Minds, How Do They Work?
August 20, 2010 10:59 AM   Subscribe

What's the best book to provide an up-to-date view on our current understanding of the human mind (and brain)?

Back in my college days I was fascinated with how the human brain/mind works. I read numerous essays and books on AI, philosophy of the mind, cognitive neuroscience, etc., including a lot of Daniel Dennett (Brain Storms, Consciousness Explained, etc.).

Most of these were published 20+ years ago, so I imagine that there must be a more recent overview of what we know (and what we don't know) about the most sophisticated structure in the known universe.
posted by justkevin to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
The Birth of the Mind by Gary Marcus is excellent and accessible to non-scientists like myself. Really the most clear and concise explanation of the roles genes play in the biological development of the human brain that I have read. Both a more basic and more advanced discussion of the nature/nurture debate than what you would encounter elsewhere. Here is an online summary of some of the main arguments in the book. Really can't recommend this book enough.
posted by AceRock at 11:07 AM on August 20, 2010

I say it sooo often on the green, but anything by VS Ramachandran, especially Phantoms in the Brain. It's showing its age a bit, but is still pretty awesome.

Oliver Sacks is incredibly fascinating and readable as well. If you're interested in music as well, Musicophilia is a must-read.
posted by supercres at 11:10 AM on August 20, 2010

More recent books by Rama here. I can't believe it, but I haven't read anything other than Phantoms. I'm a little sad with myself.
posted by supercres at 11:12 AM on August 20, 2010

My first recommendation might not be completely on-point since it's also old, but if you've been heavily influenced by Dennett's views on consciousness, I recommend reading John Searle's The Mystery of Consciousness. He reviews Consciousness Explained (in a chapter trenchantly called "Consciousness Denied"), and then there's a back-and-forth between him and Dennett.

Here are two more-recent books that try to give a broad overview of the philosophical thought on the mind/brain, which could lead you to other readings:

1. Searle's Mind (2005).

2. Susan Blackmore's Conversations on Consciousness (2007). She interviews people like Searle, David Chalmers, and the aforementioned VS Ramachandran. She asks the same questions of each philosopher, so you can very quickly get a sense of where many different philosophers agree and disagree. (The customer review of this book that says it's "not suitable as an introduction to consciousness researchers or their hypotheses" is missing the point. There are surely better sources to find out the latest research in neuroscience. But neuroscience isn't everything -- philosophy matters too.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:58 AM on August 20, 2010

I'm not sure how mainstream his theories may be, but I really enjoyed On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins. It provides a really interesting look into some theories on how intelligence arrises from the structure of the brain.
posted by ghostiger at 12:00 PM on August 20, 2010

It might be a bit dated, but Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works approaches this from a (very) evolutionary angle. I haven't read his newer book, The Stuff of Thought, but I saw him speak and it seemed very much in line with his earlier work. Seconding Ramachandran.
posted by thermogenesis at 1:19 PM on August 20, 2010

Response by poster: I've read "Phantoms" and some Sacks, but the works I've read of theirs seem to focus more on specific accounts of how disorders and trauma affect particular aspects of human behavior.

In terms of philosophy vs. science, my ideal book would contain some of both, but the philosophy should be supported by research and an understanding of the biology. Thought experiments like the "Chinese Room" are less interesting to me than actual experiments like Libet's volitional timing (not to say that thought experiments are uninteresting, just less interesting.)
posted by justkevin at 1:21 PM on August 20, 2010

Was coming here to suggest The Stuff of Thought, as linked above. It's terrific.
posted by tetralix at 1:29 PM on August 20, 2010

Seconding Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought are both excellent picks.
posted by scrutiny at 2:00 PM on August 20, 2010

Thought experiments like the "Chinese Room" are less interesting to me than actual experiments like Libet's volitional timing (not to say that thought experiments are uninteresting, just less interesting.)

Searle is not just about the "chinese room." His aforementioned Mystery of Consciousness spends more time talking about neurons and synapses than about the chinese room argument.

If you're interested in the famous Libet experiment, I recommend Searle's Rationality in Action (2001), where he talks in depth about how the Libet experiment doesn't prove what many people think it proves. People who don't have a firm grounding in philosophy are unreliable at drawing philosophical conclusions from lab experiments.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:10 PM on August 20, 2010

Brain Rules is awesome. Very accessible. Check out the site that corresponds with the book. "Brain Rules reveals – in plain English – 12 ways our brains truly work." Highly recommended.
posted by jasondigitized at 4:20 AM on August 21, 2010

I really like the Churchlands, Patricia and Paul, who are into neurophilosophy. The New Yorker did a great article on them a few years back. You can find their books on Amazon.
posted by ifjuly at 11:28 AM on August 21, 2010

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