Here are my favorite books from this past year, with the publisher blurb to give you the overview of the book. These are in no particular order. Many of these books appeared in this blog in the form of reviews written for other publications.
To be clear, I am not claiming these are the best books of the year, but rather, that these are the books I enjoyed reading or challenged my thinking in some ways. And as you might guess, the list is heavy with neuroscience and psychology books, but also one work of fiction and three books of poetry. There were some excellent books this year - please share some of your favorites in the comments.
[UPDATE] Somehow, when I did this list last night, I managed to forget one of the best and one of my favorite books from the list, which is now at the top. Thanks to Christian for reminding me of this book. (Technically, it came out in 2011, but I did not read it until 2012 when a friend gifted me with it - Thanks Tom!)
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
- Selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of 2011
- A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title
- One of The Economist’s 2011 Books of the Year
- One of The Wall Steet Journal's Best Nonfiction Books of the Year 2011
- Winner of the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest
Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.
In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.
Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives—and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Thinking, Fast and Slow will transform the way you think about thinking.
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The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson
From the most celebrated heir to Darwin comes a groundbreaking book on evolution, the summa work of Edward O. Wilson's legendary career.
Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere.
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Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon
From the National Book Award–winning author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression comes a monumental new work, a decade in the writing, about family. In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.
Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, as are the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter.
All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. Drawing on forty thousand pages of interview transcripts with more than three hundred families, Solomon mines the eloquence of ordinary people facing extreme challenges. Whether considering prenatal screening for genetic disorders, cochlear implants for the deaf, or gender reassignment surgery for transgender people, Solomon narrates a universal struggle toward compassion. Many families grow closer through caring for a challenging child; most discover supportive communities of others similarly affected; some are inspired to become advocates and activists, celebrating the very conditions they once feared. Woven into their courageous and affirming stories is Solomon’s journey to accepting his own identity, which culminated in his midlife decision, influenced by this research, to become a parent.
Elegantly reported by a spectacularly original thinker, Far from the Tree explores themes of generosity, acceptance, and tolerance—all rooted in the insight that love can transcend every prejudice. This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human.
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Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks
Have you ever seen something that wasn’t really there? Heard someone call your name in an empty house? Sensed someone following you and turned around to find nothing?
Hallucinations don’t belong wholly to the insane. Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness, or injury. People with migraines may see shimmering arcs of light or tiny, Lilliputian figures of animals and people. People with failing eyesight, paradoxically, may become immersed in a hallucinatory visual world. Hallucinations can be brought on by a simple fever or even the act of waking or falling asleep, when people have visions ranging from luminous blobs of color to beautifully detailed faces or terrifying ogres. Those who are bereaved may receive comforting “visits” from the departed. In some conditions, hallucinations can lead to religious epiphanies or even the feeling of leaving one’s own body.
Humans have always sought such life-changing visions, and for thousands of years have used hallucinogenic compounds to achieve them. As a young doctor in California in the 1960s, Oliver Sacks had both a personal and a professional interest in psychedelics. These, along with his early migraine experiences, launched a lifelong investigation into the varieties of hallucinatory experience.
Here, with his usual elegance, curiosity, and compassion, Dr. Sacks weaves together stories of his patients and of his own mind-altering experiences to illuminate what hallucinations tell us about the organization and structure of our brains, how they have influenced every culture’s folklore and art, and why the potential for hallucination is present in us all, a vital part of the human condition.
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Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman
If the conscious mind--the part you consider to be you--is just the tip of the iceberg, what is the rest doing?
In this sparkling and provocative book, renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman navigates the depths of the subconscious brain to illuminate its surprising mysteries. Why can your foot move halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Is there a true Mel Gibson? How is your brain like a conflicted democracy engaged in civil war? What do Odysseus and the subprime mortgage meltdown have in common? Why are people whose names begin with J more like to marry other people whose names begin with J? And why is it so difficult to keep a secret?
Taking in brain damage, plane spotting, dating, drugs, beauty, infidelity, synesthesia, criminal law, artificial intelligence, and visual illusions, Incognito is a thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.
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The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Kevin Dutton
In this engrossing journey into the lives of psychopaths and their infamously crafty behaviors, the renowned psychologist Kevin Dutton reveals that there is a scale of “madness” along which we all sit. Incorporating the latest advances in brain scanning and neuroscience, Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in common with a Ted Bundy who kills for pleasure than we may wish to admit, and that a mugger in a dimly lit parking lot may well, in fact, have the same nerveless poise as a titan of industry.
Dutton argues that there are indeed “functional psychopaths” among us—different from their murderous counterparts—who use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more “psychopathic” people are, the more likely they are to succeed. Dutton deconstructs this often misunderstood diagnosis through bold on-the-ground reporting and original scientific research as he mingles with the criminally insane in a high-security ward, shares a drink with one of the world’s most successful con artists, and undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation to discover firsthand exactly how it feels to see through the eyes of a psychopath.
