Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness

Princeton University Press, U.S; Quercus, U.K. 2012
How is consciousness possible? What biological purpose does it serve? Why do we value it so highly? In Soul Dust, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, already a leading figure in consciousness research, returns to the front-line with a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendent. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the “soul niche.”
Tightly argued, intellectually gripping, and a joy to read, Soul Dust is a keenly anticipated book that provides answers to the deepest questions. It dovetails the “hard problem of consciousness” with the matters that obsess us all – the fear of death, how life should be lived. Resting firmly on neuroscience and evolutionary theory, it is an uncompromising but life-affirming book that never loses sight of the majesty and mystery of consciousness.


“Soul Dust”, Nicholas Humphrey’s new book about consciousness, is seductive - early 1960's, “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 a bit obscure in the corners. . . Very different from the usual awkward geeks of academic philosophy and psychology. But what about the morning after? Will all that transcendental experience he describes so eleoquently turn out to be just plain old biology after all? No, actually – his book is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive too. -- Alison Gopnik. New York Times, 20 May 2011
Nicholas Humphrey's Soul-Dust: The Magic of Consciousness 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... Its relaxed prose disguises the book's boldness: Soul-Dust is as ambitious, and just about as zany, as Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. . . Soul-Dust is not going to be the last book about consciousness; how could it be? But, in its combination of wide-ranging open-mindedness and polemical force, it is an extraordinarily successful one. -- Josh Rothman. Boston Globe, 12 April 2011

Nicholas Humphrey begins where Crick and others have left off. He audaciously aims to provide a theoretical basis for understanding the level of consciousness that corresponds with one's personal qualitative experience. .. By grounding the hard problem of private, phenomenal consciousness in the easy problem of sensory awareness, Humphrey has laid out a new agenda for consciousness research. -- Michael Proulx. Science, May 2011

[W]hat, on the face of it, looks like an attempt to validate spirituality using the language of science turns out to be a way to expand the domain of science by accounting for spirituality. . . Soul Dust is nothing less than Humphrey’s attempt to sketch out a materialist theory of consciousness, and write a “natural history” of the soul.. . I find the argument rather beautiful, and plausible. . It has the added merit of foregrounding the wonderfulness of the world, and allowing the notion of a soul to anyone who’d like one. -- Caspar Melville. New Humanist, March/April 2011

Humphrey wears his learning lightly, but Soul Dust gently introduces the reader to many of the dominant scientific and philosophical ideas about consciousness. . . [H]e is absolutely right to reintroduce the concept of the soul to contemporary discussion of consciousness. This elusive entity still haunts the science – and scientists – of the mind.... If he fails to dispel the mystery of the mind entirely, it is partly because he succeeds so well in evoking it. Soul Dust is an Ode to Being. This may be the least we should expect, but few consciousness enthusiasts have succeeded so well. -- Adam Zeman. Standpoint,  May 2011

The genius of "Soul Dust" is to attempt an explanation of both how [the “theatrical show” of consciousness] is done and why it evolved... [I]t's exhilarating to see this crucial question about our existence answered with such intellectual breadth. 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, 27 March 2011
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. January 2012
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. June 2012

This is a bold, important, and exciting book. Too often, researchers on consciousness don't see the wood for the trees. Much research has a narrow focus, and evolutionary perspectives are often neglected (indeed, some views of consciousness preclude them). Humphrey offers a welcome corrective, sketching an account of the nature, function, and evolutionary history of consciousness that draws on psychology, neurology, ethology, anthropology, art, literature, and mysticism. 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 January 2014
Advance endorsements:
“Just as fairy dust sprinkled on the mundane world turns it to gold, soul dust converts animal flesh into the enchanted world of sensation and consciousness of self. As with fairy dust, the result is illusion, but the illusion in which we live. The great strength of this challenging and original foray into the 'hard question' of human consciousness is its combination of scientific rigour with exquisite sensitivity to the thoughts of philosophers, poets, religious thinkers, and humanists. Humphrey never forgets his scientific base, but unlike so many scientific triumphalists, he also never forgets the delicacy of the problem and the need to do justice to the rich phenomena. A delightful and thought-provoking tour de force..” – Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, author of Think: a Compelling Introduction to Philosophy.

 “Scientists sometimes stand accused of missing the magic as they reduce nature to explanations. In this surprising and poetic book, Nicholas Humphrey does the opposite: he delves into the brain and discovers that the magic is the whole point of consciousness.”—Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature.
"Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist at the top of his game, combines the romantic spirit of a Shelley or Keats with the razor sharp intellect of a Sherlock Holmes. Here he brings his incisive mind to bear on one of the great riddles of science - the evolutionary origin of consciousness - and presents the best-yet solution to the supposedly insuperable problem." – V.S.Ramachandran, Director Center for Brain and Cognition, UC San Diego, author ofThe Tell-Tale Brain.
“Nicholas Humphrey is a gifted scientific humanist who is able to integrate an extraordinary range of work from cognitive neuroscience, literature, and philosophy in offering his answer to the questions of what consciousness is, why it was selected, and how it both causes and solves the problems of the meaning of life. This is a provocative book from a sparkling writer.”
—Owen Flanagan, Professor of Philosophy, Duke University, author of The Question of the Soul.

“A dazzling insight into understanding how and why consciousness evolved" – Bruce Hood,
Professor of Psychology and Director of the Cognitive Development Centre, University of Bristol, author of Supersense: from Superstition to Religion.
"Nicholas Humphrey tackles the problem of consciousness with gusto. As protean as consciousness itself, Humphrey culls from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and poetry to create a spirited and impassioned intellectual adventure." – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.
"Soul Dust is a must-read for everyone who wonders about the mystery of consciousness. Humphrey has come as close as any scientist ever has to solving the 'hard problem'." – Arien Mack, Professor of Psychology, New School for Social Research, Editor: Social Research, Director: Center for Public Scholarship, author of Inattentional Blindness