Nicholas Humphrey | Closer to Truth


Nicholas Humphrey is an English psychologist, based in Cambridge, who is known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. His ten books include Consciousness Regained, The Inner Eye, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith, The Mind Made Flesh, Seeing Red, and Soul Dust. He has been the recipient of several honours, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, the Pufendorf medal and the British Psychological Society’s book award.

He has been Lecturer in Psychology at Oxford, Assistant Director of the Subdepartment of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge, Senior Research Fellow in Parapsychology at Cambridge, Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research, New York, and School Professor at the London School of Economics. His doctoral research at Cambridge, supervised by Lawrence Weiskrantz, was on the neuropsychology of vision in primates. He made the first single cell recordings from the superior colliculus of monkeys, and 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").

On moving to Oxford, he turned his attention to evolutionary aesthetics. He did research on monkey visual preferences (especially colour preferences) and wrote an essay “The Illusion of Beauty”, which, as a radio broadcast, won the Glaxo Science Writers Prize in 1980. He returned to Cambridge, to the Sub Department of Animal Behaviour in 1970, and there met Dian Fossey, who invited him to spend three months at her gorilla study camp in Rwanda. His experience with the gorillas, and a subsequent visit to Richard Leakey’s field-site on Lake Turkana, set Humphrey thinking about how cognitive skills – intelligence and consciousness – could have arisen as an adaption to social life. In 1976 he wrote an essay titled "The Social Function of Intellect", which is widely regarded as one of the foundational works of evolutionary psychology and the basis for Machiavellian intelligence theory. This paper formed the basis of his first book Consciousness Regained: Chapters in the Development of Mind (1983). In 1984 Humphrey left his academic post at Cambridge to work on his Channel 4 television series The Inner Eye on the development of the human mind. This series was finished in 1986 with the release of a book of the same name. In 1987, Daniel Dennett invited Humphrey to work with him at his Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. They worked on developing an empirically based theory of consciousness, and undertook a study on Multiple Personality Disorder.

Humphrey’s next book A History of the Mind (1992) put forward a theory on how consciousness as feeling rather than thinking may have evolved. This book won the inaugural British Psychological Society's annual Book of the Year Award in 1993. His writings on consciousness continued in The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Evolution and Psychology (2002), Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness (2006), and most recently Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness (2011). In this last book he puts forward a radical new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage inside our own heads – a show that paves the way for spirituality, and allows us to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what he calls the “soul niche.” Humphrey became active in the anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s. This led to an invitation to deliver the Bronowski lecture on the BBC in 1981. He titled his lecture, on the dangers of the arms race, "Four Minutes to Midnight". With Robert Lifton he edited an anthology of writings on war and peace titled In a Dark Time, which was released in 1984 and resulted in him winning the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize. In 1992, Humphrey was appointed to a Senior Research Fellowship at Darwin College, Cambridge funded by the Perrott-Warwick Fellowship in parapsychology. He undertook a skeptical study of parapsychological phenomena such as extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis, resulting in his book Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief (1995) (in America this book was published under the title Leaps of Faith).

Over the last ten years Humphrey has been investigating the placebo effect, and has put forward a novel theory of what he calls the "health management system" through which the brain has top-down control over the body’s healing resources. He has recently become an Advisor to the BMW Guggenheim Lab.