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Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness (Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative) [Hardcover]

by Nicholas Humphrey
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)


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Book Description

March 31, 2006 0674021797 978-0674021792

"Consciousness matters. Arguably it matters more than anything. The purpose of this book is to build towards an explanation of just what the matter is."

Nicholas Humphrey begins this compelling exploration of the biggest of big questions with a challenge to the reader, and himself. What's involved in "seeing red"? What is it like for us to see someone else seeing something red?

Seeing a red screen tells us a fact about something in the world. But it also creates a new fact--a sensation in each of our minds, the feeling of redness. And that's the mystery. Conventional science so far hasn't told us what conscious sensations are made of, or how we get access to them, or why we have them at all. From an evolutionary perspective, what's the point of consciousness?

Humphrey offers a daring and novel solution, arguing that sensations are not things that happen to us, they are things we do--originating in our primordial ancestors' expressions of liking or disgust. Tracing the evolutionary trajectory through to human beings, he shows how this has led to sensations playing the key role in the human sense of Self.

The Self, as we now know it from within, seems to have fascinating other-worldly properties. It leads us to believe in mind-body duality and the existence of a soul. And such beliefs--even if mistaken--can be highly adaptive, because they increase the value we place on our own and others' lives.

"Consciousness matters," Humphrey concludes with striking paradox, "because it is its function to matter. It has been designed to create in human beings a Self whose life is worth pursuing."



Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this extended answer to the question, "Can one's consciousness survive after one dies?"-asked by philosopher Thomas Reid in 1775 and Joe King, a disabled country singer, in 2003-Humphrey concedes he is working to "develop a concept of consciousness which we, as theorists, can do business with." He argues perception is neither solely nor necessarily a product of sensation, and, in fact, the two may exist independently of one another. Humphrey simplifies these intellectually rigorous discussions by returning to a central example of a person staring at a red screen. (Thus creating a "red sensation.") Humphrey's conversational prose-the book is based on his lectures-is an odd fit for the scholarly material, but his approach makes his 30 years of experience in "consciousness studies" accessible to casual readers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Humphrey's History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness (1992) elaborates the ideas distilled in this digestible precis. Based on the author's Harvard University lectures, it directly addresses the reader as a fellow contemplator of consciousness. That every person knows what it is but cannot give a convincing description of it, is the nettle Humphrey grasps as he explains his view of the problem. Figuratively seating the reader in his darkened lecture hall, Humphrey illuminates a monochromatic screen--red in this case. By what psychological pathway does the viewer experience the redness of the screen? Humphrey classifies the experience of initial stimulation as a subjective "sensation," which through internal feedback loops becomes an objective "perception" of the screen as red. Holding that this cognitive process may be the origin of self-awareness, Humphrey parries criticisms of the theory, and follows the allusion to the academic debate with a narrative of his sensation/perception mechanism evolving from microbe to mankind. Illustrating his argument with the musings of poets and painters, Humphrey stylishly inspires curiosity about consciousness. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Series: Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (March 31, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674021797
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674021792
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 5.8 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,779,855 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
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Though I will read a book of any length, I must admit to a fondness for short ones. Particularly if they are bursting with ideas that make me stop and think on virtually every page. This book clearly falls into that category.

Seeing Red is based on a series of lectures at Harvard University, and, as with all his other books, it is written in a simple and direct style.

Humphrey begins by asking his audience to look at an expanse of red. If it is convenient, you might want to take a moment away from reading this to join in with the experiment. Simply look at something red for a moment.

Then comes the first question: What does it mean to see red? We can measure the light and the mixture of wavelengths, but actually seeing red is a subjective experience. So this first and apparently simple question brings us straight to the heart of the great mystery: consciousness itself. Despite millennia of philosophies, experimentation and now the advent of sophisticated methods for peering into the brain of conscious individual, we are still face with the "hard problem:" how do three pounds of physical matter with the consistency of thick oatmeal, give rise to self-awareness, the works of Mozart and Shakespeare, and the insights of Einstein and the Dalai Lama?

Seeing Red is a synthesis and summing up of much of Nick's earlier work, much of which is provocative and controversial, but also brilliant and insightful.

The high school theory of vision, still being taught today, is that first we receive photons that strike the rods and cones in the retina, which in turn generate visual sensations. We then use those sensations to perceive objects in the external world.

