The must-read brain books of 2018 featured perception, emotion, hormones, psychedelics, culture, time, technology, addiction, and the biological roots of consciousness. The eight books on this list all reveal important, timely insights about who we are, what we do and why we do it.
This is part one of a two-part list; the second installment is coming soon.
The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity―and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race
By Danile Z. Loeberman and Michael E. Long (Ben Bella)
Ah dopamine, our favorite among favorites of brain chemicals. To you we attribute so much, and yet about you we understand so little. Hence my appreciation of this brief, accessible book chosen to begin this list—because, really, where better to begin than with the brain chemical at the center of our lives, from our passions to our achievements to our addictions? Each chapter of this book takes on an area of life in which dopamine plays a central role, starting with love, drugs and domination, and closing through tours of creativity, madness and politics. While some aspects of the neurotransmitter are necessarily simplified, the authors’ singular focus and discussion of dopamine’s indispensable influence in shaping our lives makes this a worthy addition.
The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures
By Antonio Damasio (Pantheon)
A few of the godfathers of modern neuroscience returned to the popular publishing scene in 2018, no more esteemed among them than Antonio Damasio. The reason I’m putting this book on the list, however, isn’t because Damasio is an elite thinker, but rather because his contribution to the ongoing discussion is still so relevant. As neuroscience continues ascending, and veering into areas like AI, we need to remember Damasio’s thesis—that everything we think, feel, experience and do is linked back to the most basic processes of the most basic of organisms. We are anchored to biology, and the complexities of our experience—including our cultures—are tethered to an expansive natural order. Losing sight of that would be nothing short of delusion, which makes this book all the more timely and important.
The Order of Time
By Carlo Rovelli (Riverhead Books)
While perhaps not strictly a “brain book,” physicist Rovelli’s brief yet exhaustive exploration of time may well be the brainiest of all the books I came across this year. More than once while working through its 200 some odd pages did I stop to tell a friend that it was blowing my mind (and in fairness I’ll need to read it again before it all sinks in; it’s that kind of book). Where it closely dovetails with this list of must-read brain books is its treatment of the human brain’s perception of time—the interdependence of perception, time and our experience of reality. Call it a brain book, call it whatever you like, but it’s undoubtedly a must read.
Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything
By Randi Hunter Epstein (W.W. Norton and Company)
For those who enjoy some history with their science, Epstein’s book is the place to go for understanding how we know what we know about our bodies’ chemical ringmasters. From tests on brains in jars to the precise hormonal research of the past couple of decades, Aroused covers the gamut, while also telling an engaging story about the role hormones play in just about every facet of our lives. It’s a detective tale with multiple twists, and an informative must read for the year.
Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are
By Kevin J. Mitchell (Princeton University Press)
Sitting prominently in the category of books that didn’t get a lot of attention but should have, Kevin J. Mitchell’s exploration of neuroscience research—from intelligence, to perception, to sexuality—is a must-read that I’m pleased to conclude the first part of this list with, perchance a few readers may go find it for themselves. If, for example, you’ve been interested in understanding why some of us see blue in a dress while others see gold, or some hear “yanny” and not “laurel,” this is the book that offers a way to understand the answers. It’s all in the neural wiring, after all, but what influences the wiring that influences our perception? Mitchell’s book explains what’s going on behind the firewall.
Part two of this list is coming soon.
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