Popular neuroscience book suggestions

Neuroscience isn’t really my thing, so when my teenage daughter came asking for suggestions of a good popular book on the subject I took to Twitter. Several people kindly made suggestions, while others asked to be notified of the outcome of my quest. It seems to be a popular subject.

Here, in no particular order are the titles that were offered.

Graham Steel, one of my OA buddies, was first off the mark and ‘highly recommended’ Barry Gibb’s The The Rough Guide to the Brain (2012). 

Dorothy Bishop, an Oxford professor of psychology suggested Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory (2007) as ‘autobiography with historical account, so you appreciate where understanding came from’.

Steve Black, a friend from my college days, offered Vilayanur Ramachandran’s The Emerging Mind (which are his 2003 Reith Lectures and are available from the BBC website) and his earlier Phantoms in the Brain (1999).

I myself had been thinking of David Eagleman’s Incognito (2012), which science writer Amy Harmon told me she is presently reading. Eagleman chimed in on Twitter* to confirm the sagacity of this choice.

Many thanks to all who made recommendations. If you have read any of these titles (or others not listed), please let me know what you thought. My daughter will be much obliged.


Update 1 (15 Sept; 08:52): After posting this, several other suggestions have come in through the comments (see below) and on Twitter.

Steve Royle enjoyed The War of the Soups and the Sparks (2007), which focuses on the discovery of neurotransmitters.

Ron Reid felt Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness (2004) to be worthy of consideration even if it is a bit more academic. He also recommended various titles by Oliver Sacks, including The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Awakenings and Uncle Tungsten; Nicole Slavin would add Musicophilia to that list of Sacks favourites.

Mirco Musolesi called Sebastian Seung’s Connectome (2013) ‘a great read’, a view with which Amy Harmon concurred.

John Tweedle declared Paul Broks’ Into the Silent Land (2004) to be ‘brilliant’.

And finally (for now), Peiro Raimondi recommended Ramachandran’s The Tell Tale Brain (2012) as a ‘beautiful compendium of all his other works (see above).


Update 2 (15 Sept; 21:17): The recommendations have kept on coming, so here is another slew.

Tom Pollard (and several others) judged the graphic novel approach taken by Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros in Neurocomic (2013) to be ‘beautiful’.

As an undergraduate, Matthew Apps was inspired by Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1993).

As a PhD student, Narender Ramnani was influenced by Steven Rise’s The Making of Memory (2003). 

Ned Jenkinson recommended Neuroscience: an historical introduction (2014) by Mitch Glickstein. The single reviewer on Amazon also seemed to be impressed.

Aidan Horner thought Charles Ferneyhough’s Pieces of Light: the new science of memory (2013) was great. It was shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize 2013 and the 2013 Best Book of Ideas Prize — and recommended by Frank Norman in the comments below.

Divija Rao mentioned (but did not assess) Rhythms of the Brain (2011) by Gyorgy Buszáki. However, Amazon reviewers called it ‘scholarly’ and ‘dense but readable’. Science writer David Dobbs declared it to be ‘an amazing book’. But it may be a bit pricey for the casual reader.

Olga Rodriguez recommended Michael Gazziniga’s Who’s in charge (2011) but, cryptically, not for teenagers who she thought would be better off with the works of Oliver Sacks (see above for titles).

For Shane O’Mara Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain (1988) was the book that hooked him on psychology.

And finally for now, @eegrapher really enjoyed the bite-sized chunks in Mo Costandi’s 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know (2013).

Thanks again to all who took the trouble to share their favourites. Now, which one shall I get for my daughter…?


*I would have embedded some of the tweets I got but can’t seem to get Twitter to play with WordPress tonight. 
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11 Responses to Popular neuroscience book suggestions

  1. John Saunders says:

    Best neuroscience book I’ve read (though it’s not ‘popular’) is The Master and his Emissary, about the differences between the hemispheres – very profound.

  2. Frank Norman says:

    I recently finished reading Charles Ferneyhoygh’s Pieces of light – the new science of memory. http://www.charlesfernyhough.com/pol.html

    More cognitive than neuroscience, but it was a Royal Society Winton Prize shortlisted book, and I enjoyed it.

  3. Amy Charles says:

    Oh, I heard wonderful things about The Master and His Emissary, from the friend whose literary judgment I trust best, too. I’d forgotten about it.

  4. Leila says:

    Anything by Oliver Sacks if she’s interested in things that ‘go wrong’ with our brains and what we can learn from them.

    I am also a big fan of Antonio Damasio, in particular his book Descartes Error. It’s a great exploration of his ideas about the connections between emotion and reasoning, again from the perspective of lessons learned from patients where these connections appear to be broken.

    • Stephen says:

      I tried to read Damasio’s book a few years back and could only manage to stomach a few pages. The approach/style really didn’t appeal. Different strokes, I guess…

  5. Jon Machtynger says:

    I found this one fantastic. It was very difficult in some parts but provided a very good rationalisation to what was happening at a biological level and then how those capabilities had equivalent mathematical representations. Very grounded in hard evidence.

    Theoretical Neuroscience: Computational and Mathematical Modeling of Neural Systems by Peter Dayan and Laurence F. Abbott.

  6. I don’t think I’ll join this game. My great hero, Bernard Katz, said, at the end of his inaugural lecture as professor of biophysics at UCL.

    “My time is up and very glad I am, because I have been leading myself right up to a domain on which I should not dare to trespass, not even in an Inaugural Lecture. This domain contains the awkward problems of mind and matter about which so much has been talked and so little can be said, and having told you of my pedestrian disposition, I hope you will give me leave to stop at this point and not to hazard any further guesses.”

    That seems to me to be almost as true as when he said it in 1952, though the amount of hype as increased enormously. For example, we still haven’t got the foggiest idea about the physical basis of memory. I have always preferred to work on questions that there is some chance of answering.

    • Stephen says:

      Fair enough David though I’m really just trying to find a book that gives a decent and accessible account of the current state of the art in neuroscience.

      • Sure, I understand that. I wish you luck in finding a book that is free of exaggeration about what’s actually known.
        I guess the main reason that I’m not interested in the brain is that it’s impossibly complicated, but a large contributory factor is that so few people seem to be able to bring themselves to say clearly “we don’t know”.

  7. Dave Fernig says:

    Thank you – A most useful list, from which I will try to pick something for a young teenager in the coming months. It was easy in the days of toddler picture books, you could scan read the entire contents of Waterstones in an hour. Now that they have tastes, which are, of course, as ill-defined as in the adult, and able to read as fast and as voraciously as myself, picking books becomes rather more challenging! The upside is quiet Sunday mornings, all noses buried in books 🙂

  8. I completely missed this, Stephen. Great list you’ve got going here!

    Not exactly neuroscience, but more in the vein of Oliver Sacks and anecdotes about the brain and its foibles, is Jay Ingram’s The Burning House: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Brain. Certainly not up-to-date, but very interesting nonetheless.

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