Grey Matters – great books about the brain

It is a book of great merit that discusses the brain without causing an existential crisis in the reader (and one of even greater merit that turns such a crisis into something that’s at least entertaining).

Here are a few of the books I’ve read that managed to pull off that trick; covering topics like brains, psychology and mental health accessibly and candidly.

The Brain, the Story of You – Dave Eagleman

Who better to explain the brain that an enthusiastic American neuroscientist who’s a professor at Stanford? This book is the paper form of David Eaglemen’s TV series and offers a quick tour of the workings of your brain along with a few eye-opening case studies.

Do No Harm – Henry Marsh

Not one for reading on the commute, or when you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable, Do No Harm is written by neurosurgeon (and unfairly wonderful writer) Henry Marsh (nb his wife, Kate Fox, is an anthropologist and writer who wrote an opus about the weird habits of the English). Marsh’s book tells stories of saving lives, and not saving them – defeating tumours and being defeated. It’s honesty is painful, but welcome.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves- Stephen Grosz

Psychoanalysis (at least in the UK) is a bit of a dirty word, maybe all the Oedipal stuff scared us off, yet Grosz, a psychoanalyst, presents a series of cases in a style that is quite convincing.

The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

No list of brain books would be complete without an entry from late neurologist Oliver Sacks. His prolific and often pioneering work has covered topics like autism, hallucinations (auditory and visual), tourettes, dementia, colour blindess – the list only goes on. In this book, like many of his others, he discusses some of the extraordinary cases he’s handled in his noted compassionate style.

Falling into the fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis – Christine Montross

Falling into the fire is no exaggeration – in this book psychiatrist Christine Montross shares stories of those enduring the worst of mental health problems. Despite the often startling experiences of her patients Montross never veers towards sensationalism, she demonstrates deftly to the reader (in case there was any doubt) that her patients are not exhibits to be peered at, they’re unwell people to be helped.

The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

Disclaimer: I will always recommend Jon Ronson with his nice voice and his eye for the absurd. In this book he investigates an area of mental health diagnosis as slippery as its subject: psychopathy.


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