7 Fascinating Books on Human Mind & Mental Illness

Since it is Non-Fiction November, I thought I would make a list of non-fiction book recommendations on some of my favourite subjects to explore – the human mind, mental illness and psychiatry. Even though some of the books below border academic and are dated, they still reman very insightful. Some of them were also initially seminal works that opened a new way of thinking about the topic. This list is in no particular order.

Goffman AsylumsI. Asylums [1961] by Erving Goffman 

Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) is considered to be “the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century”. His work Asylums is a compelling study on mental institutions, in particular, which he terms “total institutions” since, in his view, they insist on certain patterns of behaviour making people inside to conform to certain roles, such as “guards” or “captors”. This is a thought-provoking book which gave way to the whole new theory behind the confinement of mentally ill. 

History of Melancholy BookII. History of Melancholy [2009/2011] by Karin Johannisson 

History of Melancholy talks about melancholic feelings throughout history – how people viewed melancholy and what forms it took through the ages. It has always been my favourite book on the subject, because it dips into history, literature, psychology and modern psychiatry. It also talks about fugue states, amnesia, anxiety, loneliness and fatigue, emphasising how people were diagnosed with that or this illness depending which one of them was also “in vogue” at that time. I read this book translated (from Swedish) to Russian, and I am not sure whether it is available in the English translation. 

History of Madness FoucaultIII. History of Madness [1961/2006] by Michel Foucault  

This monumental work by Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), a French philosopher, examines madness throughout history, starting in the Middle Ages (the confinement of lepers) and finishing in the eighteenth century (the “revolutions” in psychiatry). Paying attention to the past psychiatric practices and methods, the author shows how madness was perceived through the prisms of culture, law, politics, philosophy and medicine, while putting his own ideas forward on the representation and meaning of madness.   

Hallucinations Oliver SacksIV. Hallucinations [2012] by Oliver Sacks

I recommend all books by Oliver Sacks since all of them are both informative and entertaining (his best known work is probably The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat [1985]). In Hallucinations, Sacks details cases of people with certain conditions or brain abnormalities experiencing hallucinations. For example, there is a person in the book with the Charles Bonnet Syndrome (experience of hallucinations while being blind (the brain “compensates” the lack of vision in this way)), and the author also talks about sleep paralysis that induces hallucinations. 

The Myth of Mental Illness CoverV. The Myth of Mental Illness [1961] by Thomas Szasz 

Thomas Szasz (1920 – 2012), a major proponent of the anti-(coercive) psychiatry movement, penned this work in 1961, detailing in it how labelling plays a powerful role in the field of psychiatry to the detriment of the patients. Psychiatrists decide what is and is not a mental illness, passing stigma onto others, confining more and more people in institutions, while, at the same time, gaining a societal status, popularity and respect for themselves. This work is arguably as important and insightful as it was in 1961 – we should not forget the dangers that others have already clearly demonstrated.

Phantoms in the Brain BookVI. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind [1998] by V. S. Ramachandran

Why is it that some patients still feel their limbs and experience them as though they are still attached when they have already been amputated? Why is it that a person may think that their family member is an imposter? This and other questions are posed and answered by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran in this informative and engaging book that will be a treat for those curious about medical and psychological mysteries.

Girl, Interrupted Book CoverVII. Girl, Interrupted [1993] by Susanna Kaysen

I thought I would finish this list with a more personal account. In 1967, Susanna Kaysen, age nineteen, was sent to a psychiatric hospital to undergo an evaluation. She spent about a year and a half at the McLean Hospital, being diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. Girl, Interrupted is her story of this experience in which she draws attention to the absurdity of the rules and to the embedded sexism.  

25 thoughts on “7 Fascinating Books on Human Mind & Mental Illness

  1. I have only read one book on the list, the Foucault which is simply brilliant. I will have to read the others as this is a fascinating subject and they all seem interesting. I like R.D Laing as well. Great poet Diana

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  2. A wonderful selection of books on mental disorders. The potential has never been greater to finally bring psychiatry under the same roof as the rest of medicine.. Psychology courses are required for a BSN , I found Phantoms of the Brain an excellent study. Thank you for the recommendations, most appreciated.

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  3. Girl, Interrupted was a powerful read for sure. I will be looking into more of these. I just picked up The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan, which is about people going undercover in an institution and they had to prove they didn’t need to be there. It gives a lot of insight into the cruel treatment and how this experiment of sorts affected institutions and treatment centers going forward. I have not read it, but I have read work by her before where she tells her own story and it was wonderful.

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    1. Thanks for recommending The Great Pretender. I remember studying the 1970s experiment by Rosenhan when his subjects went into psychiatric hospitals while being completely sane. There is definitely a presumption that one is insane if that person already “got” there. I wonder what new things Cahalan has to say on this.

