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Seeing RedSeeing Red

A Study in Consciousness

Nicholas Humphrey

Narrated by Howard Ellison

Approximately 2.5 hours


Downloadable edition:

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Book published by Harvard University Press

Nicholas Humphrey begins this compelling exploration of the biggest of big questions with a challenge to the reader, and himself. Whatís 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 thatís the mystery. Conventional science so far hasnít 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, whatís 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 ancestorsí 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 othersí 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."

Nicholas Humphrey is School Professor in the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics and the author of several books.


“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...In Seeing Red Humphrey brings together all his previous research and theorising to give us a counterintuitive and distinctly uncomfortable way of thinking about the nature of seeing...A book that makes me think so hard, in just 150 pages, is one I must recommend. ”

—Susan Blackmore, Times Higher Education Supplement

“Itís a delight to read, beautifully clear and concise, while packing lots of good sense...[An] intellectual tour de force...Few contemporary writings on consciousness achieve half as much. ”

New Scientist

“Since [the late 1960s], 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...The strength of Humphreyís book lies in its skilful 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.”


“There are few scientists who think so originally, provoke so consistently or write so elegantly as Humphrey. Seeing a wonderful introduction to his iconoclastic thinking...Seeing Red is less about what consciousness is than about how we might go about thinking about it. And for that there are few better guides than Nicholas Humphrey. ”

Sunday Telegraph

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University Press Audiobooks