Books on neuroscience

Related to the last post, someone asked me where I got the information on the brain that I discussed there.  After answering, it occurred to me that other people might be interested.

First, let me say that the examples I gave in that post about brain module functionality were not speculative.  They are well established function points gathered through medical records going back to the 19th century.  Those records describe people who suffered a stroke, accident, or other malady, and lost some cognitive functions which were then compared to damaged brain tissue observed in postmortem autopsies.  The knowledge has been fine tuned in recent decades with increasingly sophisticated brain scanning technologies.

Anyway, anyone interested in the brain, the mind, and consciousness should seriously consider reading a book on basic neuroscience.  There’s an appalling amount of bullshit out there, and a basic grounding allows  you to pretty quickly recognize most of it.  You don’t have to read these books straight through (I didn’t) but can learn a lot just reading the sections you’re curious about.

9781118086865 cover.inddThe first book I’d recommend would be ‘Neuroscience for Dummies‘, by Frank Amthor.  I’ve had mixed success with the Dummies books.  Some are excellent, others awful, but this one is pretty good, although it’s not perfect.  It’s chief benefit is that it’s cheap compared to the other sources.

One imperfection is that the author is a bit opinionated on a few things.  (He seems to have a strong need to believe that animals are not conscious, and defines “consciousness” in such a way as to clinch that conclusion.)  He also has a habit of introducing terms without first defining them, which isn’t a giant burden if you’re reading the book electronically since you can just look up the word; if you’re reading in physically, I’d keep a tablet or laptop handy to look things up.

All that said, the neuroscience information in it is excellent.  It comports with other sources such as neuroscience textbooks, and costs a lot less.  This is the book I return to the most often when I want to refresh my memory on something.  (Mainly because I have it electronically and can quickly pull it up.)  By the way, the cheat sheet on the publisher site is worth checking out.

TheHumanBrainCoverAnother resource that I got good information from was ‘The Human Brain‘ by Rita Carter.  It is loaded with gorgeous color diagrams.  The edition I picked up several years ago included a DVD with a lot of additional imagery on it.  If you’re more of a visual person, this might be a good book to get.

The drawbacks are that you can’t get it electronically (it would probably take away most of the book’s visual appeal anyway) and that it’s much pricier than the Dummies book.

Looking at the Amazon entry, it looks like a new edition came out in 2014.  Given that my edition was published in 2009 and the Dummies book in 2011, I’m sorely tempted to order the new edition.

I’ve also gotten some good information from used neuroscience textbooks, but I can’t really recommend this avenue.  First, even the used ones are outrageously expensive, and second, there seems to be a rule somewhere that textbooks must be as boring or difficult to read as possible.

Wikipedia articles can be a decent resource, although many tend to get overly technical and fringe stuff sometimes creep into them.  Still, as long as you keep its limitations in mind, Wikipedia can be an excellent resource for filling in the cracks.

Other books that may be worth checking out after the ones above would be Michael Gazzaniga’s ‘Who’s In Charge?’, a book that looks at the neuroscience of free will, and Michael Graziano’s ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’, a book that describes what I still think is the best theory of consciousness available right now.

This is a subject I’m always interested in knowing more about.  If you’ve read any books on this stuff that you think are worth checking out, I’d love to hear about them.

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23 Responses to Books on neuroscience

  1. Steve Morris says:

    I found “Conversations With Neil’s Brain: The Neural Nature Of Thought And Language” to be a very readable introduction to the subject.

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  2. Hariod Brawn says:

    I don’t have Rita Carter’s The Human Brain, but I do have her title Consciousness. I found the layout too full of graphics and so I was jumping all over the place to piece the (excellent) text together. I mentioned before Zoltan Torey’s The Crucible of Consciousness, but that is not strictly, or exclusively, neuroscience. I like V.S Ramachandran a lot.

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    • I should have mentioned that the info is a bit scattered in ‘The Human Brain’ as well. I got good info out of it, but the more narrative style of the Dummies book worked better for me.

      I’ve watched Ramachandran’s TED talks and seen an interview or two of him. Perusing his books, he has what appears to be the ultimate set of encyclopedias on the brain, but I’m not dedicated enough to shell out the $2000 asking price. ‘The Tell-Tale Brain’ looks interesting. I can see you being interested in the human stories in it.

      One of these days I might have to check out ‘The Crucible of Consciousness’. Interestingly, the language theory of consciousness, and its implications, is also advocated by the Dummies author, Frank Amthor.

