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Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness Paperback – November 11, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Humphrey (Seeing Red), the psychologist who discovered blind sight, combines the latest research on neurology and psychology with age-old philosophical questions about the nature of perception and sensation. In answer to the quandary of how human consciousness evolved, since much of our mental activity occurs unconsciously (fight or flight; intuition; biases), he suggests that sensual pleasure and the perception of beauty add value to our lives and enhance our desire to survive. Because we externalize our perceptions ("projecting sensations onto objects") we believe that our lives have meaning. He argues that the "magical interiority of human minds" is not merely a pleasurable bonus to the business of survival but creates the foundation for human existence and our ability to "acknowledge and honor the personhood of others." Though he rejects the existence of the supernatural, Humphrey sees a "soul niche," made possible by the development of complex neurological feedback loops, as the evolutionary home of the human species. This is a fascinating affirmation of the existence of the human soul and a difficult read, but well worth the effort.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"A bold, important, and exciting book. Too often, researchers on consciousness don't see the wood for the trees.  Humphrey offers a welcome corrective . . and the account is both surprising and enormously persuasive. The book is full of original ideas and insights, and, as one reads, illuminating implications and applications continually spring to mind. . .I urge you to read this book. It may change your mind about consciousness; it has changed mine." Keith Frankish. Philosophical Quarterly  2014

"An extraordinary book  . . attempts to explain all the most distinctive things about humans in a few hundred pages ..  According to Humphrey the emergence of human consciousness has forced human beings to reflect philosophically and artistically on the meaning of their lives and of the soul.. excitingly thought provoking.. Prepare to be infuriated but read the book all the same." Maurice Bloch.  Anthropology of this Century.  2012

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2011: Top 25 Books

"Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey's new book about consciousness, is seductive--early 1960s, 'Mad Men' seductive. His writing is as elegant, and hypnotic, as that cool jazz stacked on the record player. His argument feels as crystalline and bracing as that double martini going down, though you might find yourself a little woozy afterward. And his tone is as warm and inviting as that big, crackling fire, even if the dim flicker does leave things a bit obscure in the corners. . . . [Soul Dust] is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive too."--Alison Gopnik, New York Times Book Review

"[E]loquent. . . . Scientists are often accused these days of overlooking the awe and wonder of the world, so it's exciting when a philosopher puts that magic at the very heart of a scientific hypothesis."--Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal

"Humphrey, the psychologist who discovered blind sight, combines the latest research on neurology and psychology with age-old philosophical questions about the nature of perception and sensation."

"Humphrey begins where Crick and others have left off. . . .[He] has laid out a new agenda for consciousness research."--Michael Proulx, Science

"How is consciousness possible? In Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, a leading figure in consciousness research, proposes a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is merely a magic show we stage inside our heads. This show has allowed humans to become aware of themselves and their surroundings."--Victoria Stern, Scientific American Mind

"[Nicholas Humphrey's] new book is a beautifully written and highly original essay. . . . He is right to focus on the notion of the soul, and to emphasize the degree to which we humans are 'connoisseurs of consciousness'. . . . [F]ew consciousness enthusiasts have succeeded so well."--Adam Zeman, Standpoint

"It was a pleasure to engage with the book Soul Dust."--Ben Ehrlich, Beautiful Brain blog

"[I] highly recommend Soul Dust for anyone looking to get a better understanding of consciousness."--Gary Williams, Minds and Brains blog

"Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust tells its story from the beginning. Humphrey, an eminent English psychologist, aims to explain what a soul is, and to show, from an evolutionary perspective, why it's useful to have one. His conclusion, explained in readable prose, and illustrated with easily-comprehended evidence and examples from science, philosophy, and literature, is that the soul is 'not so much a physical object as a mathematical object,' and that its evolutionary usefulness lies in making 'life more worth living.' Its relaxed prose disguises the book's boldness: Soul Dust is ambitious, and just about as zany, as Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents."--Josh Rothman,'s Brainiac blog

"Humphrey takes us on a journey that stimulates and educates, leaving our ipsundrum all the richer, if more lonely."--Douglas K. Candland, PsycCritiques

"Humphrey offers an ingenious and crucial account of how it is that each of us experiences solely our own sensations, however much or little these echo what others report."--San Francisco Chronicle

"Once again, Humphrey gives readers a provoking look at the mystery of consciousness. A follow-up to his Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness, this volume focuses on the 'hard problem' of consciousness. . . . Often poetic, Humphrey draws not only on the philosophers and neuroscientists who are central in the debates about consciousness but also cites the work of theologians, literary figures, and, yes, poets to illustrate how central the motive of transcendence is to the consciousness of the human being. Even those who disagree with Humphrey's premise or conclusions will want to read this book."--Choice

"[E]legant."--Montreal Mirror

"Consciousness is an immensely complex and, yes, evolved characteristic of life that should be studied from the ground up rather than the top down. This is precisely why Nicholas Humphrey's book . . . is so important. . . . [T]he general outlook to consciousness on which he bases the book is definitely one that should not have taken this long to get noticed. Cognitive science as we know it today would be very different if the views presented in this book had been adopted sooner."--Frank Saunders, Dialogue

"Humphrey has read widely not just in philosophy and the sciences, but in the arts and humanities as well. In presenting the fullness of human life made possible by human consciousness, he quotes incisively from artists and poets ranging from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and A. A. Milne to Wassily Kandinsky and Woody Allen. By drawing on sources outside the usual purview of scientific or even philosophical discussions of consciousness, Humphrey presents a richer understanding of what it means to be human than do most writers in the field, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that."--Paul Johnston, Commonweal

"The book is a pleasure to read; Humphrey writes with clarity, elegance, and enthusiasm. I urge you to read this book. It may change your mind about consciousness; it has changed mine."--Keith Frankish, Philosophical Quarterly

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (November 11, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691156379
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691156378
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,360,981 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

43 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Brian Felsen on April 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Why do people have qualitative phenomenal experiences, and why is it "like something" to have sensations? And why do we feel special and spiritual, as if we existed in a "soul niche?" In his marvelous book Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey provides perhaps the most sensible solutions to these fundamental but seemingly-intractable questions, and he offers some credible possibilities how and why consciousness likely evolved with these features.

