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

4.1 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674021792
ISBN-10: 0674021797
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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

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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: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,577,458 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Dr. Richard G. Petty on June 5, 2007
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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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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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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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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