Nicholas Humphrey - Seeing Red

This is a little book, clocking in at just 134 small pages. And I don't imagine many will take more than a little away from it. The book is based on some guest lectures Nicholas Humphrey gave at Harvard in 2004.

Although the book is generally easy to read, it is also sometimes muddy reading. I was left wondering when Humphrey was going to get to the point, what the point was, or why a given point was all that important to begin with in several instances. More editing could have been done to make the writing clearer and crisper--more purposeful. There was also a sentence, on page 31, that contained not one but two errors:

"Although we should not make too of this, let's allow that is thought-provoking."
The book is full of illustrations but they added nothing (except pages) in my opinion. Perhaps they were put in to bring the page total to over 100?

Chapter 5 is when things started to get mildly interesting to me. The topic is sensory mirror neurons and how most humans are able to feel the thoughts, experiences, and pains of others to a certain extent. This is certainly a key component to not only empathy but also to consciousness. When he discussed "shared experience" I was a bit surprised that he didn't bring up the topic of yawning.

Humphrey ultimately suggests that consciousness evolved to give its possessors even more reason and drive to survive and reproduce--natural selection's primary objectives. Perhaps it has even gone too far as evidenced by the illogical beliefs of many of today's religionists.

Time and again what makes the difference--what makes human beings, uniquely among living creatures, so ambitious to succeed, what makes them aim so high for themselves and their children (so improbably, impossibly high), what makes them, in short, the amazing piece of work that humans are--is nothing less than their conviction that as human souls they have something extra-special to preserve, even beyond death. (p. 128-9)
Humphrey also makes his scientific opinion clear, however, that there is "not a chance" of consciousness surviving beyond death or without a brain.

I don't know if I would necessarily recommend the book. Sure, it tweaked my thoughts in a few places, but overall, there just isn't much to take from Seeing Red beyond what I have already given you in this review. If you are interested in his discussion of feedback loops in the brain creating consciousness then there are better places to find more details of it such as The Creative Loop: How the Brain Makes a Mind.

from the publisher:
Consciousness matters, perhaps more than anything. But why this is, what this means--the question itself a function of consciousness--has always seemed beyond our powers to explain. Beginning with the seemingly simple act of seeing red, the fact of a conscious sensation, this brilliantly unsettling essay by one of our most interesting writers on human intelligence builds toward an explanation of why consciousness matters--why, in short, it makes compelling evolutionary sense.

Interleaved with intriguing specifics (about monkeys' favorite color, for instance, or Isaac Newton's crimson decorating scheme, or devices that map visual stimuli into "soundscapes"), Nicholas Humphrey's book develops a new theory of how sensations are created, and how and why they have evolved. Then, in a bold reconstruction of the evolutionary trajectory, Humphrey suggests that consciousness developed from the "privatizing" of sensation and experience, and has lasted and deepened because, in the end, mattering is its function: such consciousness creates a self whose life is worth pursuing and preserving.

From sensations that probably began in bodily expression--our primordial ancestors' wriggles toward or away from stimuli--to the evolutionary advantages of a conscious self, Seeing Red tracks the "hard problem" of consciousness to its source and its solution, a solution in which, paradoxically, the very hardness of the problem may make all the difference.