The Best Books on Neuroscience – Five Books Expert Recommendations

so how does a political commentator end up in neuroscience?

it grew out of my normal day job, which obviously involves politics, but also human capital development. why, for example, 30 percent of high school students in the united states drop out of school, why we got it so wrong in iraq. a whole series of political failures that, in my view, arose from misreading human nature. So I began to study the question of why so many people drop out of high school, when all the economic incentives are in favor of going to high school. and that led me to the work of an economist named jim heckman at the university of chicago, which focuses on the early years of his life. And it turns out that already, at age four, you can predict with 77 percent accuracy who will graduate from high school, based on childhood patterns and the like. that got me into how these childhood patterns are formed, which got me into brain science, which got me into cognitive science…

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since he’s the one who got you into all this, what’s the title of the heckman book?

It’s called Inequality in America and it’s by James Heckman and Alan Krueger. Krueger is an economist at Princeton and takes an opposing view. But Heckman’s focus is on what he calls non-cognitive skills. and basically cognitive skills are things like iq, things that we are used to counting. what he calls non-cognitive abilities is what the rest of us would call character or personality. and the name non-cognitive is very misleading, because they are cognitive, they are just not conscious and they are not easily quantifiable either. so one of the things he looks at is people who, instead of going to high school, get ged degrees, which are high school equivalent degrees, degrees that people take if they haven’t been able to go to high school. and often get test scores that are as high as people who earn high school degrees. but they do much worse in life. in fact, they do no better than high school dropouts. and that’s because they don’t have persistence, they don’t show up for jobs, they don’t have self-control, this is on average, of course. and so the main point of it, which is obvious to everyone, but not so much to economists, is that having things like persistence and self-control are really important. So where do those things come from? they are a kind of black box.

and answer that question?

not. he is an economist, not a neuroscientist, but he takes us in that direction.

so, krueger is offering another point of view, but do you find that section of the book less convincing?

correct. he is more in the ‘inequality is a matter of economic structure’ camp, which has less to do with human capital.

so, in your efforts to answer heckman’s question, did you end up reading books on neuroscience proper?

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correct. and I started with the easy ones. one very accessible, but of a kind that is very serious, is a book called the happiness hypothesis. It’s from Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

People seem to love this book. an online reviewer says: ‘this is my favorite book of all time. contains the most practical advice for daily life that I have ever seen’ and many of them seem to be like this: ‘the most entertaining, interesting and educational book I have ever read’, etc, etc. about how our minds work?

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haidt uses the metaphor of a child and an elephant. he says that our minds are structured like a child riding an elephant, and the child is the conscious reasoning part, the cortex-based brain. and he can see very far and make certain directional decisions. but most of the work is done by the elephant, which is the unconscious part of the brain. his job is to try to explain what the elephant is doing.

In his research, he focuses especially on moral judgments. so he tells his students the story of a brother and sister who are on a journey somewhere. They decide that one night they are going to have sex with each other. they do it, find it pleasurable, and decide they’ll never do it again. but they are glad they did. and he asks: ‘is that wrong?’ and most people say yes. but they can’t really explain why they feel that way.

says that the feeling of disgust we experience is a moral feeling that flows unconsciously, not based on conscious reasoning. and he argues that most of our moral decisions are that kind of instantaneous reaction. it’s like aesthetics: when we see a scene we instantly know if it’s beautiful or not. we know instantly if something seems moral to us or not.

so the idea that it could be because of our upbringing, that we’ve been told a brother and sister have sex is wrong, but it’s so ingrained that we don’t even understand why it’s wrong.

I think he would say, and he would say and most scientists would say, that it is the result of two streams of information. one is genetic, and in every culture under the sun, incest is considered wrong. there is no human culture that really tolerates incest. there is that kind of knowledge. so we have a certain moral knowledge that comes to us genetically: a sense of justice, a sense of reciprocity. all humans have them, except psychopaths. so some of that is genetic. but then it is underlined by cultural things; that is the second flow of information. and those cultural things can be learned consciously, but they are also stored in the elephant.

And what about your next book, Descartes’ Error, by Antonio Damasio, Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California?

