Ellen Heltzel: Brainy Books


These days books about the gray matter are anything but gray. Every move we make – not to mention mood disorders and  addiction problems – get their start in the brain. Neuroscience has given us new glimpses at the complicated machinations of the three-pound mission control center that makes us human. Here’s some of the best reading you’ll find on these subjects: 

“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” by Steven Pinker. Pinker sets the pace among contemporary writers about what goes on in our heads. A psychology professor at Harvard, in his latest book he argues that society has become less violent over time and tries to determine why. One big factor: the printing press. By learning to articulate ideas, humans discovered another way to settle conflict. Obviously, we’re still working on it. This book is not for the vain of heart: 800 pages!

“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” by David Eagleman. Another regular writer on the subject of how we behave, Eagleman uses this forum to explore the subconscious brain and show why it serves as an amazing filter, absorbing tons more information than we realize while sorting it so that we aren’t driven mad with distractions. So what’s down there that you’re missing… ??? Fascinating stuff.

“An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and the Miracle Drug Cocaine,” by Howard Markel. The author, a doctor himself, creates a highly readable tale about drug use before there was such a thing as “controlled substances.” Morphine and its derivatives were as available as aspirin, and Freud’s research with cocaine was inspired by the effort to use it as an antidote for the other hard stuff. In the process, both Freud and Halsted, a renowned surgeon, got hooked themselves.

“Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America,” by Robert Whitaker. Whitaker, long a critic of the medical establishment, takes on the mental health profession in a book that shows how mental illness – a rare problem which half a century ago was almost exclusively the preserve of middle-aged adults or the elderly – has become an issue for one out of ten Americans, including vast numbers of children. How did the goalposts change, and whose interests were served by changing them? This is an information-packed book that offers a harsh diagnosis of psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical companies.

Ellen Heltzel, Book Critic and author of "Between the Covers," joined us today with her picks for the best books about the brain.

For more book picks from Ellen, check out her Book Babes website.


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