From the outset, Nick tells us that this is completely wrong.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly Clear March 11, 2008
Format:Hardcover
This book provides a clear and simple description of phenomena that are often described as qualia, and a good guess about how and why they might have evolved as convenient ways for one part of a brain to get useful information from other parts. It uses examples of blindsight to clarify the difference between using sensory input and being aware of that input.
I liked the description of consciousness as being "temporally thick" rather than being about an instantaneous "now", suggesting that it includes pieces of short-term memory and possibly predictions about the next few seconds.
The book won't stop people from claiming that there's still something mysterious about qualia, but it will make it hard for them to claim that they have a well-posed question that hasn't been answered. It avoids most debates over meanings of words by usually sticking to simpler and less controversial words than qualia, and only using the word consciousness in ways that are relatively uncontroversial.
The book is short and readable, yet the important parts of it are concise enough that it could be adequately expressed in a shorter essay.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and Ambitious April 17, 2007
Format:Hardcover
Seeing Red is a truly spectacular book - the format is creative and the scope is ambititous yet not esoteric - Humphrey urges the reader to engage with him in an epoché of sorts and simulates a Harvard lecture written in a conversational style and clever graphics. The author successfuly translates his professorial élan into the book and the reader feels invited into the discussion. It is a genuine effort to fuse neuroscience, art, philosophy and literature to come up with a transparent theory of consciousness - no mean feat! The book's potential really lies its ability to stimulate reflection about consciousness in light of recent evidence and ancient conjecture delivered seamlessly.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good. Thought provoking. October 26, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Humphrey has written a very nice little book. Although the bulk of the book consists of a condensation of his earlier ideas (more extensively discussed in A History of the Mind, among other books and papers), his aproach is incredibly interesting and sensible. Humphrey takes the bull by the horns, so to speak, and starts right out declaring his book is about qualia itself (red qualia), that most elusive philosophical concept at the heart of the consciousness studies debate.

He takes a dual approach, first laying out a pseudorepresentationalist naturlistic theory of sensation, and then proposing an evolutionary history to account for its existence. The first part is probably the weakest part of the book. Humphreys idea that there very likely exists a deep functional/biological basis for perception and sensation must be right at some level, but its not clear how this accounts for the representational aspects of sensation. Humphrey proposes that sensations are representing (virtually) what once was a bodily reaction to a stimulus, and this seems also to be right at some level, but again, just because sensation and actions have some properties in common (even intentionallity), it is not clear how this makes sensations any more amenable to philosophical explanation. At times, Humphrey seems to drift from representationalism to higher order thought theories of sensations, when he decleares that to see red "the subject gets to have a red sensation,s, then gets to feel his having of this red sensation p(s)". What exactly is, in phenomenological terms, the difference from having a red sensation (redding, if you will) and to get to feel the redding itself? if "feel" seems to allready imply sensation, then I do not really think it does any explanatory or causal work.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointment
This book covers the same material (but less) than A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness by the same author. Its presentation is easier to understand. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Jackal
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensing Red, Perceiving Red
This is one of those books that is changing how I'm sensing/perceiving the world. It is bringing me to another level of awareness of what my brain/mind does. Read more
Published on September 24, 2011 by HK Soubhi
5.0 out of 5 stars Consciousness explained
Humphrey thoroughly examines his view of personal consciousness from a neurological point of view.
Quite technical in many respects, drawing upon his experience and... Read more
Published on October 29, 2010 by windmillml
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensation is a very interesting thing!
Indeed, sensation lends a hereness, a nowness, a me-ness to the experience of the present moment, such as seeing red. It constructs our world. Read more
Published on June 21, 2010 by Simon Laub
4.0 out of 5 stars Where Do Sensation and Perception Begin and End?
Where do sensation and perception diverge? Is perception based on sensation, or the other way around? Read more
Published on June 11, 2010 by Daniel J. Jensen
2.0 out of 5 stars An experiment to understand consciousness: Seeing red does not go...
The author starts his book with a pessimistic quotation from psychologist Stuart Sutherland, "Nothing worth reading has been written about it" (consciousness). Read more
Published on August 29, 2008 by Rama Rao
4.0 out of 5 stars About qualia
The book is written in a page-turner style due to the very understandable (not popularized, fully rigorous) description of qualia and their role in the context of cognitive... Read more
Published on July 28, 2007 by Ruggero Rapparini
5.0 out of 5 stars Book in great condition
Everything was terrific - book arrived in a timely way, well-packaged and in great condition
Published on June 27, 2007 by Debbie Gioia
4.0 out of 5 stars The body in redness
I found this book reminiscent of Scarry's The Body In Pain. It addresses the subjective sensation of seeing, and our attachment/involvement as subjects of the sensation. Read more
Published on March 18, 2007 by rdf
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