Start reading Brains: How They Seem to Work (FT Press Science) on the free Kindle Reading App or on your Kindle in under a minute. Don't have a Kindle? Get your Kindle here.

Deliver to your Kindle or other device

Enter a promotion code
or gift card

Try it free

Sample the beginning of this book for free

Deliver to your Kindle or other device

Sorry, this item is not available in
Image not available for
Image not available

To view this video download Flash Player


Brains: How They Seem to Work (FT Press Science) [Kindle Edition]

Dale Purves
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)

Digital List Price: $39.99 What's this?
Print List Price: $39.99
Kindle Price: $22.99
You Save: $17.00 (43%)

Free Kindle Reading App Anybody can read Kindle books—even without a Kindle device—with the FREE Kindle app for smartphones, tablets and computers.

To get the free app, enter your email address or mobile phone number.


Amazon Price New from Used from
Kindle Edition $22.99  
Hardcover $30.39  
Kindle Daily Deals
Kindle Delivers: Daily Deals
Subscribe to find out about each day's Kindle Daily Deals for adults and young readers. Learn more (U.S. customers only)

Book Description

For 50 years, the world’s most brilliant neuroscientists have struggled to understand how human brains really work. Today, says Dale Purves, the dominant research agenda may have taken us as far as it can--and neuroscientists may be approaching a paradigm shift.


In this highly personal book, Purves reveals how we got to this point and offers his notion of where neuroscience may be headed next. Purves guides you through a half-century of the most influential ideas in neuroscience and introduces the extraordinary scientists and physicians who created and tested them.


Purves offers a critical assessment of the paths that neuroscience research has taken, their successes and their limitations, and then introduces an alternative approach for thinking about brains. Building on new research on visual perception, he shows why common ideas about brain networks can’t be right and uncovers the factors that determine our subjective experience. The resulting insights offer a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.


• Why we need a better conception of what brains are trying to do and how they do it
   Approaches to understanding the brain over the past several decades may be at an impasse

• The surprising lessons that can be learned from what we see
   How complex neural processes owe more to trial-and-error experience than to logical principles

• Brains--and the people who think about them
   Meet some of the extraordinary individuals who’ve shaped neuroscience

• The “ghost in the machine” problem
   The ideas presented further undermine the concept of free will

Editorial Reviews




"The 'Brains' in Dale Purves’ book are both the focus of his research and the intellectual giants with whom he mixed in his remarkable career. At one level Brains is a charming autobiography; at another a vivid personal account of 50 years in the evolution of neuroscience. But it also lays down a challenge to the mainstream view that simple, sequential analysis of nerve cells and their responses can explain the apparently impossible task of seeing the world as it really is on the basis of the infinitely ambiguous retinal image. Brains is a delight--for its insights into both the scientists and the science of the brain."

--Colin Blakemore, Universities of Oxford and Warwick


"Dale Purves has been a leading figure in brain science for 40 years: He has made numerous discoveries, founded departments, and written major textbooks. In Brains, he tells the story of his scientific journey and intertwines it in an elegant and accessible way with two others: the uneven progress of the field over the past half century and the new view of brain function to which the field's shortcomings have led him. Some neuroscientists are likely to disagree with Purves' heretical theories, but none can afford to ignore them."

--Joshua R. Sanes, Harvard University


"Brains is much more than a book about brains. It is a journey that takes the reader through the modern history of neurobiology, a personal account that illuminates both what we know about brains and the mysteries that remain in understanding how brains work."

--Terrence J. Sejnowski, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Salk Institute, and University of California at San Diego


"Dale Purves had the good fortune to be present at the birth of the new discipline of neuroscience, which condensed in the 1960s and 1970s from elements of physiology, anatomy, and neurology. The first half of the book tracks his odyssey through two of the linchpin departments of the new discipline, those at Harvard Medical School and University College London, to introduce the basic principles of neuroscience for nonspecialists. The book's second half encapsulates Purves' major contribution to the field of neuroscience, and particularly to visual neuroscience. The experimental tools developed during the past half century provide us with an excellent picture of the activity of individual neurons. At the same time, these tools seduce neuroscientists into a reductionist approach that focuses on the microscopic details of visual analysis. Perhaps owing to his training in philosophy, Purves recognized the evolutionary importance of the way that we see: The brain does not report an objective reality but instead provides its best guess at that reality on the basis of the fragmentary information at hand. The brain can be misled by unusual and contrived visual inputs--the basis of visual 'illusions'--but this scarcely represents a defect: The brain interprets patterns of light, darkness, and color on the basis of the most plausible natural stimuli, and it remains for researchers to learn how this interpretation comes about. Brains offers a guide to thinking like a neuroscientist."