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    1. Thanks very much for recommending The Female Malady, I am now adding it to my TBR. It is definitely clear when it comes to women in particular and mental illness that there is a whole new perspective to consider especially since their so-called innate “irrationality” and “hysteria” were documented by “male” psychiatrists since early times.

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      1. I researched the leading treatment of the day for 19th-century “the female malady” for a story I wrote developed by neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell’s. The rest-cure involved complete forced inactivity combined with isolation from family and constant feeding. I found primary sources in Internet Archive for how the treatment was actually carried out on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis. It was truly appalling.

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  4. Great post! And a perfect time for it. 🙂 This is a fascinating topic and I’m going to be adding several of these to my TBR, so I’m grateful for the list! The only one I’m sure I’ve heard of is Girl, Interrupted, which I had forgotten about but am now freshly interested in picking up. It’s not on your list, but I’ve also recently picked up a copy of The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan, a nonfiction about an asylum experiment in the 70s that I’m excited to read!

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    1. I hope you enjoy Girl, Interrupted. Unlike some others, I also enjoyed the film with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. The Great Pretender looks great, thanks a lot! As I mentioned above, I remember reading an article by David Rosenhan titled On Being Sane in Insane Places [1973]. It was a fascinating study that opened eyes on how hospital conditions and treatments contribute to creating the image of insanity, among other conclusions, of course, such as the power of labelling. I will definitely be adding Cahalan’s book to my TBR.

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      1. Thanks, and I’ll be sure to check out that film as well, I always appreciate seeing an adaptation after reading the text! I’m also making note of that article, it sounds like it would certainly be interesting to read alongside any of these titles, and I was aiming to get to The Great Pretender at least before the end of the year, which should provide a nice opportunity for it. I hope you’ll enjoy Cahalan’s book as well!

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  5. I’ve only read Girl, Interrupted from this list and I remember liking it a lot. I read it as a teenager and it was very affecting. Phantoms in the Brain sounds really interesting. I haven’t read anything by Oliver Sacks and not sure where to start, Hallucinations sounds really good though. I see someone recommended you The Female Malady, I’ve had a copy of that forever and haven’t gotten around to it, what I’ve paged through was fascinating, though. It seems worth the read even if it’s older.

    This is such an excellent list, would’ve been perfect for Expert week! 🙂

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    1. Thank you! I really recommend Oliver Sacks’ books. He is brilliant and it is an amazing experience exploring his world of strange and mysterious medical and psychological cases. As you may have gathered from my list above, I don’t normally go for non-fiction which is too personal when it is on some particular subject (when the author begins by talking a lot about himself, his experience, etc. and not actually on the topic that fascinates me), and I think Sacks’ books strike an excellent balance between personal and informative. I recommend starting with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I really need to get into The Female Malady, too. Even dated books and maybe especially dated books can provide an invaluable insight that more modern authors simply miss.

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      1. I really like when an author knows to keep their distance while writing on a specific subject too. I don’t know if it’s more of a recent trend to insert yourself into the story more when it’s not a memoir but it’s so often badly done! That’s great to know that Sacks strikes the right balance, and thanks for the recommendation to start with that one.

        That’s very true, older books can show a lot about how thinking has involved, and especially on that topic it would be interesting. I got a copy at a library sale, it seems like one of those that has a lot of old used copies floating around!

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        1. Exactly, I do not know if they think that by inserting themselves into their non-fiction it will be more engaging and less boring, but this element often does not work for me. I may be too harsh in judging non-fiction, but with all due respect to all the amazing authors out there, when I do pick up a book on a specific subject, I am not that interested reading pages and pages about where that author went to school and how he became a specialist in that field. Authors often circle around the issue or question I really want to know the answer to (or a proposed answer/their view), never addressing it directly or proposing even a theory. They seem to think we will all be interested in reading about their lives. Of course, we do read it and sort of are interested, but I often want to see a much bolder, direct and much more insightful approach to tackling any particular subject.

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          1. I don’t think it’s too harsh judgement. I get disappointed when I expect a history or analysis and it’s bogged down in a personal story that’s not nearly as compelling as the bigger topic. When it’s well done and memoir blends with other ideas it’s great, I just find it much rarer! And what you’re describing, when authors just talk about their professional background, education, etc. drives me crazy. I have no idea why they think readers are interested in that. I guess there’s the sense that they want to establish who they are and where they’re coming from but it goes so far overboard more often than not!

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            1. I completely agree. I guess it is our human nature to think that our lives are so much more interesting to read about and for others to know about in depth than they are in reality. I also agree that personal accounts in specialist non-fiction go overboard, as you put it, more often than not. Often the author’s personal history and very enticing and glossy book cover actually try to camouflage very thin knowledge on the subject.

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