Brain Pickings

5 Must-Read Books by TED 2011 Speakers

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What doodling has to do with the evolution of consciousness and the raw beauty of the Arctic.

Last year, our selection of 7 must-read books by TEDGlobal speakers was one our most popular articles of 2010. Today, as we prepare for next week’s big event, we’re back with 5 essential reads by TED 2011 speakers, once again litmus-tested for brilliance in the world’s most reliable quality-control lab: the TED stage.

SELF COMES TO MIND

You may recall iconic neuroscientist Antonio Damasio from his insights on what it means to be human. Published last fall, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is his ambitious exploration of the underpinnings of the self. From distilling cognitive phenomena like creativity and memory to illuminating vital distinctions like brain vs. mind and self vs. consciousness, Damasio does for neuroscience what Malcolm Gladwell does for business, synthesizing complex notions and rigorous research into a digestible, absorbing narrative. The book is a surprisingly worthy follow-up to Damasio’s excellent, impossibly unmatchable 2005 Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.

AS THE FUTURE CATCHES YOU

Harvard Business School professor and futurist Juan Enriquez, whose Homo Evolutis was one of last month’s revolutionary first crop of TEDBooks, is a thoughtful observer of the profound cultural and biological changes that genomics and other life sciences are sweeping through society. In As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth, he takes a provocative look at the trajectory of technological progress, contextualizing scientific milestones in relative historical terms that help us grasp the true scale of innovation that surrounds us. (He argues, for instance, that February 2, 2001 — the date that anyone with Internet access could access the entire human genome — is equivalent in magnitude of importance to Columbus’s 1492 discovery of America.)

Sample Enriquez’s genius with his excellent 2009 TED talk on how the evolution of technology is impacting the financial crisis:

Besides the compelling thinking, the As the Future Catches You is a beautiful experience in and of itself, adorned with sophisticated typography and eye-popping graphics. Enriquez has purposely left blank pages for your notes in an effort to stress that the issue is an ongoing conversation with no conclusive answers, inviting you to partake in its intellectual exploration.

GAMESTORMING

We’re big proponents of the value of play in enhancing creativity, productivity and well-being. And while most people have an intuitive understanding of this correlation, it remains a taboo in the formal world of business. In Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, visual thinker and tinkerer Sunni Brown, along with co-authors Dave Gray and James Macanufo, makes a compelling case for the tangible, practical applications of play in business, applying game mechanics to revolutionize business models and work environments across a remarkably wide spectrum of industries.

The book features 83 actual, playable games designed specifically for honing the creative process, facilitating problem-solving, overcoming organizational tensions, and even making meetings shorter and more productive. Playful and pragmatic, the book is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Bill Gates is no stranger to TED. But while the world may have had more than its fair share of Gates exposure in recent decades, it’s undeniable that the iconic geek is a bold visionary. To truly appreciate his keen grasp of the future, we need only look at the past: Published more than 15 years ago, The Road Ahead is a priceless compendium of insights from Gates, who predicts the development and application of present-day information technology with astounding accuracy and further projects its future in shaping our lives with the provocative vision of a true entrepreneur. From personal computing to business to education, the book is both a rare timecapsule of the dawn of ubiquitous computing and an extraordinary lens for what lies ahead.

Sample the book’s retrofuturistic genius with this teaser about Gates’ 1995 vision for the future of education:

POLAR OBSESSION

Naturalist and wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen grew up in one of the only non-Inuit families on Baffin Island, Nunavut, in a tiny native settlement in the sprawling ice fields of Northern Canada. In Polar Obsession, he reconnects with his roots in a striking and powetic visual ode to the Arctic at the intersection of art and science. At once a bittersweet portrait of climate change and a passionate call to action in honoring the incredible planet we inhabit, the book is a visceral and deeply alive reminder of just what’s at stake as we talk about a topic so chronically overpoliticized and sterilized of aliveness.

A kittiwake soars in front of a large iceberg. Svalbard, Norway

Looking towards an uncertain future, a huge male bear triggers a camera trap, taking his own picture. Leifdefjorden, Spitsbergen, Norway

A gentoo penguin chick peeks, checking for patrolling leopard seals before tempting fate. Port Lockroy, Antarctic Peninsula

Mother bear and two-year-old cub drift on glacier ice. Hudson Strait, Nunavut, Canada

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