7 books about the brain that will delight, inspire and make you think

From tomes that examine the beauty and intricacy of the organ to ones that explore the neuroscience of autism and individuality, these are great to read and gift

An illustration of the silhouette of a head with a brain inside, looking at a book with a brain on the cover.
(George Wylesol for The Washington Post)

Reading is good for our brains and our health, benefiting our cognition, mood and even our longevity.

As a former neuroscientist and current Brain Matters columnist, some of the most mind-expanding books I have read happen to be about the brain. Here are some of my favorites, roughly ordered from the most accessible to most complex.

All have taught me something useful and unexpected, inspired my thinking and deepened my love for the brain — its beauty in form and function, complexity and ability to change and adapt.

Science Comics: The Brain: The Ultimate Thinking Machine

Author: Tory Woollcott; Illustrator: Alex Graudins (buy it here)

A wonderfully illustrated graphic novel that follows Nour, a young girl on an epic journey through the brain — its history, biology and functioning. This is a great primer on the basics of the brain for children and adults. I was impressed with the level of detail, aided by colorful and compelling diagrams and cartoons, which does not overwhelm while adding immense rereading value. Also, it is humorous, which makes learning about the brain even more fun.

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal

Authors: Larry W. Swanson, Eric Newman, Alfonso Araque, Janet Dubinsky (buy it here)

This book is the beauty of the brain laid bare, as captured in superb hand drawings made over a century ago by the father of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. With detailed commentary accompanying each drawing, you can learn more about the brain while admiring its cellular intricacies. More than coffee table reading (although it serves that purpose, as well), “The Beautiful Brain” also explores Cajal’s biography and contributions — he wanted to be an artist but instead had to settle for starting a new scientific field — and provides a glimpse at how far neuroimaging techniques (and the field of neuroscience) have come.

The Mindful Way Through Depression

Authors: Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn (buy it here)

This book helped me through a difficult time in graduate school and is one I return to for guidance and wisdom. It clearly explains how mindfulness practices can be a useful tool to help us escape the spiral of unhappiness and depression often brought upon by habitual thinking and rumination. But more important, this book offers practical advice and exercises grounded in science to help us be mindful in our lives, something I believe many will find helpful and life-changing like I did and still do.

Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality

Author: David Linden (buy it here)

Over 8 billion people are living on Earth, but what makes us us? In “Unique,” David Linden weaves compelling personal anecdotes with scientific findings to explain individuality. (Linden also taught what turned out to be my favorite course in graduate school, “Writing About the Brain.”) The book pushes beyond outdated and outplayed notions of “nature vs. nurture” before delving into the ways our human experience — such as race, gender and sexual preference — can vary.

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Author: Steve Silberman (buy it here)

“NeuroTribes” tells the fascinating and oftentimes surprising, if not shocking, story of the history and nature of autism. Science journalist Steve Silberman writes with clarity and care and makes a clarion call for not just respecting but also valuing neurodiversity. It may change the way you understand autism and other sources of neurodiversity, like it did for me.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

Author: Oliver Sacks (buy it here)

This book is a classic and was one that inspired me to get into neuroscience when I read it as a teenager. Featuring memorable case studies and vignettes, this book is a collection of strange and profound changes that can happen to the brain. But the clinical case studies are anything but clinical. Written with compassion and tenderness by the great neurologist Oliver Sacks, each story centers on a person along with the neurology, and teaches something poignant about both the brain and the human condition.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Author: Douglas R. Hofstadter (buy it here)

“Gödel, Escher, Bach” is a hefty tome that ponders the hefty question of consciousness: How does the self — the “I” — arise?

But “GEB” (the acronym readers use to shorten the three-name mouthful) does much more than just ponder. It offers an exhilarating and unique literary journey that circles the “strange loops” — the self-referential and varied recursivity — such as those found in Gödel’s math, Escher’s art and Bach’s music, that our consciousness seems to arise from.

Drawing on many scientific, historical and philosophical sources and presented at times through playful dialogues and puzzles, “GEB” is a challenging and ultimately rewarding book the likes of which I had not encountered before I read it nor since.

What other books would you recommend? Let me and other readers know in the comments or email BrainMatters@washpost.com.

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