--A. James Hudspeth, Rockefeller University


"This is a lucid, easy-to-read summary that is fascinating reading for anyone interested in what we know and do not know about how brains work. Purves brings together a unique expertise and priceless personal observations about several subfields of brain research and the scientists who have shaped our present understanding of it over the past eventful fifty years."

--Pasko Rakic,Yale University School of Medicine


"Dale Purves' Brains is my favorite sort of reading--an engaging and intelligent scientific autobiography full of vivid personal and historical accounts; the story not only of a life but of an intellectual pursuit. Purves has a unique voice, lively, outspoken, and very human--and his love of science comes through on every page."

--Oliver Sacks


"Brains is an engaging tour of human neuroscience from one of its most distinguished and opinionated practitioners. Dale Purves is a lively and informative guide to the field, having been at the scene of some of its great discoveries and having made many important discoveries himself."

--Steven Pinker, Harvard University, author of The Stuff of Thought 


"A rare account of both the modern history of key discoveries in brain research by someone who was there and responsible for many of them and also a heartfelt account of the joy of it all. Dale Purves has given us an inside view of a life in science and explains with clarity what it all means."

--Michael S. Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique


"Brains is a delightful book that weaves together Dale Purves' personal neuroscience history with the history and current status of the field. I enjoyed it start to finish."

--Joseph LeDoux, New York University, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self


"This book is many things. It's the memoir of an immensely likeable human (who I only previously knew as a distant giant in my field). It's people with strong personalities that give lie to the notion that science is an affectless process. But most of all, it is a clear, accessible, affectionate biography of neuroscience. This is a terrific book."

--Robert M. Sapolsky, Stanford University, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers


"Both highly entertaining and educational. A masterpiece."

--Bert Sakmann, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

About the Author

Dale Purves is Professor of Neurobiology, Psychology and Neuroscience, and Philosophy at Duke University. He is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Medical School. Upon completion of an internship and assistant residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Purves was a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and subsequently in the Department of Biophysics at University College London. He joined the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine in 1973 where he was Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, and came to Duke in 1990 as the founding chair of the Department of Neurobiology in the School of Medicine. From 2003 to 2009 he was Director of Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and is now Director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Disorders Program of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine.

Product Details

  • File Size: 3194 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 5 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits
  • Publisher: FT Press; 1 edition (January 8, 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0030TY1L2
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #518,550 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
  •  Would you like to give feedback on images?.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
Share your thoughts with other customers
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
89 of 103 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How to Make a Fascinating Subject Boring September 18, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Having recently become intrigued by current discoveries in neuropsychology, I was eager to read BRAINS: HOW THEY SEEM TO WORK, written by a renowned professor of neurobiology, psychology and brain sciences. But what a disappointment! Purves' book is not only limited in regard to imparting our current understanding, but it is narrow, overly technical, and poorly structured.

For the past few days, I've been wondering whether to title this review Dale Purves' Professional Diary (but that only pertains to the first half of the book), How Not to Write About the Brain (but his writing style might appeal to neurobiologists in training), or How to Make A Fascinating Subject Boring. I opted for the latter.

The first third of BRAINS is not about how the brain works, but rather about Purves' own academic history (a sort of "I did this, I did that") and the history of brain researchers. Do we really need a page resume of each researcher followed by a presentation of his work? Do we need lengthy discussions of past research, only to be followed by brief statements pointing out that the researchers' theories have been disproved and are no longer accepted? For a reader wanting to learn about current discoveries in brain science, such an experience is an exercise in excessive amygdala and sympathetic nervous system arousal (i.e. considerable frustration).

Purves' book would have been more readable and meaningful to readers if he had briefly summarized the history of brain research and then clearly presented an overview of our understanding today. What about, for example, recent discovering in regard to how the brain forms new associations, and regenerates itself later in life?
Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating and Challenging Book July 25, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
When deciding to order this book, my first thought was that I could be in over my head, since I haven't taken a biology course since college. While I was unable to grasp every point and detail, I can say that I understood most of the content (at least I think!), even if I found myself flashing back to past biology classes. Even if I couldn't understand everything, I definitely enjoyed the book.

