The Brain and Mind: A Short Annotated Reading List

I’ve put together reading lists before – see here. This one will overlap the earlier list, but is meant to provide a number of quick but intelligent ways into the whole brain/mind/therapy/neuroscience subject spread. As such, many of these books will be familiar, some perhaps not. Amazon UK links presented where possible.

The Human Brain

Rita CARTER, Mapping the Mind. A beautifully illustrated grand tour of the brain, this is, first and foremost, a thing of beauty. Lightly but carefully written, Carter nonetheless doesn’t shy away from current controversies, and if you are looking for an introduction to the subject that will detain you for no longer than a couple of evenings, this is the one to choose.

Eric KANDEL, In Search of Memory: the emergence of a new science of mind. This is Kandel’s biography and at the same time an in-depth history of neuroscience. If you’ve no previous knowledge, start with Carter, but if you have, Kandel provides a thrilling page-turner with the occasional mental roadblock as you chew on the difficult bits. I can’t forget his account of  Edgar wiring up a neuron to loudspeakers in 1928 and hearing it speak (a percussive bang! bang! bang!) for the first time…

One of Kandel’s first career goals was to find the physical location in the brain of Freud’s ego and id. We are a long way on from that, but it serves as a warning that the most basic theoretical underpinnings of neuroscience are still fresh and unstable and liable to drastic change at any time.

History of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

Frank TALLIS, Changing Minds: the history of psychotherapy as an answer to human suffering. Tallis’s book is short – only 170pp. – and is by a substantial margin the best introduction to the changing nature of talk therapies. It begins with Freud, and covers every important player and significant development. Tallis’s heroes are Beck and Bowlby – which, if you don’t know, is a demonstration of  good taste – and Tallis’s almost Jeevesian politeness doesn’t prevent him from giving famous flakes like Binswanger, Reich and Perls all they deserve.

Richard BENTALL, Madness Explained: psychosis and human nature. This is a “controversial” book, because it pretty much kicked off the current debate about both the efficacy of psychiatric treatment and the influence of culture and geography on experience of psychosis. For the record, I am Bentall’s man. You’ll find the first two chapters particularly useful on the essential psychiatry pioneers such as Emil Kraepelin, contemporaries to Freud but neglected men despite their victory in the battle of ideas (a victory which Bentall calls into question).

Edward SHORTER, A History of Psychiatry: from the era of the asylum to the age of prozac. A companion to Bentall. Shorter has the whole story of psychiatry, including ECT, which would ordinarily mean Reference Only for all but the most determined. But Shorter can write, and isn’t prepared to ignore controversy purely because he isn’t looking for a fight himself. You’ll find everything that matters here that isn’t in Tallis or Bentall. Unless you are looking for a history of the self-help/motivation movement – and I’m not aware that a good one exists. A project for Francis Wheen, perhaps.

Human Consciousness

Consciousness is still as much a philosophical issue as it is a neuroscientific one: we are still defining terms. Both scientists and philosophers matter here.

Nicholas HUMPHREY, Seeing Red: a study in consciousness. This is the best introduction to the subject: Humphrey’s ability to clarify ambiguous and difficult ideas borders on genius at times. A book that will make you feel more intelligent than you actually are.

Daniel DENNETT, Sweet Dreams: philosophical obstacles to a science of consciousness. Humphrey’s thinking is deeply influenced by Dennett’s, and, like Humphrey, my money is on Dennett’s fame in the brain Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness outlasting the competition. Sweet Dreams is a gentle, humourous attack on Dennett’s philosophical opponents. The punch-up is head-clearing. Dennett’s older, longer Consciousness Explained is also worth the effort.

Susan BLACKMORE, Conversations on Consciousness. This is an entertaining, often funny series of interviews with Dennett and his various allies and opponents in the consciousness field. Pretty much everyone who matters is here – the Churchlands, Penrose, Chalmers, Gregory, Searle… and the book is the best way to get a feel for their viewpoints before rejecting them for Dennett’s.

Human Memory and Emotion

It wasn’t long ago that the scientific study of emotion was a backwater, territory for cranks and the green-ink brigade. By the end of the 1990s, it was home to some of the most magnificent and moving scientific writing of our times.

Steven PINKER, How the Mind Works. This rather long book was always going to feature in a list of this type: it’s a good thing that Pinker can write. It’s not a comprehensive tour so much as an entertaining chase around some of the colourful bits, and Pinker is assuming that you won’t take rhetorical and logical errors too hard. Nor should you.

