The best books about or by neuroscientist

Many authors have picked their favorite books about or by neuroscientist and why they recommend each book.

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Mind

By John R. Searle,

Book cover of Mind: A Brief Introduction

A concise introduction to the beating heart of the ancient mind-body problem – consciousness and free will. Searle, famous for his Chinese Room argument that is featured in the book, engages with contemporary scientific theories of consciousness, which is uncommon for philosophers. What is even rarer is that Searle professes himself perplexed when it comes to reconciling his feelings of acting freely with the laws of physics that appear to rule out free will.


Who am I?

I am a neuroscientist best known for my studies and writings exploring the brain basis of consciousness. Trained as a physicist, I was for 27 years a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena before moving to the Allen Institute in Seattle, where I became the Chief Scientist and then the President in 2015. I published my first paper on the neural correlates of consciousness with the molecular biologist Francis Crick more than thirty years ago.


I wrote...

The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

By Christof Koch,

Book cover of The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

What is my book about?

In my latest book,The Feeling of Life Itself (2019), I define consciousness as any subjective experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted. How can the brain, three pounds of highly excitable matter, a piece of furniture of the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as any other piece, give rise to subjective experience? I argue that what is needed is a quantitative theory that starts with experience and proceeds to the brain. I outline such a theory, based on integrated information, and describe how it has been used to build a clinically useful consciousness-meter. The theory predicts that many, and perhaps all, animals experience the sights and sounds of life; consciousness is much more widespread than conventionally assumed. Contrary to received wisdom, however, programmable computers will not be conscious. Even a perfect software model of the brain will not be conscious. Its consciousness is fake. Consciousness is not a special type of computation—it is not a clever hack. Consciousness is about being.

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

By Eliot Weinberg,

Book cover of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

An extraordinary gem of a booklet that considers the many ways that four lines of a single poem, composed by an 8th century Chinese Buddhist, have been translated into modern idiom. It is amazing how a mere twenty ideograms, depicting a mountain and forest scene devoid of people, can illuminate the variety and subtlety of consciousness. I recommend the 2016 edition with additional translations.


Who am I?

I am a neuroscientist best known for my studies and writings exploring the brain basis of consciousness. Trained as a physicist, I was for 27 years a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena before moving to the Allen Institute in Seattle, where I became the Chief Scientist and then the President in 2015. I published my first paper on the neural correlates of consciousness with the molecular biologist Francis Crick more than thirty years ago.


I wrote...

The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

By Christof Koch,

Book cover of The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

What is my book about?

In my latest book,The Feeling of Life Itself (2019), I define consciousness as any subjective experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted. How can the brain, three pounds of highly excitable matter, a piece of furniture of the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as any other piece, give rise to subjective experience? I argue that what is needed is a quantitative theory that starts with experience and proceeds to the brain. I outline such a theory, based on integrated information, and describe how it has been used to build a clinically useful consciousness-meter. The theory predicts that many, and perhaps all, animals experience the sights and sounds of life; consciousness is much more widespread than conventionally assumed. Contrary to received wisdom, however, programmable computers will not be conscious. Even a perfect software model of the brain will not be conscious. Its consciousness is fake. Consciousness is not a special type of computation—it is not a clever hack. Consciousness is about being.

Innate

By Kevin J. Mitchell,

Book cover of Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are

We neuroscientists know a lot about how brains are, but not how they come to be. This book fills that huge hole: it explains how genetics and development shape the growing brain, and the consequences this has for our personalities and our mental disorders. Mitchell’s thesis is that the stochastic nature of development is key to understanding much of the variation between brains, and it has changed the way I think about the wiring of brains.


Who am I?

I’m a British neuroscientist and writer who’s been using computers to study the brain since 1998, and writing about it since 2016. How I ended up a neuroscientist is hard to explain, for my formative years were spent devouring science books that were not about the brain. That’s partly because finding worthwhile books about the brain is so hard – few delve into how the brain actually works, into the kinds of meaty details that, for example, Hawking offered us on physics and Dawkins on evolution. So I wrote one to solve that problem; and the books on my list are just that too: deep, insightful works on how the brain does what it does.


I wrote...

The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds

By Mark Humphries,

Book cover of The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds

What is my book about?

We see the last cookie in the box and think, can I take that? We reach a hand out. In the 2.1 seconds that this impulse travels through our brain, billions of neurons communicate with one another, sending blips of voltage through our sensory and motor regions. Neuroscientists call these blips “spikes.” Spikes enable us to do everything: talk, eat, run, see, plan, and decide. In The Spike, Mark Humphries takes readers on the epic journey of a spike through a single, brief reaction. In vivid language, Humphries tells the story of what happens in our brain, what we know about spikes, and what we still have left to understand about them.

Drawing on decades of research in neuroscience, Humphries explores how spikes are born, how they are transmitted, and how they lead us to action. 

Exhalation

By Ted Chiang,

Book cover of Exhalation

Any minute spent reading Ted Chiang is a minute well spent. Exhalation is a story of mechanical beings that are powered by compressed gas that is mined from underground. A seemingly innocuous observation (clocks are speeding up) leads a mechanical scientist to begin to explore the true nature of consciousness. The story itself is beautiful and fascinating, but as a neuroscientist, I was deeply impressed by Chiang’s description of the mechanism of cognition. If scientists ever figure out how the brain produces cognition, they might find that Chiang’s description is the closest to the truth.


Who am I?