In chapters one through six, Purves interweaves his own academic history with a history of neuroscience since the 1960s. Overall, he tells an interesting story, at least to those of us fascinated by the history of science. He began his journey aspiring to study psychiatry, and ended up in neuroscience. After conducting research in neuroscience for years, he decided to study perception.

In chapter seven, Purves begins outlining his pioneering and unorthodox ideas about perception. The book became even more interesting at this point. I particularly like that he is challenging conventional wisdom using his own vast experience and research. While a lot of pioneering ideas turn out to be wrong, without challenges to scientific orthodoxy, scientific advancement is stifled. Purves was a Philosophy major in college, so he includes philosophical concerns in his discussion of perception, which I find fascinating, especially since many neuroscientists have chosen to ignore questions raised by philosophers. 18th century bishop George Berkeley raised a key philosophical problem at the heart of visual perception: how can a two-dimensional image projected on the retina ever accurately represent the three-dimensional world? Exploring how the brain contends with this problem became the starting point for Purves' exploration of perception.
Read more ›
Comment | 
Was this review helpful to you?
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This book might be called a niche book, but I find it hard to find the niche that this book, "Brains: How they seem to work" by Professor of Neurobiology, Dale Purves would be totally comfortable in.

There is definitely a fair amount of technical discussion/lecturing concerning current models of brain functioning and the evolution of these models from previous ideas. While these theories are subtle and technical they are well explained and would be understandable with a college level vocabulary and preferably undergraduate level biology class or a solid motivating interest in this field. The brain systems treated in this book are not covered with the detail that would make this a neurobiology textbook, but this would make a good support text for such a class.

The aspect of this book I found most intriguing was story of this evolving field told with many thumbnail biographies of the principle early researchers in this field and their numerous interactions. The subtitle indicates a certain humility about our present level of understanding of brain functional anatomy. Now humility is hardly an outward character trait of the author or many other neuroscientists appearing in this book. However, the documented history of the continuous rising and falling of paradigms in this field driven as much by personality as scientific evidence gives a cautionary tale of actual research.

This would make a good object text for a philosophy of science course and is interesting for the human face that it puts on what normally seems to be a coldly technical field.

Others have critiqued this book as dry or technical, reading too much like a college textbook, but I found it to be quite readable.
Read more ›
Comment | 
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A good memoir from one of the pillars of modern neuroscience
A good memoir from one of the pillars of modern neuroscience. His frank description of his own personal career path and dilemmas through the halls of academia provide a reference... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Jody Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars good
It is very useful book. I learnd a lot of knowledge from this book. It is very nice. I love it.
Published 6 months ago by eric
5.0 out of 5 stars Brain food
Fascinating biography of a leading researcher in brain and neuroscience. Nicely written, the author interjects personal anecdotes with research findings in an easy to read and... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Mike
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read!
Great read! Got this for free, however would have paid for it after reading. Will be interesting to see where we go from here.
Published 8 months ago by Medic Mike
2.0 out of 5 stars Should've Been Called: How Neuroscientists Seem to Work
A highly technical read, which I expected, but actually more of an autobiography than a manual on brain function. Read more
Published 11 months ago by William T. Masonis
5.0 out of 5 stars Brains: Not Using Them Would Be Unthinkable
The author revisits many familiar vehicles to understand how we think. He discusses nerve cells versus brain systems. Read more
Published 13 months ago by D. Wayne Dworsky
3.0 out of 5 stars Wow this is very hard to read
This is an example of scientific writing for the public. And it just doesn't work. I am pretty well (over)edumacated and I just couldn't follow it. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Al
4.0 out of 5 stars more than a text book
this book tells the history of neuroscience and of some neurscientists. You can also learn how new ideas are dealt with by University researchers, and how weird it is when someone... Read more
Published 18 months ago by carla.labarthe
1.0 out of 5 stars Autobiography
I'm 11% into the book, and all I have read is an autobiography of the author. I don't really know why I should care about him. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Mohamed Qasem
2.0 out of 5 stars Didn't hold my interest
I couldn't finish this book. It was more autobiographical than anything- a look back on what the author learned where and from whom. I lost interest about halfway through.
Published 18 months ago by Tantor
Search Customer Reviews
Search these reviews only

More About the Author

Discover books, learn about writers, read author blogs, and more.

What Other Items Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item?


There are no discussions about this product yet.
Be the first to discuss this product with the community.
Start a new discussion
First post:
Prompts for sign-in

Look for Similar Items by Category