As Dutton develops his theory that we all possess psychopathic tendencies, he puts forward the argument that society as a whole is more psychopathic than ever: after all, psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless, and focused—qualities that are tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century. Provocative at every turn, The Wisdom of Psychopaths is a riveting adventure that reveals that it’s our much-maligned dark side that often conceals the trump cards of success.
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Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow
Leonard Mlodinow, the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking), gives us a startling and eye-opening examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world and how, for instance, we often misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates, misunderstand the reasons for our investment decisions, and misremember important events.
Your preference in politicians, the amount you tip your waiter—all judgments and perceptions reflect the workings of our mind on two levels: the conscious, of which we are aware, and the unconscious, which is hidden from us. The latter has long been the subject of speculation, but over the past two decades researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the hidden, or subliminal, workings of the mind. The result of this explosion of research is a new science of the unconscious and a sea change in our understanding of how the subliminal mind affects the way we live.
Employing his trademark wit and lucid, accessible explanations of the most obscure scientific subjects, Leonard Mlodinow takes us on a tour of this research, unraveling the complexities of the subliminal self and increasing our understanding of how the human mind works and how we interact with friends, strangers, spouses, and coworkers. In the process he changes our view of ourselves and the world around us.
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The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor
Consciousness is our gateway to experience: it enables us to recognize Van Gogh’s starry skies, be enraptured by Beethoven’s Fifth, and stand in awe of a snowcapped mountain. Yet consciousness is subjective, personal, and famously difficult to examine: philosophers have for centuries declared this mental entity so mysterious as to be impenetrable to science.
In The Ravenous Brain, neuroscientist Daniel Bor departs sharply from this historical view, and builds on the latest research to propose a new model for how consciousness works. Bor argues that this brain-based faculty evolved as an accelerated knowledge gathering tool. Consciousness is effectively an idea factory—that choice mental space dedicated to innovation, a key component of which is the discovery of deep structures within the contents of our awareness.
This model explains our brains’ ravenous appetite for information—and in particular, its constant search for patterns. Why, for instance, after all our physical needs have been met, do we recreationally solve crossword or Sudoku puzzles? Such behavior may appear biologically wasteful, but, according to Bor, this search for structure can yield immense evolutionary benefits—it led our ancestors to discover fire and farming, pushed modern society to forge ahead in science and technology, and guides each one of us to understand and control the world around us. But the sheer innovative power of human consciousness carries with it the heavy cost of mental fragility. Bor discusses the medical implications of his theory of consciousness, and what it means for the origins and treatment of psychiatric ailments, including attention-deficit disorder, schizophrenia, manic depression, and autism. All mental illnesses, he argues, can be reformulated as disorders of consciousness—a perspective that opens up new avenues of treatment for alleviating mental suffering.
A controversial view of consciousness, The Ravenous Brain links cognition to creativity in an ingenious solution to one of science’s biggest mysteries.
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Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, Giulio Tononi
From one of the most original and influential neuroscientists at work today, here is an exploration of consciousness unlike any other—as told by Galileo, who opened the way for the objectivity of science and is now intent on making subjective experience a part of science as well.
Galileo’s journey has three parts, each with a different guide. In the first, accompanied by a scientist who resembles Francis Crick, he learns why certain parts of the brain are important and not others, and why consciousness fades with sleep. In the second part, when his companion seems to be named Alturi (Galileo is hard of hearing; his companion’s name is actually Alan Turing), he sees how the facts assembled in the first part can be unified and understood through a scientific theory—a theory that links consciousness to the notion of integrated information (also known as phi). In the third part, accompanied by a bearded man who can only be Charles Darwin, he meditates on how consciousness is an evolving, developing, ever-deepening awareness of ourselves in history and culture—that it is everything we have and everything we are.
Not since Gödel, Escher, Bach has there been a book that interweaves science, art, and the imagination with such originality. This beautiful and arresting narrative will transform the way we think of ourselves and the world.
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The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood
Most of us believe that we are an independent, coherent self--an individual inside our head who thinks, watches, wonders, dreams, and makes plans for the future. This sense of our self may seem incredibly real but a wealth of recent scientific evidence reveals that it is not what it seems--it is all an illusion.
