World Brain Day

7 reads for World Mental Health Day

A much-needed round-up of books to understand the brain and its many mysteries

After a year-plus of lockdowns and isolation, mental health is top of mind for most everyone—and rightfully so. October 10 marks World Mental Health Day, and we are thrilled to shine light on such an important issue through the medium we know best: books. Learn more about your brain and how it works with the selections below, including a study on youth mental health, a book on connectedness, an exploration of altered states of consciousness, and more.

Who You Are: The Science of Connectedness by Michael J. Spivey

Who are you? Are you just a brain? A brain and a body? All the things you have done and the friends you have made? Many of us assume that who we really are is something deep inside us, an inner sanctuary that contains our true selves. In Who You Are, Michael Spivey argues that the opposite is true: that you are more than a brain, more than a brain-and-body, and more than all your assumptions about who you are. Rather than peeling layers away to reveal the inner you, Spivey traces who you are outward. You may already feel in your heart that something outside your body is actually part of you—a child, a place, a favorite book. Spivey confirms this intuition with scientific findings.

“A modern, scientific view of the self and reading it will transform your sense of the person you think you know so well.” —Mahzarin R. Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

Youth Mental Health: A Paradigm for Prevention and Early Intervention edited by Peter J. Uhlhaas and Stephen J. Wood

Mental illness represents one of the largest disease burdens worldwide, yet treatments have been largely ineffective in improving the quality of life for millions of affected individuals—in part because approaches taken have focused on late-stage disorders in adulthood. This volume shifts the focus by placing the developmental stage of “youth” at the center of mental health. The contributors challenge current nosology, explore mechanisms that underlie the emergence of mental disorders, and propose a framework to guide early intervention. Offering recommendations for the future, the book holds that early intervention in youth has the potential to transform outcomes for people with mental disorders and to reconfigure the landscape of mental health.

“Interleaving ethical, population, and systems factors, the authors present a compelling case for applied science as a social investment to transcend the constraints of current health care organizations. A must-read.” —Peter B. Jones, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge; Past-President IEPA: Early Intervention in Mental Health

The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka

What marked the evolutionary transition from organisms that lacked consciousness to those with consciousness—to minimal subjective experiencing, or, as Aristotle described it, “the sensitive soul”? In this book, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka propose a new theory about the origin of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the transition to basic consciousness. Using a methodology similar to that used by scientists when they identified the transition from non-life to life, Ginsburg and Jablonka suggest a set of criteria, identify a marker for the transition to minimal consciousness, and explore the far-reaching biological, psychological, and philosophical implications.

The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul is a landmark attempt to make progress on the problem of animal consciousness…. The word “ambitious” does not do it justice… Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, comparative psychologists, and historians and philosophers of biology will learn a great deal from it.” —Acta Biotheoretica

Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self by Marc Wittmann

During extraordinary moments of consciousness—shock, meditative states and sudden mystical revelations, out-of-body experiences, or drug intoxication—our senses of time and self are altered; we may even feel time and self dissolving. These experiences have long been ignored by mainstream science, or considered crazy fantasies. Recent research, however, has located the neural underpinnings of these altered states of mind. In this book, neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann shows how experiences that disturb or widen our everyday understanding of the self can help solve the mystery of consciousness. If we want to understand our consciousness, our subjectivity, Wittmann argues, we must not be afraid to break new ground. Studying altered states of consciousness leads us directly to the heart of the matter: time and self, the foundations of consciousness.

“To make a book either about altered states of consciousness or about time accessible to nonexperts is, by itself, a great challenge. In Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self, author Marc Wittmann takes one step further and combines these two topics to discuss how they are related… his book is likely to be enjoyed both by readers who are novices in these areas and by readers who are already familiar with one of these topics.” Wired

The Spontaneous Brain: From the Mind–Body to the World–Brain Problem by Georg Northoff

Philosophers have long debated the mind-body problem—whether to attribute such mental features as consciousness to mind or to body. Meanwhile, neuroscientists search for empirical answers, seeking neural correlates for consciousness, self, and free will. In this book, Georg Northoff does not propose new solutions to the mind-body problem; instead, he questions the problem itself, arguing that it is an empirically, ontologically, and conceptually implausible way to address the existence and reality of mental features. We are better off, he contends, by addressing consciousness and other mental features in terms of the relationship between world and brain; philosophers should consider the world-brain problem rather than the mind-body problem. This calls for a Copernican shift in vantage point—from within the mind or brain to beyond the brain—in our consideration of mental features.

“This interesting, innovative and closely argued volume is sure to be both productive and controversial. Highly recommended for anyone interested in an alternate future for the science of the mind.” —Michael L. Anderson, Rotman Professor in Philosophy of Science, Western University, Ontario

Defining Mental Disorder: Jerome Wakefield and His Critics edited by Luc Faucher and Denis Forest

One of the most pressing theoretical problems of psychiatry is the definition of mental disorder. Jerome Wakefield’s proposal that mental disorder is “harmful dysfunction” has been both influential and widely debated; philosophers have been notably skeptical about it. This volume provides the first book-length collection of responses by philosophers to Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis (HDA), offering a survey of philosophical critiques as well as extensive and detailed replies by Wakefield himself. HDA is offered as a definition of mental disorder, but it is also the outcome of a method—conceptual analysis—and contributors first take up HDA’s methodology, considering such topics as HDA’s influences on the DSM, empirical support for HDA, and clinical practice. They go on to discuss HDA’s ultimate goal, the demarcation between normal and abnormal; the dysfunction component of the analysis, addressing issues that include developmental plasticity, autism and neurodiversity, and the science of salience; and the harmful component, examining harmless dysfunction, normal variation, medicalization, and other questions. Wakefield offers substantive responses to each chapter.

Applied Ethics in Mental Health Care: An Interdisciplinary Reader edited by Dominic A. Sisti, Arthur L. Caplan and Hila Rimon-Greenspan

This book discusses some of the most critical ethical issues in mental health care today, including the moral dimensions of addiction, patient autonomy and compulsory treatment, privacy and confidentiality, and the definition of mental illness itself. Although debates over these issues are ongoing, there are few comprehensive resources for addressing such dilemmas in the practice of psychology, psychiatry, social work, and other behavioral and mental health care professions. This book meets that need, providing foundational background for undergraduate, graduate, and professional courses.

“In this superb volume, Sisti, Caplan, and Rimon-Greenspan have gathered in one place some of the most thoughtful and incisive thinkers about the difficulties of caring for people with mental illness. Most important, the ethical considerations grapple with the lived reality of the mentally ill and those who are caring for them.” —Paul Root Wolpe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Center for Ethics, Emory University

Explore more of the MIT Press’s books on cognitive sciences