Seeing Red: a Study in Consciousness

Harvard University Press, 2006

"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."


"Seeing Red " is a brief, brilliant and wonderfully lucid contribution to consciousness studies. By combining empirical scientific method, evolutionary theory, and a sensitive appreciation of the arts, Nicholas Humphrey argues plausibly that the "hard problem" of consciousness , the difficulty of explaining the connection between the material brain and the phenomenon of individual selfhood, may itself be the answer to a bigger question: what makes us human?

David Lodge

This book is a wonderful amalgam of science, philosophy and art. It is based on deep knowledge of visual processing by the brain, and poetic understanding of human experience. This is a remarkable achievement.

Richard Gregory

Humphrey has written extensively and insightfully about consciousness. His most recent work, a slim and elegant volume entitled Seeing Red, provides a charming, if brief, summary of his current views, blending themes culled from psychology, philosophy, and even art and poetry. It also offers intriguing speculations on the evolutionary function of consciousness. According to Humphrey, consciousness evolved to appear inexplicable, creating the impression that we are more than mere physical machines. Its mystery is its evolutionary raison d'être. . . The strength of Humphrey's book lies in its skillful blending of ideas from varied sources to stimulate new ways of thinking about consciousness. In effectively doing so, while presenting a fascinating window on the thought of a distinguished consciousness researcher, Seeing Red is a wonderful success.

Josh Weisberg. Nature. 1 June 2006

Humphrey has published several graceful philosophical works on consciousness, but none as intimate or compelling as Seeing Red... His sensitivity and intellectual probity make for magnificent debate. Seeing Red is a book to be savoured – ruminative, fluent and daring to the end.

Antonella Gambotto-Burke.South China Morning Post, 14 May 2006

Start with a cartoon man staring at a red screen. What is going on in his head? This is how Humphrey kicks off his short but fascinating approach to the "hard problem" of consciousness. The hard problem is this: how does physical stuff, such as neurons, give rise to subjective, mental stuff, such as your thoughts? You might as well say, as he cites Colin McGinn saying, that numbers emerge from biscuits. Humphrey's tone, in these adapted lectures, is wonderfully intimate and amiable. He tells a nice story about a wriggling amoeba whose sensory signals get interiorised; and there is a very clever idea to the effect that it is evolutionarily adaptive for us to have an inflated opinion of ourselves: to think that consciousness is grander and more special than it really is. But the "hard problem" is still there, packed away into a corner of his argument. At some evolutionary stage, sensory feedback signals get "privatised" in the brain and become "about themselves". Voilà, reflexivity and hence consciousness. But between stuff and thoughts there is still an argumentative crevasse. If there weren't, this would be an earth-shattering book. As it is, it is merely deeply interesting.

Steven Poole, Guardian 29 May 2006

Nicholas Humphrey turns the tables by arguing that fascination and elusiveness is the whole point of consciousness. It has to be like that or it wouldn’t have evolved, he says. The book is based on a series of lectures Humphrey gave at Harvard in 2004, and has been meticulously edited and updated. It’s short — in fact can be read at one sitting — but packs a lot in. . . The philosophical analysis here is both sophisticated and understandable, a rare combination.. . . The [evolutionary] story is both appealing and valuable.

Chris Nunn, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 13, 2006

There are few scientists who think so originally, provoke so consistently or write so elegantly as Humphrey. Seeing Red is a wonderful introduction to his iconoclastic thinking.

Kenan Malik, Sunday Telegraph, 23 July 2006

What does it mean that humans are conscious, in the everyday sort of sense, and can science explain how and why it happens? Why are we conscious in the subjective way we are, when other creatures get along perfectly well without this particular capacity? In order to approach this question, Humphrey believes we must first describe the processes of consciousness in such a way that a Martian scientist would not only understand them abstractly, but factually (and empathically too, (if that were possible). Seeing Red tackles this task with a directness and dignity seemingly not often achieved in current technical writing. Based on a set of lectures given at Harvard University in 2004, the book is completely engaging and comfortably authoritative. Humphrey draws on decades of study and reflection on mind, self, and consciousness.Readers of his earlier works will recognize Humphrey's insightful premises, and will be yet again impressed with the robustness of his positions and ideas. (It is important to point out here that new readers as yet unfamiliar with Humphrey's substantial body of earlier work will be just as impressed.)

Keith Harris. Metapsychology.10, 36, 5/9/2006

I like short books. Better still I like short books so packed with ideas that I have to stop and think on every page.Seeing Red is that sort of book.

Susan Blackmore. Times Higher Educational Supplement. November 2007

If ever the phrase "in our end is our beginning" applied appositely, it does so here. The benign circle of Nicholas Humphrey’s argument is that the explanation of why and how we have conscious experience, phenomenal consciousness, is also the explanation of why we find it so hard to understand why and how we can have it – to the point where some think such understanding unobtainable It is a very neat argument. Once we start reflecting on why we might find an understanding of phenomenal consciousness so elusive, we have taken a major step towards understanding it -- what it is, what it does and why it evolved. In Seeing Red much argument lies between Humphrey’s description of our initial bafflement about sensations or "qualia" - i.e. the phenomenon of there being "something it is like" to experience, say, red - and his rather brilliant explanation. The argument accessibly interweaves empirical research and philosophical analysis, to produce a most important little book.

John Shand. Times Literary Supplement. 15/12/2006

A valuable book which makes the reader think about consciousness not only in the fields of psychology and philosophy, which are the author's specialties, but also in such other areas as science, literature and art.

MATSUMOTO Nobuyoshi. Nikkei Science, January 2007

Nicholas Humphrey is one of the major writers on the subject of consciousness, characterized by his sharp way to approach this subject from the standpoint of "evolution" based on brain and cognitive sciences. Here, the reader feels that the mystery of consciousness is firmly interlocked with the tradition of humanism and metaphysics. Here, the reader finds a solid/rigid spirit/mentality that the recent Japanese "brain craze" fails to see. Humphrey has built on his unique thoughts in the best intellectual tradition of Great Britain through his studies at Cambridge, Oxford and London Universities.This book shows us the vivid spirit of those scientists who work at the biggest remaining enigma in the field of science.

MOGI Ken-ichiroYomiuri Shinbun 7/1/07

Nicholas Humphrey is .. unique in his combination of audacity and circumspection, an intellectual tightrope walker.

Daniel Dennett, Brain, January 2007

Nicholas Humphrey’s latest book on the mystery of consciousness traveled with me to Crete, Latvia and America. And the intellectual journey it took me on has half-persuaded me that his evolutionary approach will one day provide an answer.

Paul Broks, Prospect, April 2007

This reviewer made at least three passes through the book, each pass yielding a new understanding. The first pass left me with a feeling of: "Oh he doesn’t really mean THAT!" But the second pass solidified and verified: "Oh yeah he really does mean that." And the third, and most rewarding pass: "Oh my god, I think he’s right!"

Bill Rowe. American Journal of Psychology (in press)