Nicholas Humphrey. Biographical sketch. [See also ]


I went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1961 with a scholarship in Physics and Mathematics. But, I soon decided that I wanted to study how the mind works - and I took my final degree in Psychology and Physiology.

           I stayed on at Cambridge to do a Ph.D. in psychology, and in 1964 began research (under the supervision of Lawrence Weiskrantz) on the brain mechanisms involved in visual perception in monkeys. In the next three years I demonstrated the existence of a specific impairment in visual size constancy after lesions of the inferotemporal cortex, I made the first single cell recordings from the superior colliculus of monkeys, and I discovered the existence of a previously unsuspected capacity for vision after total lesions of the striate cortex, a capacity which, when it was later confirmed in human beings, came to be called "blindsight” (see downloadable video: Helen).

           In 1967 I moved with Weiskrantz to the Institute of Psychology at Oxford as a Demonstrator in Psychology. There I continued research into the nature of residual vision after striate cortex lesions. I also began work on sensory preferences, and developed a method for measuring the affective responses of monkeys to colours, pictures and sounds.

           I returned to Cambridge in 1970 as Assistant Director of Research in the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour. I extended my work on sensory preferences, and found evidence for the existence of two separate affective systems (one, apparently, corresponding to "sensation", the other to "perception"). In a related study I showed that stimulation with coloured light affects time perception in monkeys (so that subjective time appears to pass twice as fast in red light as in blue). I also devised a novel method for investigating how monkeys classify pictorial stimuli, and used it to uncover evidence of how monkey's classification systems may change with experience.

           At the back of this work on sensory preferences lay my interest in the evolutionary psychology of aesthetics. Besides undertaking several empirical studies on human aesthetics, I developed a theory of the function of the appreciation of beauty (which, in a popular version broadcast on radio won the Glaxo science-writing award – see downloadabe audio: “The Ilusiom of Beauty”).

           Both in Oxford and Cambridge I participated in clinical studies of human patients with brain damage, and at the National Hospital in London studied a rare case of recovery from early blindness (in a young woman who had had cataracts removed).

           In 1972 I spent three months with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, observing mountain gorillas in the wild, and later visited Richard Leakey at his palaeo-anthropological study site on Lake Turkana. As a result, partly, of these visits to the field, I became more and more interested in questions concerning the evolution of human cognitive capacities.

           In 1975 I wrote a review essay on the "Social Function of Intellect", where I outlined a theory of how cognitive skills might have evolved in response to the exigencies of social life. My idea was that human beings have evolved to be "Natural Psychologists", who use introspectively derived models of their own minds as a basis for understanding other people. This paper had a considerable impact, becoming the subject of several conferences, and being reprinted many times (notably in Bernard Dixon's 1989 anthology "Classic Writings in Science"); and its success prompted me to move away from experimental work and to concentrate instead on more theoretical research.

            Since then I have focused, increasingly, on the problem of the evolution of consciousness. My book "Consciousness Regained: Chapters in the Development of Mind" was published in 1983.

           In 1982 I was offered the opportunity to make a major television series for Channel Four in Britain about the origins of the human mind. In order to make this series I had to give up my job at Cambridge. The decision was difficult. Nonetheless I left Cambridge in 1983, and the series, "The Inner Eye", was completed in 1986 (three section are included in downloadable video.)

           Subsequently, in the context of making other documentary television and radio programmes, I worked on topics as varied as the psychology of paranormal belief and the psycho-history of mediaeval "animal trials" (downloadable video: “Is there anybody there”; downoadable audio: “Bugs and Beastsbefore the Law”.)

            From the late 1970's onwards I became (like several of my colleagues) deeply involved in the politics of nuclear weapons, and I devoted much of my time to writing and lecturing about the psychology of nuclearism. In 1981 I gave the final Bronowski Memorial Lecture on BBC television (downoadable video and audio: "Four Minutes to Midnight") . With Robert Jay Lifton I edited an anthology of writings on war and peace, "In a Dark Time", which was published in 1984. Later I spent six months as a Visiting Fellow at Robert Lifton's Center on Violence and Human Survival, based at John Jay College in New York, and acted as consultant to their major research project on "Nuclear Imagery and the American Self".

            In 1987 Daniel Dennett invited me to join him as a Visiting Fellow in his Center for Cognitive Studies at the Department of Philosophy, Tufts University. As well as providing a route back to mainstream academic research, this allowed me to catch up on and immerse myself in recent developments in the philosophy of mind. Dennett and I set out explore the possibility of an empirically based theory of consciousness, which would do justice to both third-person and first-person facts about the human mind. Besides working on purely theoretical issues, we undertook a field-study of the sociology and symptomatology of Multiple Personality Disorder, and published our preliminary conclusions in a long essay, "Speaking for Our Selves".

            Through 1989-1992 I worked on my book "A History of the Mind", spending part of the time as a member of the Mind and Brain Group, based at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (ZiF) at the University of Bielefeld. In this book I took a radically new line about the nature consciousness, arguing (in contrast to my earlier position) that consciousness is essentially a matter of having bodily sensations rather than of having higher level thoughts - and I proposed a theory of how consciousness as feeling, as distinct from thinking, may have evolved. The book was awarded the British Psychological Society's first annual Book Award in 1993.

           In 1992 I was appointed to a Senior Research Fellowship at Darwin College, Cambridge, funded under the Perrott-Warrick bequest for research in parapsychology. As well as continuing my earlier research on consciousness, I undertook an investigation of the reasons why people believe in supernatural phenomena, and wrote a book, "Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief", which was published in 1995 (as "Leaps of Faith" in the US).

            In 1995 I took up a post in New York, as Professor of Psychology at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. Four years later I returned to the UK, to a Research Fellowship  in the Centre for the Philosophy of  Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. In 2001 I was made  a School Professor at the LSE. I left the LSE in 2008.

           I have begun to work on Darwinian approaches to illness, and in particular on the evolutionary  background of the placebo effect (downloadable video: “Placebo: Cracking the Code”). I continue to try  apply evolutionary understanding to a wide range of philosophical, social and political issues. My book “The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Evolution and Psychology” was published in 2002. My main focus, however, remains the problem of consciousness. My last book on the subject, “SoulDust”, was published in 2011.