I am an associate professor of neuroscience at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands. My research lab focuses on discovering how the brain uses electrical signaling to compute information, and transfer information across different regions of the brain. I also have a few decades of experience teaching scientific coding, data analysis, statistics, and related topics, and have authored several online courses and textbooks. I have a suspiciously dry sense of humor and insufficient patience to read five books on the same topic.


I wrote...

Linear Algebra: Theory, Intuition, Code

By Mike X Cohen,

Book cover of Linear Algebra: Theory, Intuition, Code

What is my book about?

Linear algebra is the study of matrices (like a spreadsheet of numbers) and operations acting on them. Linear algebra used to be an advanced topic that was only of interest to advanced mathematics students. But modern computing has brought linear algebra to the forefront of human civilization: Nearly everything that computers do — from video graphics to financial modeling to machine learning to artificial intelligence — is implemented using linear algebra. I have tried to present linear algebra in a way that is rigorous yet lucid, explaining proofs and concepts while also using diagrams and code to show how linear algebra is applied and used in practice. This textbook can be used for self-study or as part of a university-level course.

We Are Our Brains

By D.F. Swaab, Jane Hedley-Prole (translator),

Book cover of We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer's

A book written after decades of research by a leading neuroscientist to share his love of the brain with the general public. An ideal starter book for those of you who want to get a sense of all the different parts of the complex organ that comprise the human brain. In a series of chapters on the many different parts, regions structures, and brain processes this book provides a succinct yet comprehensive overview of the brain. It explains what the different parts do to make your brain work and how they work together they make us do what we do and makes sense of what we are.

Who am I?

I have been a doctor, psychiatrist, and brain researcher for nearly 50 years. I have treated thousands of patients, written over a thousand scientific articles, and given a similar number of lectures to medical and neuroscience students and to the general public. I have held many leadership positions in this field for academic groups both in UK and Europe and in 2009 I set up the charity Drug Science, to tell the truth about drugs and addiction.


I wrote...

Nutt Uncut

By David J. Nutt,

Book cover of Nutt Uncut

What is my book about?

Most people know David Nutt as the sacked drug czar. But my real life I am an academic psychiatrist and researcher who uses neuroimaging to study the brain so I can help understand how it goes wrong in mental and neurological illnesses, and so helps the search for new treatments. This book takes the reader on my journey from enquiring schoolboy, through my medical training into research and then becoming the government chief advisor on drugs.

This path has often taken me into controversial areas such as the safety of treatments for mental illness and the role of animals in medical research. I have been the subject of bomb attacks from anti-vivs and reputational assaults from anti-psychiatry groups. But my belief in science as the foundation of decision making has allowed me to overcome these and continue to do innovative brain research and pioneer new clinical treatments especially those using “illegal” drugs such as psychedelics and MDMA.

Sum

By David Eagleman,

Book cover of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Awesomely creative think-piece. 40 very short fictional stories about what happens when you die. The framework is inspiring for anyone: coming up with 40 different answers to any one question. But they’re also just brilliant ideas and powerful little fables.


Who am I?

The greatest thrill is seeing something a new way. Remember the end of the movie The Sixth Sense, when you learn he was dead the whole time? It blows your mind and makes you re-think everything you saw. That's how it feels to learn another philosophy or a new distinction in understanding the world. I'm always seeking more of those moments, and these five books (plus mine) do that more than any I've found so far.


I wrote...

How to Live: 27 Conflicting Answers and One Weird Conclusion

By Derek Sivers,

Book cover of How to Live: 27 Conflicting Answers and One Weird Conclusion

What is my book about?

27 different answers to the question of how to live your life. Each chapter disagrees with the rest. But in this case, they’re all true, so how can you reconcile it? You’ll see.

This book is only available from the author here.

How Dogs Love Us

By Gregory Berns,

Book cover of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain

I am forever wondering what goes on in the deep recesses of my dogs’ brains. (Except if it’s 5:00 p.m. and my Labrador-mix locks eyes on me. Then, I know it’s dinner time.) It’s this desire to peer into my dogs’ heads that attracted me to Gregory Berns’ pioneering research. In 2011, Berns came up with the radical notion that dogs could be trained to enter an MRI machine and remain still long enough to have their brains scanned and thus, studied. Many doubted him, but Berns and his Terrier-mix Callie proved them wrong. This is their incredible story.


Who am I?

Do you ever wonder what your dog’s life was like before he became part of your family? Or what your dog is thinking when she stares at you? I’m a journalist, and when I get curious about something, I start asking questions, and I read. A lot. When I started researching the book that would become Dogland, I began collecting dog books of all kinds: novels, memoirs, nonfiction. Now I review dog books for EcoLit Books, an online journal featuring works with animal welfare and environmental themes. The books listed below—a mix of fiction and nonfiction—are some of my favorites. 


I wrote...

Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America's Dog Problem

By Jacki Skole,

Book cover of Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America's Dog Problem

What is my book about?

In a mix of memoir and investigative journalism, Dogland follows Jacki Skole’s journey to trace the origins of her family’s rescue dog. Skole takes readers from dilapidated county-run shelters in the South to strip malls in the Northeast where rescue groups seek homes for homeless pets. She visits rural and urban “vet deserts” and exposes the South’s complex relationship with companion dogs. Along the way, Skole interviews dozens who work in the world of animal rescue. What she discovers reveals as much about her young dog as the multi-faceted human-canine relationship.

“[Dogland] is not only an incredibly well-written and engrossing read, but it is an important and thought-provoking work that challenges each of us to evaluate how companion animals are treated and traded in this country." --Tracy Slowiak, Readers’ Favorite

The True Creator of Everything

By Miguel Nicolellis,

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

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,…


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.

Bookshelves related to or by neuroscientist