5 Books About the Brain to Read If You Want to Be a Badass

UPDATED: May 14, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 19, 2017
woman reading book in bed to boost brain power

When I came across the notion that I could get good at anything I set my mind to, I was blown away. Cases have been made against the idea that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks (both for humans and for dogs). The brain is rather plastic and malleable, allowing you to shape your mind and habits through disciplined practice. So just because you’re bad at something today doesn’t mean you have to keep being bad at it tomorrow.

That concept was one of the driving forces behind my obsession with learning how the brain works. I figure if the brain is the organ that literally constructs the world around me (don’t believe me, read the books listed below), then I had better figure out how it works so that I could take control of the process. And I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that taking control of that process, and focusing my energies on learning the neuroanatomical realities of unleashing my full potential, is what allowed me to succeed as an entrepreneur.

It’s been said that the brain is the most complicated thing in our universe. The five books below are the ones that most shaped my understanding of the brain. They’re also the ones that will help you unlock some of its mysteries, and in the process, supercharge your mind. Read on, but only if you want to become a total badass. #JediStuff

1. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

By David Eagleman

You might think of yourself as being your conscious mind. However, author David Eagleman shows that the conscious mind is often taking a back seat. Instead, the real work of constructing what you think of as “you” is being done by the subconscious.

This revelation is detailed through a stream of ingenious studies, including ones that will make you ask, “Does free will actually exist?” Your conscious mind, as Eagleman points out, is not the one in control. And, as Eagleman writes, this “emerging understanding of the brain profoundly changes our view of ourselves, shifting us from an intuitive sense that we are at the center of the operations to a more sophisticated, illuminating and wondrous view of the situation.”

Eagleman does an excellent job of bringing these deep mysteries within easy grasp without ever dumbing things down. This book about the brain is fun to read. Plus, it will help you become aware of some of the processes and subroutines that sit just out of conscious view but make up the bulk of your existence. This fresh perspective allows you to take control of some of these processes, or at least not be as controlled by them—and that is the first step toward getting out of the Matrix.

2. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

By V.S. Ramachandran, MBBS, Ph.D., and Sandra Blakeslee 

Taking its name from the strange phenomenon of phantom limb pain (the persistent feeling of pain in a missing limb), Phantoms in the Brain is a remarkable book by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. With levity and a tremendous knack for captivating storytelling, they explore the weird and wonderful world of the brain and its uses for mapping, remapping and specialization.

Blakeslee, a former writer for The New York Times, and Ramachandran, a neuroscientist, researcher and emeritus distinguished professor at U.C. San Diego, are both profound and funny as they explore the hidden secrets of region-specific brain function. While the book covers a lot of amazing ground, the sections that I found most enlightening were focused on self-deception. It’s something anyone interested in self-improvement needs to study closely. And nobody handles the topic better than Ramachandran and Blakeslee.

3. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human

By V.S. Ramachandran

The subtitle of this book, “A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human,” is the through line that makes this book accessible, wildly entertaining and ultimately usable. Ramachandran explores everything from mirror neurons, a mechanism first discovered in 1992 within the premotor cortices of macaque monkeys, to synesthesia, “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (such as vision),” as described by Psychology Today.

In understanding the brain at its best and its most terrifyingly broken, you really do begin to understand the processing power and perspective that creates this human experience. In peeking under the hood at the processes that drive our mental functions, much like Eagleman, Ramachandran helps the reader not only better understand the brain, but also begin to transcend the algorithms that invisibly steer our behavior.

4. Making a Good Brain Great: The Amen Clinic Program for Achieving and Sustaining Optimal Mental Performance

By Daniel Amen, M.D.

There are many amazing things in this book. What I liked most about it is how practical and applicable it is—from how to protect your brain from damage to how to talk back to and defeat “ANTs (automatic negative thoughts)” in order to regain control of your mind. I have used the strategies in this book for years now. This is one of the most immediately usable books on the brain I’ve ever read.

5. The Female Brain

By Louann Brizendine, M.D.

No matter your gender, The Female Brain is a must-read book. Author Louann Brizendine details the phases and changes that a woman’s brain goes through (physically and hormonally) from childhood to postmenopause and everything in between. It really helped me understand the neurological underpinnings of the female perspective. For my wife (who has now read this book multiple times), it helped her put words to her thoughts, feelings and maturation as a woman. Discussing the book and its concepts helped us both communicate better and ensure that we were speaking the same language.

There are many other amazing books on the brain; these are truly just a few that have shaped my understanding. Since shaping your brain impacts your knowledge and habits, if you’re only going to study one topic, for my money, the brain is it. These books are an awesome primer to get you started. I hope you enjoy the journey and get as much from it as I have.

This article was updated June 2023. Photo by Olga Kri/Shutterstock

Tom Bilyeu is the co-founder of 2014 Inc. 500 company Quest Nutrition—a unicorn startup valued at over $1 billion—and the co-founder and host of Impact Theory. Tom’s mission is the creation of empowering media-based IP and the acceleration of mission-based businesses. Personally driven to help people develop the skills they will need to improve themselves and the world, Tom is intent to use commerce to address the dual pandemics of physical and mental malnourishment.

Tom regularly inspires audiences of entrepreneurs, change makers and thought leaders at some of the most prestigious conferences and seminars around the world, including Abundance 360, A-fest and Freedom Fast Lane. Tom has also been a guest on The Tony Robbins podcast and The School of Greatness podcast and has been featured in Forbes, Inc., SUCCESS and The Huffington Post. Tom is currently on the Innovation Board of the XPRIZE Foundation.