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A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness Paperback – July 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a highly stimulating, unorthodox inquiry that cuts across many disciplines, experimental psychologist Humphrey argues that raw sensation, not thought, is the central fact of consciousness. Furthermore, he claims, mental activities other than the five senses enter consciousness only when accompanied by "reminders" of sensation, as with mental imagery. Humphrey ( Consciousness Regained ) posits two separate channels of the mind--one for sensation or subjective feelings, another for perception or objective knowledge of the external world. These two channels are said to employ very different styles of information processing: "analog" processing of sensations leads to pictorial images, while "digital" processing of perception yields propositions. Lightening his often technical discussion with thought experiments, drawings and illustrative examples from authors ranging from Lewis Carroll to Aldous Huxley, Humphrey sketches an evolutionary history of the mind, from ameboid wriggles in the primeval soup onward. Conscious feeling, he stresses, is a form of intentional doing, creating the thick moment of the subjective present.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A wonderful book-brilliant, unsettling, and beautifully written. Humphrey cuts bravely across the currents of contemporary thinking, opening up new vistas on old problems and offering a feast of provocative ideas. Nobody else brings such an astonishing range of knowledge to bear on these issues." -- Daniel Dennett

"Humphrey is one of that growing band of scientists who beat literary folk at their own game." -- Daily Telegraph

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 238 pages
  • Publisher: Copernicus; 1st edition (June 18, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0387987193
  • ISBN-13: 978-0387987194
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #563,576 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nicholas Humphrey is a theoretical psychologist, based in Cambridge, who is known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. His interests are wide ranging. He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, he was the first to demonstrate the existence of "blindsight" after brain damage in monkeys, he proposed the celebrated theory of the "social function of intellect, and he is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta.

His books include Consciousness Regained, The Inner Eye, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith, The Mind Made Flesh, Seeing Red, and Soul Dust. He has been the recipient of several honours, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, and the British Psychological Society's book award.

He has been Lecturer in Psychology at Oxford, Assistant Director of the Subdepartment of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge, Senior Research Fellow in Parapsychology at Cambridge, Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research, New York, and School Professor at the London School of Economics.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Bradley P. Rich on May 30, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Surely the phenomena of consciousness is one of the most intractable problems in the universe. Legions of very bright people have taken a stab at the problem, to little or no avail. Sadly, I am unable to resist the temptation to read yet another discussion on the subject, even though I know I will come away frustrated.
My reservations notwithstanding, this book turned out to contain some genuinely interesting, as well as sensible, thinking on the operation of the human brain. His theory is well grounded in common sense, and is developed carefully. Humphrey's approach is a good one: How might the human brain have evolved to create consciousness from primitive antecedents?
Central to Hamphrey's theory is the distinction between sensation and perception, that is to say the difference between the subjective sensations that we experience versus the awareness of some external object. This argument takes a considerable length of time for Humphrey to unpack, and there were moments where I doubted that the distinction was worth the care that Humphrey lavished upon it. However, at the end of the day, it is worth wading through this discussion in order to fully understand this key element of Humphrey's idea.
The critical leap occurs when Humphrey postulate the existence of "reverbatory feedback loops." Under this theory, consciousness arises when sensory information is shuttled between the nervous system and the brain repeatedly. This mechanism would give temporal continuity to sensation and might well be the foundation for consciousness.
Whether or not you buy this theory, you will be interested to follow Humphrey through the steps that allow him to get to the conclusion.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By M. DiSpirito on August 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
As stated by others here this book is an easy read, done in one or two sittings (if your interested in the topic you'll consume it quickly)... That is perhaps the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars: I would have enjoyed another 100 pages that could have expanded some of his explanations and illustrations... That, however, is the only flaw...

Other reviews have noted that his theory is flawed because it falls into the Cartesian Theater mode (ref. Daniel Dennet) - at this I can only scratch my head and wonder if they read the same book that I did. Others have mentioned that this book is "speculation" and has no 'scientific' basis (I believe in neuroscience and so forth)... Again I must only puzzle at these statements: science can indeed show us the quantitative "facts" about brain hardware but the experience of being conscious won't be found under the microscope and that is the core of this book...

Perhaps reading the book with a certain predisposition creates these misinterpretations? Which, oddly enough, Humphrey mentions in this work. From within each discipline studying consciousness a tendency to favor one's own ideas emerges - it's a fact of humanity.

All that being said this book represents only a partial theory - a journey through areas that are still unknown... But it provides (if not a map) at least a partially functioning compass! Enjoy with an open mind...
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Carlos Camara on January 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
I liked the evolutionary focus, especially the proposed theory on how perception/sensation diferentiations evolved. But it is implicitly assumed that consciousness=sensation, and I doubt this is the case. Also, considering the purposes of the book, there is not much neurology. It would be nice if the author could go all the way and propose clearer neurological correlates for sensation, in hte sense described in the book. However, seen in present consciousness studies context, this is a highly valuable volume, that certianly could become a classic. Great prose.
There is a reviewer who mentions Dennett, and I would like to say something in Humphrey's behalf. First, it is not evident that Dennett has it right (see Crick and Kotch's paper 'the unconscious homonucolus" for a possibility). Second, I do not see what reading of Humphrey's would show a cartesian theather fallacy in his model.(Humphrey is close, and has collaborated with, Dennett. I would think he is aware of his work). Whithout spoiling it, consciousness for Humphrey (or qualia) are "as-if" bodily activity loops in the brain. There is no place where it all "comes together", and the activity is refered back to itself, so does not need to be read out by a homonuculus. Humphrey's free from the cartesian theather.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By N N Taleb on February 28, 2004
Format: Paperback
Humphreys is the only person I know of who can work on nonhuman primates, write philosophy, and edit a literary magazine.
The latter shows in this writing: I read this book in a single sitting. You may not agree with the ideas on consciousness (I don't) but you get a clear exposition of all the work from Descartes to McGinn. Also if you want to figure out what Dennett is saying it helps to read this book first.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 7, 2013
Format: Paperback
The mystery of how "the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness" (as Colin McGinn described it) was once identified as the "hard problem" of consciousness studies by the Australian philosopher, David Chalmers. In attempting to unravel this hard problem, scientists and thinkers have taken a number of different approaches. Humphrey takes an evolutionary approach in attempting to describe the rise of mind and consciousness as a sophisticated biological response to external stimuli that affect the animal and which trigger a gamut of sensations. Humphrey identifies - as part of this argument - that consciousness is tied to a very special group of living entities, "those animals that have evolved beyond... a simple sensory response to a point where the response has become part of a reactivating loop". Thus, affect and cognition are inextricably linked.

Humphrey presents some bold propositions and theories - quite different from that offered by a number of other scientists and philosophers who have tried to explain the mind. The writing is also very lucid and readable. For instance, under Cartesian dualism - which asserts that the mind is separate from the physical stuff (namely, the brain) and hence in theory the mind and brains could exist independently of each other - when the brain and mind do meet it would, as Humphrey describes it, involve "a handshake across a metaphysical divide". Humphrey's erudition is also highly evident in the book - an example of which is his use of the design concept of skeuomorphism to explain how living organisms may have carried over some features from earlier evolutionary strategy even if they may no longer be biological useful.
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