Ask a Neuroscientist: Which neuroscience textbooks do we recommend?

I've got a folder on my computer titled "To Read Pronto". In it, I've placed .pdfs of all the journal articles that I really need to read right away. The folder titled "Cortical Sh*t" contains articles about, you guessed it, the cortex.

As is the case for most neuroscience researchers, my primary source of neuroscience information are peer-reviewed publications; thus the selection imaginatively titled .pdf caches. 

We rely on peer-reviewed publications, rather than the classic staple of scholastic education: the textbook. 

Textbooks can be ... problematic for neuroscientists. Neuroscience is a relatively new field of study, and as we ease into a century of active research, the pace of new discoveries is far outstripping the ability of those discoveries to be printed in a textbook. And if the function of a textbook is to collect the fundamental principles of a field, (to paraphrase first year graduate student Alex Scharr), there just hasn't been enough time to figure out whether neurosciences "fundamental" discoveries are actually fundamental. Or even accurate. 

So, neuroscientists tend to wander around with binders full of journal articles. (Or computers. Or filing cabinets, if you're my PI.) But the plethora of scientific journals can present an intimidating, and frankly unhelpful front to the enterprising student interested in an introduction to neuroscience.

A couple of weeks ago, we received an email from such a student, Gabby, who wrote:

I am 18 years old and a high school senior who wants to pursue Neuroscience as a Major in College. I have already taken in Biology Class an introduction into neurophysiology and even saw how some poisons affected the Nervous System. I was wondering if you could recommend any books that are used in Stanford as for an introduction into Neuroscience and it`s principles.

I decided to take some liberties with Gabby’s question, soliciting book recommendations from the NeuWrite West neuroscientists, most of whom did not receive their undergraduate degrees from Stanford. From the many excellent suggestions provided by the NeuWrite West community, I selected 5 books.*

*Plus, after further thought, an online textbook and several additional non-fiction books.  

Books 1 and 2: The classic neuroscience textbooks

For a textbook similar to the one used in high school biology classes, there are 2 that are generally regarded as the most thorough, and well written. These books are Eric Kandel's Principles of Neural Science*, and Larry Squire's Fundamental Neuroscience.* The latter is recommended reading for the Neuroscience/Neuroanatomy course that Stanford Medical students take (and I think is used by undergrad courses as well).

*Each of these textbooks were edited by a team of individuals, so technically, Principles of Neural Science is Kandel's, plus Schwartz's, Jessell's, Siegelbaum's and Hudspeth's. Larry Squire likewise shares the editorial crown with Berg, Bloom, du Lac, Ghosh and Spitzer. 

Books 3 and 4: The alternative textbooks

For a less intense introduction, a good friend of mine (current PhD candidate in Neurosciences here at Stanford) suggests Creating Mind, by John Dowling. This book was written by a Harvard faculty member who, (according to my friend) wrote it for his freshman "neuroscience for non-biology majors" course. I haven't personally read it, but it seems like a great guided introduction to neuroscience.

Now, a personal recommendation. I didn't use many neuroscience "textbooks"; neuroscience as a field is moving so fast, that we neuroscientists often read primary research articles, rather than textbooks (the folks writing textbooks just can't keep up with the pace of learning). But one textbook that I actually enjoyed reading is Behavioral Neurobiology, by Thomas Carew. It’s an engaging book that describes several famous neuroscience experiments, focusing on how the cells of the brain underlie various behaviors (for example, which brain regions act together to encode our sense of hearing, and our ability to tell where sounds are coming from).

Book 5: The non-fiction book

Lastly, non-fiction books can act as gateway texts into more technical neuroscience knowledge. There are quite a few out neuroscience-themed non-fiction books, but one of the best is "The man who mistook his wife for a hat", by Oliver Sacks. This is a fantastic book (see a recent blog post by David Bochner, who selects this book as one that does a great job of "distilling the wow factor that drives [neuroscientists] to think and talk about the brain"). See the blog post for two more recommendations, if you're interested in non-fiction books relating to neuroscience.

The Online Resource

After I sent Gabby the above recommendations, she wrote back, commenting that many of the textbooks are quite expensive. I thought this was an excellent point, and set out to find an adequate substitute for a pricey textbook. After a spot of internet searching, I found an open access online neuroscience textbook, created by some folks over at the University of Texas. While the writing may not be as elegant as the Kandel or Squire books, it does contain the same basic information. Here is the link to the online textbook.

My recommendation for any high school student like Gabby, is to get started with the online textbook, see if anything catches your particular interest, and then look into specific books or journal review articles that cover that area of interest.

Also, non-fiction books do tend to be a little less expensive than formal textbooks. Additional suggestions include: Carl Zimmer's Brain Cuttings (ebook), Susan Blackmore's Conversations of Consciousness (the first neuroscience book I ever read), anything written by Oliver Sacks, and Incognito by David Eagleman. Many of these you may find at your local library. 

Do you have additional recommendations for Gabby, or other students like her? Post a comment!


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog