10 science books that will make you see the world differently

To better understand our place in the world, check out these groundbreaking books. 

Science is often counterintuitive. When we become habituated to our environment our frame of reference reflects the minds of those around us and the geography we live within. Good science doesn't lean on anecdote; it constantly pushes us to think and act better. The following books push boundaries by confronting common wisdom and updating our collective knowledge through a combination of research, integrity, curiosity, and passion.



The Age of Wonder

by Richard Holmes

Starting with a history book might seem odd, but without a firm understanding of how germ theory, disease specificity, and the placebo response—among other important breakthroughs — came to be, you won't be grounded in what we now consider basic knowledge. British biographer Richard Holmes does justice to the evolution of eighteenth and nineteenth century science.

We need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.


Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

by Robert Sapolsky

If you want to know why humans behave how we do, start with American neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky's tour de force. Having spent time studying baboons in Kenya, here he trains his gaze on the peculiar, outlandish, and even mundane aspects of humans, traversing neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and anthropology to better comprehend what makes us us.

We are constantly being shaped by seemingly irrelevant stimuli, subliminal information, and internal forces we don't know a thing about.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

by Bessel van der Kolk

Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk began studying post-traumatic stress in the seventies. His masterful work stretches across decades of research in an attempt to piece together a clinical and heartfelt approach to trauma. His understanding of the biology and physicality of his discipline is unmatched.

We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.

The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity

by Norman Doidge

Canadian psychoanalyst Norman Doidge is also a poet, a fact that became apparent with his breakthrough book, The Brain That Changes Itself. His follow-up addresses important issues that research these and more in his beautiful prose. Including an entire chapter on the work of movement genius Moshé Feldenkrais added an even bigger smile to my face.

"The use of force is the opposite of awareness; learning does not take place when we are straining."

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I first read Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee's debut out of curiosity. A few years later it offered comfort when dealing with my own cancer. His gorgeous style and sympathetic approach, displayed as a columnist for The New Yorker and NY Times, portrays cancer as an integral part of what we are as animals. His follow-up to this exhaustive biography is the highly recommended The Gene. On Twitter he told me his final installment of what he considers to be a trio will be on vaccines. Plenty to look forward to from this masterful writer.

Cancer is built into our genomes: the genes that unmoor normal cell division are not foreign to our bodies, but rather mutated, distorted versions of the very genes that perform vital cellular functions. And cancer is imprinted in our society: as we extend our life span as a species, we inevitably unleash malignant growth (mutations in cancer genes accumulate with aging; cancer is thus intrinsically related to age). If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett presents one of the most counterintuitive books in recent memory by claiming that we don't react to our environment so much as constantly construct our reality. This groundbreaking work will change how you view your inner world forever, empowering you with the knowledge that pretty much every “reaction" can be changed. (Listen to my chat with her here.)

With concepts, your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that vision, hearing, and your other senses seem like reflexes rather than constructions.

The Organized Mind

by Daniel J. Levitin

Inattention is one of our greatest modern problems. We know cigarettes and alcohol are addictive; we've come to terms with opioids. Sugar is a killer, one few give up. Yet we seem light years from admitting what technology is doing to our brains. Neuroscientist Dan Levitin's insightful book will change how you view tech—and your life. Fortunately it's all for the better, should you heed his advice.

"Evolution doesn't design things and it doesn't build systems—it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that). There is no overarching, grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like a new construction."


Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

by Peter Godfrey Smith

Australian philosopher and professor Peter Godfrey Smith has exposed the unworldly reality of the octopus in such candor that we'll never view this incredible cephalopod the same way. In the process he offers keen insights into the development of sentience and intelligence throughout the animal kingdom, humans included.

To some degree, unity is inevitable in a living agent: an animal is a whole, a physical object keeping itself alive. But in other ways, unity is optional, an achievement, an invention. Bringing experience together — even the deliverances of the two eyes—is something that evolution may or may not do.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

by Daniel Lieberman

To wrap your head around any facet of human biology, anatomy, and physiology, start with Harvard paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman. This eye-opening masterpiece explores the intricate details of digestion as well as our posture and feet, forcing us to reconsider movement patterns and cognitive habits that are actually killing us. His deep dive into mismatch diseases will inspire you to change the course of your day.

By developing through myriad interactions between genes and environments, organisms are able to build extremely complex, highly integrated bodies that not only work well, but also can adapt to a wide range of circumstances.

The Well-Tuned Brain: A Remedy for a Manic Society

by Peter C Whybrow, MD

Scouring through the innumerable books with “brain" in the title is challenging, as neuroscience has become a catchword for every possible agenda. English psychiatrist Peter C. Whybrow takes a truly unique and essential take when discussing capitalism's effects on our behavior. He argues that many technological advances are actually enslaving us; our survival as a species is under threat due to our reliance on what's being sold.

We find ourselves rewarded less in the role of concerned citizen than in that of self-seeking consumer. Through habituation, we have grown indifferent to those aspects of human culture that fall outside market reference.

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Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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