Three books that make Neuroscience Cool(er)

Today I wanted to tell you a little bit about some of my favorite neuroscience books. Books that did a good job of distilling the “wow” factor that drives people like your intrepid neuroblog contributors to think and talk about the brain. I’ve chosen these books for three reasons: they’re accessible to newcomers who don’t know much about neuroscience, they’re well-written enough to be enjoyable reads regardless of your neuro expertise (or lack thereof), and the science in them is largely accurate and based on a body of rigorous scientific literature.

Without further ado, here are my picks:

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, by Oliver Sacks

This book is a classic. A must-read for anyone who enjoys thinking about the deeply intertwined relationship between the mind and the brain. Essentially, it’s a series of beautifully descriptive case studies of people with interesting neurological disorders that get at fundamental questions about who we are and how we interact with the world. The neuroscience behind it isn’t necessarily anything cutting edge, but it serves as a great introduction to how the brain localizes distinct functions, and it’s based in Sacks’ rigorous background in clinical neurology.

My favorite anecdote, by far, is the perpetually off-balance man who eventually hung a tiny carpenter’s level from his glasses, who evocatively demonstrates how much the brain processes beneath our notice.

If there is defective (or distorted) sensation in our overlooked secret senses, what we then experience is profoundly strange, an almost incommunicable equivalent to being blind or deaf. If proprioception is completely knocked out, the body becomes, so to speak, blind to itself.
— The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, pg. 72

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. But in the process, we also transform the memory, and reshape it—sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.
— Moonwalking with Einstein

This book does a great job of both describing the neuroscience of memory and bringing it to a personal level. Ostensibly framed by Foer’s quest to train himself up to be a Professional Memory Athlete on a national scale, it also delves into the lives of other athletes, the experience of patients with anterograde amnesia, and the neurological and psychological basis of memory.  The science of memory—and of extraordinary memory—is depicted in an impressively accurate and nuanced manner, and the sorts of mnemonic tips and tricks that these memory athletes use are put into that context. Between Foer’s in-depth research into our current understanding of memory and his compelling personal journey into his own memory, it’s a fun read.

Ram reached over to shake my hand and whispered in my ear: ‘The fifth card. What was it?’
I dropped my hands, turned to him, and whispered back: ‘The five of clubs.’ Dom DeLuise. Hula-hooping. Of course.
— Moonwalking with Einstein

This is Your Brain On Music, by Daniel Levitin

Levitin’s got the unique perspective of being a record producer in addition to a cognitive neuroscientist. His enthusiasm for both neuroscience and music make for a pretty engaging blend of popular science, especially if you’re into classic rock, jazz, or R&B. Levitin has an ability to break down music into its very technical component parts in a way that doesn’t diminish their appeal, and his expertise really shines through in those sections. Neurologically, he tends to provide higher-level explanations, steering clear of the nuances of functional neuroanatomy, but the book makes sure to bring in a lot of actual experiments in order to keep itself grounded. If you’re looking for deep, mechanistic explanations of how music is made and perceived in the brain, you won’t find them here, but Levitin hits the highlights and does a lot of high-level thinking about the amazing things our musical brains are capable of.

Perhaps the ultimate illusion in music is the illusion of structure and form. There is nothing in a sequence of notes themselves that creates the rich emotional associations we have with music, nothing about a scale, a chord, or a chord sequence that intrinsically causes us to expect a resolution. Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience, and on neural structures that can learn and modify themselves with each new song we hear, and with each new listening to an old song.
— This is Your Brain on Music

Though some amount of the book is philosophical speculation linking his musical knowledge with his neuroscientific understanding, I really enjoyed his attempts to explain the appeal of certain musical techniques and tricks in a neurological context, linking certain aspects of popular songs to mechanisms of rhythm, memory, expectation, and reward.

Link: This is Your Brain on Music, at or at the Stanford University Library

Readers: Do you have a favorite pop neuroscience book you'd recommend to interested neuro-novices? Give us your favorites in the comments below!