The first half of Soul Dust is a whirlwind tour through Humphrey's thoughts on sensation and why first-person experience feels like it does. As the author favors brevity, this part of the book is dense and requires some mental lifting on the part of the reader. Humphrey explains how natural selection could "adjust the properties of existing sensory feedback loops so as to steer the activity toward a special class of attractor states... [which] would seem, from the subject's point of view, to give sensations their phenomenal properties." Then, he illustrates multiple lines of evidence on what consciousness is for - why it may not enable you to *do* something but still has the crucial function of *encouraging* you to do something - and that primary individualism, by helping us develop a theory of mind, is beneficial for the individual *and* for the social group. Finally, he surveys the important work of scientists and convincingly argues why philosophers are still necessary, arguing that "the probability is that brain scientists would not recognize the NCC [neural correlates of consciousness] for what it is even if it were right in front of them."

With this foundation in place, it's the second half of Soul Dust which truly astonishes, for here, Humphrey shows why life can be beautiful in the face of death.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Saganite VINE VOICE on April 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
...very specifically the WRITING. This is an impossibly difficult topic. In a world full of hard problems, consciousness is actually called "the hard problem." So that's a damned hard problem.

I can't imagine an approach or tone better suited to taking intelligent, curious--but otherwise relatively clueless--readers by the hand and bringing them step by sensible, well-explained step, to a series of eureka points. Humphrey has a DELIGHTFUL style. It's hard to capture, but I thought a moment earlier in the book helped exemplify it, when he asked (paraphrasing), "Were you as surprised as I was just then that we'd already arrived at Plato's Cave? I hadn't thought we'd be getting there until much later!"

Much of the book is written in that style. He's not some superior intellect lecturing us on what he arrogantly wishes to convince us is true. He is the excited ring-leader of a gang of intrepid explorers, taking us by the hand and saying, "Did you just see that?! I wonder what THAT could have been!" And then patiently working through with us the various possibilities until we arrive--together--at a likely but provisional conclusion. It is astonishingly effective, and I only wish that other writers of philosophy and neuroscience could emulate the approach if not the exact features. (Humphrey's style strikes me as the type that if it were not genuine would be instantly insufferable.)

I don't know how else to describe my experience of having read "Soul Dust" than to say I'm grateful. It's a small window, and we see through the glass darkly; but for once the window is at least open.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Jon G. Allen on February 16, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am glad Humphrey did not stop with his prior book on consciousness, Seeing Red. He has been a major contributor to our understanding of the evolution of consciousness over a period of decades. In the mainstream account, our advanced human consciousness evolved owing to its adaptive function of enabling complex problem solving. As Humphrey recognized long ago, social cognition is the extraordinarily complex arena that places a premium on complex problem solving. But Humphrey makes a major leap forward in Soul Dust, articulating beautifully the intrinsic survival value of the sheer experience of consciousness. Hence he makes full use of artists' (especially poets') works in illuminating the value of consciousness. I don't recall seeing the word, "mindfulness," in this book; yet it's the best book on mindfulness I've read (and I've read many). Do not be misled by Humphrey's use of the concept of soul. He declares himself a materialist and there is nothing supernatural here. But he is a materialist with a twist, arguing persuasively for (a now well-established) metaphor of consciousness as a theater, generated by the brain in ways that we are gradually coming to understand. I recommend that readers interested in an up-to-date account of the neuroscience of consciousness anchor themselves first in Stanislas Dehaene's (2014) book, Consciousness and the Brain. But those who want to appreciate the human significance of consciousness would do well to read Soul Dust. It has changed the way I think about consciousness and greatly enhanced my appreciation for it. This is the book on consciousness for the humanists among us.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Gordon McQueen on January 22, 2014
Format: Paperback
I came to this book with high expectations. Humphrey's book "Soul Searching" is the best critique of the paranormal that I have read, and it is full of arguments that I read and re-read, mining it repeatedly over the years for insights. His early book "The Minds Eye" though not a convincing explanation of consciousness, was full of insights and a genuine contribution to the field.

And so I came to this book expecting the same - but I got something very different. This needs to be put bluntly; this is a poor work, poor scholarship, poor philosophy, and Humphrey can do so much better, and should have done much better.

When one is arguing for a theory it is good practice to lay out the problem, consider the current competing theories, criticise them and show where and how they are wrong, and then put up your own theory and explain why it overcomes the problems of these previous theories and how it explains what they fail to explain.

Humphrey does none of this. There is nothing resembling critical scholarship or self critical philosophising. Rather it is just a sequential argument where the arguments are barely anything warranting the name, but often little more than metaphors. At points in the book I could see a case developing, and thought "ah...he has a point there..." but then a few pages later there would be an outrageous non-sequitur combined with an uncritically presented idea or two, and suddenly it all falls apart. The book actually gets worse as it goes, starting from some interesting proposals, but degenerating at each step (steps where rigorous self criticism might have kept him on some sort of course) until eventually we are in some kind of wonderland of poetry and imagery that explains nothing and is actually quite embarrassing. How could the author of "Soul Searching" write such stuff?
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