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      • Hariod Brawn says:

        The slight problem I have when authors talk about consciousness being dependent upon language, is that they seldom make clear whether they mean verbalisation alone. After all, we can be perfectly lucid, knowing and ‘conscious’ merely by means of visual or non-verbal auditory imagery – nothing need be named in the process. Some might say that these images are still percept-based, and therefore to some extent language dependent, but that doesn’t make sense to me. Torey was blinded in an industrial accident, and it makes it all the more puzzling that he would insist on a language theory, although I rather think he means a language of symbols, as against verbalisation exclusively. He said that his insights (excuse pun) partly came about as a result of his blindness.

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        • I think the language theory advocates are talking about the underlying symbolic structure the brain uses to process language. The idea is that it restructures the mind. Not sure I buy that. I do think language probably gives humans a much richer inner experience than animals, but it seems a leap to me to imply that anything or anyone without language isn’t conscious.

          The language interpretation module of the brain is Wernicke’s Area, which looks roughly to be in the intersection between the touch, hearing, and visual processing centers. So, as I understand it, the same circuits light up whether you’re interpreting spoken, written, or braille language.

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  3. amanimal says:

    Well, that makes my mistake pretty clear – thinking I’d remember enough from 30 yrs past I dove right into Damasio. No wonder I found the more anatomical sections a bit dry. A good review would have been a great idea at the time. That didn’t, however, stop me from enjoying:

    Antonio Damasio – ‘Decartes’ Error’, ‘Self Comes To Mind’
    Robert Burton – ‘On Being Certain’
    David Eagleman – ‘Incognito’
    and Oliver Sacks – ‘Hallucinations’

    Burton has another, ‘A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves’ 2013, that sounds good and, of course, Sacks has more too. I do want to go back and read Damasio’s ‘The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness’ 1999 someday too. Before I do, though, a review of the basics will be in order starting with your Dummies Cheat-Sheet(I also need to research the proper use of the hyphen, something I’ve wondered off and on(or ‘off-and-on’?) for some time).

    And Gazzaniga has a few other books out there too! 🙂

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    • Wow, that’s a good list.

      I’m starting to think that any book on consciousness that doesn’t discuss subcortical structures like the thalamus, basal ganglia, amygdala, etc, are not worth my time. If I search the Amazon preview for those terms and they don’t come up frequently, I move on. (It’s causing me to mostly ignore philosophy of mind books.)

      Damasio’s ‘Self Comes To Mind’ passed with flying colors. I was enthralled by the section on children born missing most of their brain, most of the structures above the brainstem, but who still show a primal emotional consciousness similar to newborns. Just bought the book.

      Eagleman’s stuff seems too basic to me. (The documentary I linked to a couple of weeks ago was very basic.) It looks like he only provides superficial descriptions of brain structures. I’m sure it makes his stuff more accessible, but of only limited educational value.

      Thanks for the list!

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      • amanimal says:

        Hmm … your search method may be less biased than mine. I often go through references/bibliography looking for the right names, the familiar ones no doubt – hmmm?!

        On Eagleman, I haven’t watched the show – he had an Edge.com piece on the umwelt that caught my attention and a good bibliography. So, with my fascination/obsession with nonconscious cognitive processes, a subtitle like “The Secret Lives of the Brain”, and a first chapter titled “There’s Someone In My Head, But It’s Not Me”, I couldn’t not read ‘Incognito’. He is very much a writer and a more relaxed/less intense read than a collection of academic papers and chapters.

        Looking at my bookshelf I see more books written by psychologists that reference neuroscientific research to varying extents more than anything else(and an anthropologist or two and a few science writers).

        Speaking of science writers, Tor Nørretranders’s ‘The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size’ is referenced by Timothy Wilson in ‘Strangers To Ourselves’ that I’d meant to read – thanks! 🙂

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        • Nope, my search method is totally biased. 🙂 It’s based on what I’ve read (or more accurately re-read) over the last few months. The problem that occurred to me after I made the comment is that one of my favorite books, Graziano’s, wouldn’t have made the cut. Sigh.

          I like your method. I’m just not knowledgeable enough (in regards to the right names) to implement it. Given your interest, I can definitely see your bookshelf being dominated more by psychologists. I think my interest in the architecture of the mind is leading me more toward the nuts and bolts.

          Started reading Damasio. I like most of what he’s saying, but I wish he could be more succinct.

          BTW, ordered a book on the thalamus: ‘Functional Connections of Cortical Areas: A New View from the Thalamus’. First physical book I’ve ordered in a while. (It wasn’t available for the Kindle.) It may be hopelessly above my head, but it’s an area I want to know more about.

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          • amanimal says:

            Apologies for the delay – you’d think I could just read a comment and reply, rather than do 3-5 or more searches leading to a dozen (or more) open tabs each waiting to be read … once in a while anyway!?

