When it comes to books about the mind, the first ones I think of are Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (the latter of which I will freely admit I have only read half of). I found both very interesting if also very different in their approaches to our minds. If I spend a little more time, I might think of a few more titles. However, the first ones that come up all reflect my own quirky interests. Those interests could be broadly labeled as education and self-improvement (of a particular bent, I’ll admit).
Any list of books about the mind could naturally cover a range of subtopics. This one does so, but not nearly as broadly as it could. I think I have limited it naturally due to my own interests and so it breaks down into some categories I personally find more interesting than others. These are books about expanding your mind, books about understanding the mind, and books that will help you in training your mind to work better (depending on how you define ‘better’) for you. I have also tried very hard to include a variety of writing styles to interest different types of readers. So without much further ado, let’s begin!
The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku
If you are craving a historical and meaty treatment of the mind and our evolving understanding of the human brain, then this is an excellent place to start. Kaku is an American physicist who has written several books about scientific topics for the general public. He has a knack for making the most complex topics seem accessible while still treating them with nuance and reverence. This will really appeal to readers who feel they want more information about how scientists are exploring the human brain, which tools they have developed, and how these tools help us explore previously hidden areas of the human brain, and therefore the human experience.
Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age by Sanjay Gupta
Gupta writes that his interest in this book is not about expanding one’s intelligence per se, but rather in helping the reader cultivate new brain cells and learn to use them more efficiently. To this he adds a focus on resilience and how to encourage it in your own brain.
The book has three parts. The first covers the basics of what the brain is and does, and how to understand the aging brain. Part two may be more of what most readers would expect from a book like this: an overview of all the practical strategies that a person can use to keep the brain healthy, ending with a 12-week plan to put these science-based ideas into practice. Lastly, part three looks at the difficulties of identifying and treating brain diseases, and offers advice for those caring for loved ones whose brains are in decline. This is worth a read if you are looking for an accessible introduction to several areas of focus at once.
Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This classic title shows up on many lists on books about the mind and was updated in its third edition in 2020. While I can’t remember when I first ran across it, I can say that some of the insights are still surprising and very memorable. Essentially, the focus here is on how people will do whatever is required to make information align with their beliefs, rather than let that information challenge them. This in turn allows us (and I do mean all of us) to make bad decisions and hurt others in ways we find justifiable. It’s an eye-opening read.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
Duckworth’s research revealed that success is created by a combination of applying oneself consistently and over the long term, rather than through innate talent or particular aptitude. Focusing on the research that backs this up, the book is an enjoyable read that anyone interested in books about the mind should pick up. It’s a particularly useful read for those interested in education or in helping younger people see that their potential is not determined by their natural abilities so much as by their ability to apply themselves and to persevere.
A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley
Oakley uses research findings and her own experience to convince readers that they too can develop a ‘mind for numbers,’ even if they struggled in math and science classes at school. While she may not have exhibited a natural gift for math or science early on, Oakley eventually used her knowledge of how the brain works to become a professor of engineering. She has now taught hundreds of thousands of students around the world these techniques, including through some popular massive open online courses. If you enjoy this, you may also like another one of her books called Mindshift: Breakthrough Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
Pollan looks into the recent renaissance of interest in the mind-altering effects of psychedelics like LSD, and their possible benefits beyond recreational use. One of the things I enjoy about Pollan’s writing is the healthy skepticism he brings to his subjects and the natural curiosity he displays. If you like this, you may also want to check out his more recent book This is Your Mind on Plants.
A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins
This may be one of the more challenging reads on this list for a variety of reasons. The style is not nearly as accessible as some other books here. Also, Hawkins delves into not only the human brain but also artificial intelligence, making connections between what we think of as natural thinking and the ‘thinking’ done by machines. This is worth a look if these sorts of big ideas appeal to you as a reader.
The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life by Lisa Miller
Miller links two of my favorite subjects by looking at the brain and spirituality. Over years of research, Miller and her colleagues found that religion and spirituality had a protective effect on the brains of people who would otherwise be prone to depression. She goes on to examine the importance of an ‘awakened’ life and I appreciated that her approach values spirituality and religion as understood very broadly. Listen to an excerpt or read one if this topic intrigues you.
Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives by Thich Nhat Hanh
If you have not read much about Buddhism and meditation, then Thich Nhat Hanh’s name may not be familiar to you. No need for concern. He is a very gifted teacher and his writing strikes me as very accessible. If you are looking for a way to practice mindfulness and to quiet your mind, you could do far worse than to start with some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books.
Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo
This is another book to consider if you are reading about the mind because you want to change yours. Forleo encourages you to face anything in life by using her motto that everything can be figured out, regardless of the circumstances. She has a straightforward style and does not mince words. If you do not like cussing, this might not be for you, but sometimes I think “sh*tstorm” is really the only appropriate term for when life’s lovely challenges all seem to converge on you at once.
The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity by Catherine Sanderson
Sanderson has a PhD in psychology from Princeton and isn’t the type of person who is naturally happy and upbeat all the time. In my opinion, both those things matter. In this book, she discusses surprising findings from positive psychology research that show that mindset has an important effect in situations when we would normally not think it should. And I appreciated Sanderson’s approach that acknowledges that for some, a positive outlook takes some (in this case research-informed) work. Even if you think your mindset can’t be shifted, I think this book is worth a try.
Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning by Leslie Odom, Jr.
It’s confession time. While I had heard of the musical Hamilton, I’d never seen or heard any part of the actual show before reading this. I picked it up because I saw Odom sing on some Disney holiday special that I was forced to watch (I am not joking here) and figured Odom might have a thing or two to share. So my point is that you do not have to be a big Hamilton fan to enjoy this book or even read it. Regardless of your fan status, Odom’s message is a good one. It is that failure – and spectacular failure in particular – is the necessary fuel for a person’s eventual triumph.
Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon: Practical Strategies for Peak Health and Performance by Rahul Jandial
Jandial is a brain surgeon with a PhD in neurobiology, who unsurprisingly also has an enduring fascination with the brain. His book is more of a classic overview of how the brain works with memories of his medical training and professional life interwoven throughout. You’ll also find little interesting tidbits about the brain and anecdotes from those who study it seriously. While his style may not be for everyone, he does present what he writes about in a very accessible and easy to remember way.
Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You by Jenara Nerenberg
This book is about neurodiversity among those of us who identify as women and experience the world in different ways from what has been previously deemed ‘normal.’ Nerenberg is a journalist who began a quest to understand this area after noticing her own difficulties processing certain types of input.
The book explores particular conditions that all have been labeled as ‘sensitivities’ of one kind or another, like Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and sensory processing disorders (among others) and how these neurodivergencies may present themselves in women’s lives. While it can feel a bit tougher to follow at times in her book, Nerenberg makes an important effort here to expand existing understandings of neurodiversity to encompass more experiences of women.
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
No list of books about the mind would be complete without something from Oliver Sacks. However, instead of diving into his more famous works – of which there are many to choose from – I invite you instead to read this slim collection of four short essays he wrote before his death in 2015. There is something so very moving and oddly calming about reading the thoughts of a great thinker as he neared his death and the resulting extinction of a mind that had contributed so much to our understanding of the human brain.
Those are my titles for books about the mind. However, an obvious angle I am missing here is what happens to our brains when we read? If you’re wondering too, you can start with this post about books on the reading brain and keep going with this one on the neuroscience of audiobooks. And as always, enjoy your mind and its endlessly wonderful ability to turn random-seeming markings into meaning!