In The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood reveals how the self emerges during childhood and how the architecture of the developing brain enables us to become social animals dependent on each other. Humans spend proportionally the greatest amount of time in childhood compared to any other animal. It's not only to learn from others, Hood notes, but also to learn to become like others. We learn to become our self. Even as adults we are continually developing and elaborating this story, learning to become different selves in different situations--the work self, the home self, the parent self. Moreover, Hood shows that this already fluid process--the construction of self--has dramatically changed in recent years. Social networking activities--such as blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter--are fast becoming socialization on steroids. The speed and ease at which we can form alliances and relationships are outstripping the same selection processes that shaped our self prior to the internet era. Things will never be the same again in the online social world. Hood offers our first glimpse into this unchartered territory.
Who we are is, in short, a story of our self--a narrative that our brain creates. Like the science fiction movie, we are living in a matrix that is our mind. But Hood concludes that though the self is an illusion, it is an illusion we must continue to embrace to live happily in human society.
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The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini
Are you still the person who lived fifteen, ten or five years ago? Fifteen, ten or five minutes ago? Can you plan for your retirement if the you of thirty years hence is in some sense a different person? What and who is the real you? Does it remain constant over time and place, or is it something much more fragmented and fluid? Is it known to you, or are you as much a mystery to yourself as others are to you?
With his usual wit, infectious curiosity and bracing scepticism, Julian Baggini sets out to answer these fundamental and unsettling questions. His fascinating quest draws on the history of philosophy, but also anthropology, sociology, psychology and neurology; he talks to theologians, priests, allegedly reincarnated Lamas, and delves into real-life cases of lost memory, personality disorders and personal transformation; and, candidly and engagingly, he describes his own experiences. After reading The Ego Trick, you will never see yourself in the same way again.
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The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard Davidson
This long-awaited book by a pioneer in brain research offers a new model of our emotions- their origins, their power, and their malleability.
For more than thirty years, Richard Davidson has been at the forefront of brain research. Now he gives us an entirely new model for understanding our emotions, as well as practical strategies we can use to change them.
Davidson has discovered that personality is composed of six basic emotional "styles," including resilience, self-awareness, and attention. Our emotional fingerprint results from where on the continuum of each style we fall. He explains the brain chemistry that underlies each style in order to give us a new model of the emotional brain, one that will even go so far as to affect the way we treat conditions like autism and depression. And, finally, he provides strategies we can use to change our own brains and emotions-if that is what we want to do.
Written with bestselling author Sharon Begley, this original and exciting book gives us a new and useful way to look at ourselves, develop a sense of well-being, and live more meaningful lives.
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The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel
A brilliant book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight takes us to Vienna 1900, where leaders in science, medicine, and art began a revolution that changed forever how we think about the human mind—our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions—and how mind and brain relate to art.
At the turn of the century, Vienna was the cultural capital of Europe. Artists and scientists met in glittering salons, where they freely exchanged ideas that led to revolutionary breakthroughs in psychology, brain science, literature, and art. Kandel takes us into the world of Vienna to trace, in rich and rewarding detail, the ideas and advances made then, and their enduring influence today.
The Vienna School of Medicine led the way with its realization that truth lies hidden beneath the surface. That principle infused Viennese culture and strongly influenced the other pioneers of Vienna 1900. Sigmund Freud shocked the world with his insights into how our everyday unconscious aggressive and erotic desires are repressed and disguised in symbols, dreams, and behavior. Arthur Schnitzler revealed women’s unconscious sexuality in his novels through his innovative use of the interior monologue. Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele created startlingly evocative and honest portraits that expressed unconscious lust, desire, anxiety, and the fear of death.
Kandel tells the story of how these pioneers—Freud, Schnitzler, Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele—inspired by the Vienna School of Medicine, in turn influenced the founders of the Vienna School of Art History to ask pivotal questions such as What does the viewer bring to a work of art? How does the beholder respond to it? These questions prompted new and ongoing discoveries in psychology and brain biology, leading to revelations about how we see and perceive, how we think and feel, and how we respond to and create works of art. Kandel, one of the leading scientific thinkers of our time, places these five innovators in the context of today’s cutting-edge science and gives us a new understanding of the modernist art of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, as well as the school of thought of Freud and Schnitzler. Reinvigorating the intellectual enquiry that began in Vienna 1900, The Age of Insight is a wonderfully written, superbly researched, and beautifully illustrated book that also provides a foundation for future work in neuroscience and the humanities. It is an extraordinary book from an international leader in neuroscience and intellectual history.
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The Archaeology of Mind, Jaak Panksepp
A look at the seven emotional systems of the brain by the researcher who discovered them.
What makes us happy? What makes us sad? How do we come to feel a sense of enthusiasm? What fills us with lust, anger, fear, or tenderness? Traditional behavioral and cognitive neuroscience have yet to provide satisfactory answers. The Archaeology of Mind presents an affective neuroscience approach—which takes into consideration basic mental processes, brain functions, and emotional behaviors that all mammals share—to locate the neural mechanisms of emotional expression. It reveals—for the first time—the deep neural sources of our values and basic emotional feelings.
