment and the mother who taught me to ask questions.  

Being You

By Anil Seth,

Book cover of Being You: A New Science of Consciousness

I have been suspicious about the construct of consciousness, thinking that it was not scientifically tractable. This book changed my mind. It is written by a hard-core neuroscientist who turned my mental world upside down by showing that perception, both external and internal, is not an inner representation of reality. Perception relies on Bayesian predictions (best guesses) leading to ‘controlled hallucinations’ (including your sense of self!) rather than recreating reality. Consciousness is the ‘red pill’ that allows us to break out of the Matrix. Check out his TED talk with 12 million views.


Who am I?

During my undergraduate studies in psychology, we were never exposed to genetics. In 1970, I began graduate training in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, which was one of the few universities that had a course about genetics in psychology. The course floored me, and I knew right away that I wanted to study genetic influences in psychology. At that time, psychology was generally hostile to the notion of genetic influence. Now, 50 years later, most psychologists recognize the importance of genetics. The DNA revolution is changing everything by making it possible to predict psychological traits using DNA alone. 


I wrote...

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are

By Robert Plomin,

Book cover of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are

What is my book about?

What made you the way you are? – your personality, your mental health, and your cognitive abilities. Professor Plomin’s book, Blueprint, is the culmination of his 45 years of research trying to understand the genetic and environmental influences that make us different, our nature and nurture. He is one of the world's top behavioral geneticists who offers a unique, insider's view of the exciting synergies that came from combining genetics and psychology.

In Blueprint, he concludes that inherited DNA differences are the major systematic force, the blueprint, that makes us who we are as individuals. The power to read our DNA blueprint will transform science, society, and how we understand ourselves.

Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

By Michael S. Gazzaniga,

Book cover of Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain

As a young researcher Michael S. Gazzaniga studied people afflicted with epilepsy. A recent discovery was that they fare better when the corpus callosum – the nerve fiber bundle that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain – is cut, disconnecting the organ's two halves. Amazing insights can be gleaned from these split-brain patients, Gazzaniga demonstrated, as he explains in this book. His most famous experiment involved patient P.S. 

Gazzaniga used a machine to flash the image of a chicken claw to P.S.'s right eye (which was processed by his left hemisphere, where the speech center is located) and the image of a hut surrounded by snow to the other eye (which was processed by his right hemisphere). Then came the surprise, as Gazzaniga showed P.S. some pictures of a chicken and a shovel and asked him to match them with the images he'd seen. (This time he…


Who am I?

Rick Shenkman is a New York Times bestselling author, historian, and journalist who, after reading and writing history books for 40 years, decided to spend the past decade discovering what social scientists have to say. To his great joy, he learned that since he had last studied their work in college they had come to a vast new understanding of human political behavior. He now uses their insights into political psychology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and genetics to help explain our fucked up politics.


I wrote...

Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics

By Rick Shenkman,

Book cover of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics

What is my book about?

My book begins with a question: Why are we so bad at politics? The answer turns out to be that we evolved to thrive in a world vastly different from the one in which we find ourselves. Our gut instincts, designed to help us cope with a community of about 150 people, fail us repeatedly and nearly completely when facing the challenges of a society composed of millions. This is why we elect morons, are taken in by nonsense, and are susceptible to conspiracy thinking.

I wrote my book before Donald Trump was elected. But a Washington Post reviewer wrote that my book explained Trump's election better than others that focused on Trump. We don't have a Donald Trump problem. We have a human being problem.

Stumbling on Happiness

By Daniel Gilbert,

Book cover of Stumbling on Happiness

This book argues that humans do not know what makes them happy because we inaccurately perceive our unconscious emotional states. Gilbert makes the case that we consistently habituate to our circumstances and our happiness bounces around a genetically-drive set point. Over our lives, we stumble toward accepting that to thrive, we must seek out small moments of wonder and surprise. This book directly inspired my research on the neuroscience of happiness. My research extended Gilbert's book by showing that peak immersion experiences not only make us happy in the moment, but can train our brains to experience greater happiness throughout our lives.  


Who am I?