Steven ROSE, The Making of Memory. I can’t stand the man’s politics, nor his wife’s, but the original edition of this book won the Rhône-Poulenc Science Prize. The book centres entertainingly, sometimes chillingly, on Rose’s own laboratory work, but expands where appropriate to demonstrate the contact between experimental findings and philosophical thinking. Rose is also good on the weakness of much modern brain metaphor. There are problems, he says, with seeing the brain entirely in terms of modern office procedure. If you have to choose ONE book to read about human memory, this is the one to choose.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, Phantoms in the Brain: human nature and the architecture of the mind. A hugely entertaining series of essays about brain function and human experience – phantom limbs, mirror agnosia, Balint’s Syndrome.. Published in 1998, the book has been unfortunate in how much of it has been overtaken by subsequent work, but this is still the most accessible way into emotional neuroscience.

Antonio Damasio’s trilogy Decartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens and Looking For Spinoza is essential, but if you had to pick one, go for The Feeling, which really ought also to be listed under Human Consciousness as the neuroscientist’s contribution. Damasio mixes his own work, recent neuroscience and biographical/philosophical musings into a seamless discussion of what it means to be human. The trilogy as a whole is the most substantial single achievement on this list.

Joseph LEDOUX, The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. An intimately written, personal view of the human condition as expressed by brain activity. LeDoux is excellent company, and must be read if you aren’t going to go for the entire Damasio oeuvre. You might feel, having read this, that CBT is skating on thin ice, and you’d be right to do so.

Paul EKMAN, The Nature of Emotion: fundamental questions. This collection of expert essays is by some distance the densest item on this list. It explores different views on everything from the nature of emotion through to the issue of emotional control, unconscious emotion, emotions and mood, the subjective experience of emotion and emotional development. Fifteen years old, now but a fabulous ground breaker if you have the time and patience.

Nature vs Nurture

Steven PINKER, The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature. I will be voting Labour in the election, but I don’t expect my copy of The Blank Slate to follow suit. All mainstream British politics is required, nowadays, to take a strong position in favour of the nurture side of this debate, but Pinker won’t have it: both nature and nurture are involved, but much of nature’s involvement is, to modern eyes, both inconvenient and irresponsible. Supporters of the Euston Manifesto will find that some of the negative Amazon comments jog memories..

Alice MILLER, The Drama of Being A Child: the search for the true self. It’s only short – 150 pages or so – and it’s a passionate book that you’ll finish in one sitting. The problem with Pinker’s revival of the “nature” side of the argument has been that those who are politically wedded to an overwhelmingly nature-biased view would rather lose sight of any “nurture” element at all. Miller’s no scientist, to say the least of it, and her views are highly controversial, but there is a pro-nurture counterweight worth having here. She is also the first writer to take the situation of children raised by personality disordered parents and explore it properly.

I haven’t really touched on therapy in this list. CBT manuals are dry, psychodynamic ones can be creepy and psychoanalysis gave up on it all many years ago. Dorothy Rowe has occasional trouble disentangling her politics from her psychology (she wouldn’t see it that way: not doing so is an occupational hazard for the entire field) and Irvin Yalom deserves a review post of his own. Too many others subscribe either to an “everyone’s broken” philosophy that leaves me cold or to varieties of radicalism that do no more, I feel, than avoid the question. Environmentalism is not a source of the kind of meaning and significance that matters  for depressives, and neither is the Respect Party. There are some good collections of couch memoirs, and some good accounts of the experience of mental illness, but too many again to discuss in this post.

This subject enjoys some high quality online coverage – I recommend:

BPS Research Digest – the blog of the British Psychological Association

Mind Hacks – much of this excellent review site is written by KCL’s Vaughan Bell

Seed Magazine

Edge -  especially the Annual Question, answered by dozens of top scientists, thinkers and writers

3 Replies to “The Brain and Mind: A Short Annotated Reading List”

  1. The most striking thing I’ve ever read about The Mind is a novel – James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Fanbloodytastic.

  2. My wife’s Easter reading, funnily enough. I dipped into it briefly, found myself in the middle of a lynch mob, and backed out again hurriedly…

    There’s always a slight danger when going to the novel for psychological input: I worry that some of my erstwhile colleagues are too apt to start using e.g. Tolstoy as a textbook or manual, in the way Norman Vincent Peale did the King James Bible. One can say, as you do, that a particular novel has outstanding insight into the human condition (and it’s something to look for in a novel, although car chases, gunfights, tank battles and parachute landings at dawn are things to look out for too, of course) without having the urge to reduce that novel to useful soundbites. And then there are literature’s missing bits: here I’m referencing Martin Amis’s heartfelt cry when experiencing the sheer violence of divorce – “why didn’t literature warn me?”

    My personal favourite novel when it comes to the human condition, Right Ho, Jeeves!, would not, it has to be admitted, have warned him.

Comments are closed.