A History of the Mind

A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness

Copernicus, 1998, Vintage 1998

Winner of the British Psychological Society Book Award

How does the water of the brain yield the wine of conscious experience? What is the link between bodily activity and our inner feeling of what it’s like to be our selves?

The problem of qualia — the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness — has intrigued philosophers for generations and remains the greatest challenge to contemporary science. In this path-breaking book, Nicholas Humphrey examines the issues in the light of evolutionary history and proposes a solution very different from any previously offered. He suggests that instead of focusing on second-order mental faculties, or "thoughts about thoughts", we need to look at the raw sensations themselves which are central to all conscious states. He takes the reader on an exhilarating journey through little-known areas of biology, psychology and philosophy, to discover the origins of all forms of self-awareness in the primitive pain and pleasure responses of our distant ancestors.

Packed with psychological information and ingenious speculation, A History of the Mind not only recasts the debate about the nature of conscious experience but provides fascinating insights into many other topics along the way. Already a classic, this book is as informative and entertaining as it is profound.


Nicholas Humphrey's new book about the mind is exceptionally readable, and packed with fascinating psychological information and ingenious speculation... Humphrey writes with an unusual combination of verve, lucidity and charm.

Michael Lockwood, The Guardian

Himself a theoretical psychologist involved in primate studies (he worked with Dian Fossey in Rwanda), but equally au fait with philosophy and literature (he edited Granta), Humphrey seeks to demonstrate that consciousness is real, not a mere verbal leftover of theology; and he does this by tracing through a variety of experiments (actual and theoretical) its evolution and functions... Many pleasures in this powerful work.

Roy Porter,The Sunday Times

A left-field History of the Mind .. tightly and engagingly argued... [A] persuasive tour de force... Humphrey unfolds this story so suspensefully it would be like telling the end of a mystery novel to outline his hypothesis in any detail. But it doesn't ruin any surprises to note that his basic premise - that consciousness emerged from the wriggling of primordial skin - brings a pungent whiff of the carnal into cognitive science's often creepily body-hating atmosphere... What I hear is the welcome beginnings of an erotics of cognition.

Julian Dibbell, Voice Literary Supplement

So much has been written about consciousness, it's hard to know where to start. The three major books of late are Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained; Nicholas Humphrey's A History of the Mind; and Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind. Although (so far) the recipient of the least notice of the three, Humphrey's book is surely the best, as well as being crafted in the most elegant prose.

Roger Lewin, Complexity, p.199, MacMillan, 1992

An eloquent and persuasive theory - impossible to summarise briefly - on how the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness. No other theoretical psychologist is so accessibly clear, and at the same time so provocatively philosophical.

Lorna Sage, The Observer

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, author of Consciousness Explained

The dreamy Nicholas Humphrey is a distinguished theoretical psychologist who appreciates the uses of the indefinite article. A History of the Mind is a partial history of sensory consciousness, an unspeakably beautiful book with a partially conclusive conclusion about the nature of subjectivity and the blunt spade of perception. Humphrey’s distinctive prose is the golden bowl in which his ripe and shining theories are held.

Antonella Gambotto, The Sydney Morning Herald