In my view, there is no bigger quest than to understand how to live a long and fulfilled life. Most of my professional life has focused on running neuroscience experiments in my academic laboratory and developing technologies for companies I have started to understand and increase happiness. I have devoted 20 years to this quest and I continue to work to build a happier and healthier world. I am one of the most cited scientists in this area and also regularly communicate to the general public through TED talks, books, magazine articles, and public lectures.    


I wrote...

Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness

By Paul J. Zak,

Book cover of Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness

What is my book about?

No one has ever raved about a boring movie, a bland customer service experience, or a sleep-inducing class. Yet, most designers of experiences fail to create the extraordinary because until very recently, there was no way to measure what people’s brains really love. Immersion offers a framework readers can apply to transform the ordinary to extraordinary. Based on 20 years of neuroscience research from his lab and innumerable uses by companies of the Immersion platform, Dr. Paul J. Zak explains why brains crave the extraordinary and shows readers exactly how to create amazing experiences for customers, prospects, employees, audiences, and learners. Creating the extraordinary used to be extraordinarily hard, but Immersion shows you how to wow people every time and create more happiness in the world.  

The Eureka Factor

By John Kounios, Mark Beeman,

Book cover of The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain

Did you ever have a sudden insight, a new idea—something that made you go, “Aha!”? It’s as if your brain had been doing unconscious work, then suddenly “reported up” to your conscious mind. This book by two prominent cognitive neuroscientists gives a clear picture of what scientists have learned about how brain networks connecting the two hemispheres give rise to creative insights. Their book helped me think about how new metaphors might be discovered—just one example of what the creative mind can do.


Who am I?

I’m a professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA, and also a poet. Growing up on a dairy farm in British Columbia, I immersed myself in the world of books. My mother showed me her well-worn copy of a poetry book written by her Scottish great-great-aunt, and I longed to create my own arrangements of words. Later, as a student at the University of British Columbia and then Stanford, my interest in creativity was channeled into research on how people think. I’ve studied how people use analogies and metaphors to create new ideas. In addition to books on the psychology of thinking and reasoning, I’ve written several volumes of poetry.


I wrote...

The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

By Keith J. Holyoak,

Book cover of The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

What is my book about?

I’ve approached creativity as both psychologist and poet, but I always kept a mental curtain drawn between the two points of view—until I wrote The Spider’s Thread. Taking poetry as a microcosm for human creativity, I explore it simultaneously from the “outside” view of a scientist and the “inside” view of a poet. I draw on the ideas of scientists— psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, and computer scientists— as well as thinkers from the humanities—poets, philosophers, and critics. Each chapter begins with a poem (by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Du Fu, William Butler Yeats, and Pablo Neruda), and then steps back to explore wider connections to metaphor, mind, and the human brain. 

Feeling Beauty

By G. Gabrielle Starr,

Book cover of Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience

This book is an excellent example of interdisciplinarity. Gabrielle Starr is a humanist—a literary scholar, by training—who probes neuroscience methods and how brain sciences can contribute to our understanding of aesthetics. She addresses literature, poetry, music, and visual art with ideas informed by experimental neuroaesthetics work.


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by beauty and art. As a child growing up in India, I sketched frequently. Later, I became obsessed with photography. In 1999, I moved from my first academic job to join the newly forming Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. The move was an opportunity to rethink my research program. In addition to studying spatial cognition, attention, and language, I decided to investigate the biological basis of aesthetic experiences. At the time there was virtually no scholarship in the neuroscience of aesthetics. It has been an exciting journey to watch this field grow. And, it has been exhilarating to start the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, the first research center of its kind in the US.


I wrote...

The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

By Anjan Chatterjee,

Book cover of The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

What is my book about?

The Aesthetic Brain takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through the world of beauty, pleasure, and art. Chatterjee uses neuroscience to probe how an aesthetic sense is etched in our minds and evolutionary psychology to explain why aesthetic concerns are central to our lives. He addresses fundamental questions: What is beauty? Is beauty universal? How is beauty related to pleasure? What is art? Should art be beautiful? Do we have an instinct for art?