This book elaborates on the seven emotional systems that explain how we live and behave. These systems originate in deep areas of the brain that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species. When they are disrupted, we find the origins of emotional disorders:
- SEEKING: how the brain generates a euphoric and expectant response
- FEAR: how the brain responds to the threat of physical danger and death
- RAGE: sources of irritation and fury in the brain
- LUST: how sexual desire and attachments are elaborated in the brain
- CARE: sources of maternal nurturance
- GRIEF: sources of non-sexual attachments
- PLAY: how the brain generates joyous, rough-and-tumble interactions
- SELF: a hypothesis explaining how affects might be elaborated in the brain
The book offers an evidence-based evolutionary taxonomy of emotions and affects and, as such, a brand-new clinical paradigm for treating psychiatric disorders in clinical practice.
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The next two books here are ones I think are god and should be read, so I included them. However, as I read them I found myself disagreeing quite often, especially with Haidt.
The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt
Why can’t our political leaders work together as threats loom and problems mount? Why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens? In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding.
His starting point is moral intuition—the nearly instantaneous perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do. These intuitions feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who see things differently are wrong. Haidt shows us how these intuitions differ across cultures, including the cultures of the political left and right. He blends his own research findings with those of anthropologists, historians, and other psychologists to draw a map of the moral domain, and he explains why conservatives can navigate that map more skillfully than can liberals. He then examines the origins of morality, overturning the view that evolution made us fundamentally selfish creatures. But rather than arguing that we are innately altruistic, he makes a more subtle claim—that we are fundamentally groupish. It is our groupishness, he explains, that leads to our greatest joys, our religious divisions, and our political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.
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The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker
A provocative history of violence—from the New York Times bestselling author of The Stuff of Thought and The Blank Slate
Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history. Exploding myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.
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To wrap things up, the next three books are poetry. Just because.
Poems 1962-2012, Louise Glück
It is the astonishment of Louise Glück’s poetry that it resists collection. With each successive book her drive to leave behind what came before has grown more fierce, the force of her gaze fixed on what has yet to be imagined. She invented a form to accommodate this need, the book-length sequence of poems, like a landscape seen from above, a novel with lacunae opening onto the unspeakable. The reiterated yet endlessly transfigured elements in this landscape—Persephone, a copper beech, a mother and father and sister, a garden, a husband and son, a horse, a dog, a field on fire, a mountain—persistently emerge and reappear with the dark energy of the inevitable, shot through with the bright aspect of things new-made.
From the outset (“Come here / Come here, little one”), Gluck’s voice has addressed us with deceptive simplicity, the poems in lines so clear we “do not see the intervening fathoms.”
From within the earth’s
bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness
my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?
To read these books together is to understand the governing paradox of a life lived in the body and of the work wrested from it, the one fated to die and the other to endure.
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Collected Poems, Jack Gilbert
Gathered in this volume readers will find more than fifty years of poems by the incomparable Jack Gilbert, from his Yale Younger Poets prize-winning volume to glorious late poems, including a section of previously uncollected work.
There is no one quite like Jack Gilbert in postwar American poetry. After garnering early acclaim with Views of Jeopardy (1962), he escaped to Europe and lived apart from the literary establishment, honing his uniquely fierce, declarative style, with its surprising abundance of feeling. He reappeared in our midst with Monolithos (1982) and then went underground again until The Great Fires (1994), which was eventually followed by Refusing Heaven (2005), a prizewinning volume of surpassing joy and sorrow, and the elegiac The Dance Most of All (2009). Whether his subject is his boyhood in working-class Pittsburgh, the women he has loved throughout his life, or the bittersweet losses we all face, Gilbert is by turns subtle and majestic: he steals up on the odd moment of grace; he rises to crescendos of emotion. At every turn, he illuminates the basic joys of everyday experience.
Now, for the first time, we have all of Jack Gilbert’s work in one essential volume: testament to a stunning career and to his place at the forefront of poetic achievement in our time.
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A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
Mornings with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver
In A THOUSAND MORNINGS, Mary Oliver returns to the imagery that has come to define her life’s work, transporting us to the marshland and coastline of her beloved home, Provincetown, Massachusetts. In these pages, Oliver shares the wonder of dawn, the grace of animals, and the transformative power of attention. Whether studying the leaves of a tree or mourning her adored dog, Percy, she is ever patient in her observations and open to the teachings contained in the smallest of moments.
Our most precious chronicler of physical landscape, Oliver opens our eyes to the nature within, to its wild and its quiet. With startling clarity, humor, and kindness, A THOUSAND MORNINGS explores the mysteries of our daily experience.