This is also a book, like most of the books I have chosen, about the distinction between subterranean mental processes and conscious processes. And Damasio’s work deals with emotion and the role of emotion in decision making. we have the idea that everyday decisions are shaped by rational thinking, dr spock-type logical thinking. But Damasio worked with people who have had strokes and are therefore unable to feel emotions. and far from making good decisions, they make terrible decisions, and their lives fall apart.

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His theory, which has now been widely accepted, is called the somatic marker hypothesis. so the basic idea is that emotions are the way we value things, it’s our gps system. when we see something as trivial as an ice cream cone or as important as a potential spouse, our emotions say we want it or we don’t, that it will lead to pleasure or pain. and we follow that emotional signal. so the mistake that Descartes made was to separate the mind and the body; the idea that the mind can exist without the visceral emotional reactions of the body. because you can’t really have a thinking brain without those gut reactions.

Why do you care about these things as a political columnist? what is the practical application of a book like this for you?

The app for me is that it gives me a new insight into how human beings make decisions and operate. we believe that people make decisions based on rational and clear responses to incentives. but case after case, they don’t make decisions that way. And I think most of us understand that the economic model of human nature isn’t really accurate. and yet all our public policies are based on that model. economists have tremendous influence over public policy, over foreign affairs. game theorists impact our international relations people, train our public policy figures. and for me, as a result of these books, I just observe and put a lot more emphasis on unconscious decision making. I’m interested in the cultural influences that shape our behavior in ways we don’t understand, and even how genetics can shape our behaviors in ways we don’t understand.

what about your next book?

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my next book is called smart world and it’s by richard ogle, private consultant and entrepreneur. and it takes some of these ideas that I’ve been talking about and translates them into the world of business and creativity. and his book is very underrated, I think. The other books I have chosen are very famous, but this one has not received the attention it deserves.

ogle is a popularizer of the work of a philosopher named andy clark, who emphasizes that ideas don’t just exist in a head, but exist outside the mind, in a lot of minds at once. And one of the features of unconscious thought is that we are intensely social, taking in ideas and thoughts in ways that we are not aware of each other. According to Ogle, we are embedded in what he calls “idea spaces,” what most of us would call culture. so, for example, simple illustration is picasso, which existed in one culture, the culture of western art. he came across a separate culture, of African masks, and really merged these two cultures to create Cubism. creativity came from the fusion of these two spaces of ideas. ogle’s book is really about how that happens, from picasso to the invention of the personal computer.

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two books left.

Yes, these are two giant books, both very famous, that should really be read by anyone interested in this world. and the first is called the blank slate by steven pinker and the second is called consilience by edward or wilson. and these books are landmarks of our time.

stephen pinker is a psychologist at harvard, although until 2003 he taught in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at mit.

yes. blank slate is an argument against the old view that there is no such thing as human nature, that we are all culturally determined. he gathers a ton of evidence that that’s wrong. some of this involves the structure of the brain, a lot of this involves genetics. he doesn’t really think of it this way, but a lot is about the unique qualities that guide behavior that we’re not aware of. I’d say it relies too much on genetic explanations, but it’s still a very important book.

so even though the book is called a blank slate, it’s actually arguing the opposite. Would you say it is accessible to a non-scientist?

yes, all these books that I have chosen are very accessible.

Finally, Consilience, published in 1998 by Harvard biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Wilson.

wilson makes the argument, or rather the prediction, that many of the disciplines into which we have separated human behavior are obsolete and that we are on the verge of unifying knowledge in an interdisciplinary way. And that’s important because if you look around in various fields, what Wilson predicted a decade ago is actually happening with neuroscience. there’s a field of neural economics, which is a combination of economics and neuroscience, there’s this and that neural, basically everything neural: literary critics, historians. people in many different disciplines are using this brain work to illuminate their thinking. And in this way, I think what they’re finding in our unconscious mind will have the same kind of influence that Marx and Sigmund Freud had, that is, a whole new vocabulary, which will help define many different fields.

so this belief in the unity of knowledge, that there is a theory that will explain everything we know and don’t know. is this the return of renaissance man?

well, except that in the renaissance we thought we were masters of our destiny, and the general idea was “what a glorious thing man is, with limitless capabilities”. but here, each individual is not so special, we are formed by genes, by social tendencies; individual decision making is limited. there are severe limits on free will.

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