Chatterjee starts by probing the reasons that we find people, places, and even numbers beautiful. At the root of beauty, he finds, is pleasure. He then examines our pleasures by dissecting why we like and why we want food, sex, and money and how these rewards relate to aesthetic encounters. His ruminations on beauty and pleasure prepare him and the reader to face art. 

Brain, Beauty, and Art

By Anjan Chatterjee (editor), Eileen Cardilo (editor),

Book cover of Brain, Beauty, and Art: Essays Bringing Neuroaesthetics Into Focus

This collection of essays will bring you up-to-date with the neuroscience of aesthetics. Each essay is written by foundational researchers whose empirical work launched the field. The essays are anchored to an original, peer-reviewed paper from the short history of this new and burgeoning discipline. Together, these essays establish the territory and current boundaries of neuroaesthetics and identify its most promising future directions.


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by beauty and art. As a child growing up in India, I sketched frequently. Later, I became obsessed with photography. In 1999, I moved from my first academic job to join the newly forming Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. The move was an opportunity to rethink my research program. In addition to studying spatial cognition, attention, and language, I decided to investigate the biological basis of aesthetic experiences. At the time there was virtually no scholarship in the neuroscience of aesthetics. It has been an exciting journey to watch this field grow. And, it has been exhilarating to start the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, the first research center of its kind in the US.


I wrote...

The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

By Anjan Chatterjee,

Book cover of The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

What is my book about?

The Aesthetic Brain takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through the world of beauty, pleasure, and art. Chatterjee uses neuroscience to probe how an aesthetic sense is etched in our minds and evolutionary psychology to explain why aesthetic concerns are central to our lives. He addresses fundamental questions: What is beauty? Is beauty universal? How is beauty related to pleasure? What is art? Should art be beautiful? Do we have an instinct for art?

Chatterjee starts by probing the reasons that we find people, places, and even numbers beautiful. At the root of beauty, he finds, is pleasure. He then examines our pleasures by dissecting why we like and why we want food, sex, and money and how these rewards relate to aesthetic encounters. His ruminations on beauty and pleasure prepare him and the reader to face art. 

Freedom Evolves

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Book cover of Freedom Evolves

The issues of free will and consciousness are, to my limited mind, inextricably linked. And so, while Dennett somewhat overpromised and underdelivered with his well-known Consciousness Explained (tremendously hard not to underdeliver with a title like that) here I think he’s much more on the money. I think of all the books that I’ve read which address, either directly or tangentially, the issue of how the mind works, this is the one that gave me the clearest new insight into how we might think about, well, thinking. Dennett is a fine thinker and an excellent communicator but he tends to lose nuance when he goes combative. This is one of his gentler books, and all the better for it.


Who am I?

I’m an educator at heart and have been teaching in high schools for over thirty years now. I get a kick out of helping young people see the world anew and think about ideas in ways that at first seem strange and challenging to them, both in the classroom and through my novels. Of course, to be any good at that, I have to be inquisitive and open myself, and there’s nothing like the topic of consciousness to make you feel feeble-minded and ill-informed. It’s such a wondrous topic because it sits at the precise meeting point of so many of our scientific, cultural, artistic, religious, and philosophical traditions.


I wrote...

Genesis

By Bernard Beckett,

Book cover of Genesis

What is my book about?

Anax thinks she knows history. Her grueling all-day Examination has just begun, and if she passes, she’ll be admitted into the Academy—the elite governing institution of her utopian society. But Anax is about to discover that for all her learning, the history she’s been taught isn’t the whole story. And the Academy isn’t what she believes it to be. In this brilliant novel of dazzling ingenuity, Anax’s examination leads us into a future where we are confronted with unresolved questions raised by science and philosophy.

Centuries old, these questions have gained new urgency in the face of rapidly developing technology. What is consciousness? What makes us human? If artificial intelligence were developed to a high enough capability, what special status could humanity still claim? Outstanding and original, Beckett’s dramatic narrative comes to a shocking conclusion.

Or, view all 11 books about cognitive neuroscience

New book lists related to cognitive neuroscience

All book lists related to cognitive neuroscience

Bookshelves related to cognitive neuroscience