            I’ve yet to read ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’, but looking my notes from ‘God Soul Mind Brain’ I see your interest in the thalamus. Looking at ‘Exploring …'(and it looks fascinating – what else can I say?), a search and a few Google images and I’m starting to sucked in … got to stop.

            Damasio lol, yes, sometimes …

            ‘Exploring …’ over your head? Hopefully a little, but not too, too much – I recall reading the first page of ‘Religion Explained’ 4-5 yrs ago and reacting with a silent “huh?” – rereading it a few chapters, books, papers, etc later it gradually made more and more sense.

            Unrelated to the above, but of interest:

            ‘Dr. Bennet Omalu Says Parents Should Not Let Children Play Football’ http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2596649-dr-bennet-omalu-says-parents-should-not-let-children-play-football?utm_source=cnn.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=editorial

            ‘Why You Should Avoid Wise-Sounding But Meaningless Quotes’ http://www.spring.org.uk/2015/12/why-you-should-avoid-wise-sounding-but-meaningless-quotes.php

            … the 2nd gave me a chuckle – poor DC – oh, and:

            (I still have 5 tabs open on Graziano – no wonder I’m not getting McGilchrist read 🙂 tomorrow!)

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          • No worries on delay. These discussions always happen at each of our conveniences.

            On being over your head, I know what you mean. It’s good to be a little out of your depth. It only becomes a problem when I can’t understand hardly anything in the material. I don’t envy the balancing act science writers have to engage in, keeping their stuff accessible, yet not dumbed down.

            Omalu’s statement matches everything else I’ve read on the subject. What most people don’t realize is that the damage is most often very gradual but cumulative, so that no one even notices it, but it has effects on the kid’s cognitive abilities for the rest of their life, not to mention their overall health.

            I’ve seen several articles on that study about Chopra word salad language. What bothers me is that it’s not just restricted to new age crackpots. I’ve read a number of academic or scholarly essays which engage in the same thing, although in their case it’s just close enough to coherent to make you think maybe it’s just a lack of knowledge on your part that’s in the way. It’s insidious and it’s the kind of things that hurts the reputation of some academic fields. It reminds me of this tweet by renowned anthropologist John Hawks:

            Watch those tabs. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I’m not sure I could ever bring myself to buy a “for Dummies” book… 😄

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    • Dummy chauvinist.

      Now if we’re talking about the “for Idiots” books, totally different story. 😉

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        ROFL! What’s the difference?

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        • I actually find the average quality of the Dummies books better. (Although some are terrible.) In my experience, the organization of the Idiots books are generally unhelpful. (I’m tempted to say that they’re “Idiotic” but that would be too harsh 🙂 )

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Wait. You’re saying there are two lines of books? “For Dummies” and “For Idiots”? I had no idea!

            I’ve never read any, and I was just commenting on buying a book that was intended for a “dummy”.

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          • There are definitely two lines of books.
            For Dummies: http://www.dummies.com/

            I’d give you the website for the Complete Idiots guides, but the idiots don’t seem to have one.

            Not sure which came first, but I definitely have found the Dummies ones to usually be better.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Honestly, neither URL would end up in my bookmarks. Anything written for a general audience is usually not what I’m looking for. I prefer material that’s sometimes a little over my head but packed with topic matter. I’d rather try to understand the original paper than what someone else writes about it. “Go to the source!” as they say.

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          • Don’t write the Dummies books off as shallow fluff. The neuroscience one is as good a source as most textbooks. (Again, with the caveat that some of their books are junk. Their philosophy intro one is written by someone promulgating his philosophy rather than philosophy in general, at least in the edition from 4-5 years ago.)

            On understanding the original paper, yeah, way too much work. I might do it once I’ve read the stuff for general audiences, want more, and can’t get it except by going to the source literature, but 95% of the time the general stuff scratches the itch, at least for me.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “The neuroscience one is as good a source as most textbooks.”

            As we’ve said before, different strokes! I prefer the textbooks. 🙂

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  5. I don’t have anything good to add about neuroscience per se, but I can recommend the Stephen Novella great courses “Your Deceptive Mind” since he is a neuro-surgeon and he is big on the nature of consciousness.

    Little bit off topic, but I’m beginning to see consciousness as a sort of natural rebuttal against objectivity. Seeing that subjective consciousness is THE way we know things, it seems like there’s a tension we can’t escape it we want to talk about objective reality.

    Thanks for this. Very fun.

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    • Thanks. I think anytime we declare something to be objective, we’re essentially putting forth a theory about reality outside of our subjective experience. But it’s always based on that subjective experience. The case for the theory becomes stronger when we compare and realize the similarities between our individual subjective experiences. But ultimately we must be prepared to revise that theory if new experiences contradict it.

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