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Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness Paperback – 5 Jan 2012

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Quercus; 1st Thus edition (5 Jan. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0857388290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0857388292
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.3 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 330,589 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Nicholas Humphrey is a theoretical psychologist, based in Cambridge, who is known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. His interests are wide ranging. He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, he was the first to demonstrate the existence of "blindsight" after brain damage in monkeys, he proposed the celebrated theory of the "social function of intellect, and he is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta.

His 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, 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.

Product Description


'His book is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive too ... he has some really interesting and original ideas about consciousness' Alison Gopnik.

'I find the argument rather beautiful, and plausible ... it has the added merit of foregrounding the wonderfulness of the world' New Humanist.

'A beautifully written and highly original essay ... Humphrey wears his learning lightly but Soul Dust introduces the reader to many of the dominant scientific and philosophical ideas about consciousness' Standpoint.

'A delightful and thought-provoking tour de force' Simon Blackburn.

'It's exhilarating to see this crucial question about our existence answered with such intellectual breadth' Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal.

'Humphrey has laid out a new agenda for consciousness research' Michael Proulx, Science.

From the Inside Flap

How is consciousness possible? What biological purpose does it serve? Why do we value it so highly? In Soul Dust the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, a leading figure in consciousness research, returns to the front-line with a starling 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, making 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 yet life-affirming work that never loses sight of the mystery of consciousness.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Robert Long on 14 July 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like many others, I have been struggling to understand how consciousness works for years, and Nicholas Humphrey has written two of the most illuminating books - 'Seeing Red' a few years back and now 'Soul Dust'. The other two books that have helped me a great deal are Daniel Dennett's 'Consciouness Explained' and Igor Aleksander's 'The World in My Mind, My Mind in the World' (not a book that seems to be widely known). Humphrey's latest book, taken with these other three, makes real progress in shedding light on a notoriously difficult problem - how and why are we conscious? He brings in important considerations such as why do we enjoy life, which philosophers usually don't seem to understand, and his prose has a marvellous lightness of touch. Well worth getting for anyone who is keen to learn about the topic.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Brian Felsen on 15 April 2011
Format: Hardcover
Why do people have qualitative phenomenal experiences, and why is it "like something" to have sensations? And why do we feel special and spiritual, as if we existed in a "soul niche?" In his marvelous book Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey provides perhaps the most sensible solutions to these fundamental but seemingly-intractable questions, and he offers some credible possibilities how and why consciousness likely evolved with these features.

The first half of Soul Dust is a whirlwind tour through Humphrey's thoughts on sensation and why first-person experience feels like it does. As the author favors brevity, this part of the book is dense and requires some mental lifting on the part of the reader. Humphrey explains how natural selection could "adjust the properties of existing sensory feedback loops so as to steer the activity toward a special class of attractor states... [which] would seem, from the subject's point of view, to give sensations their phenomenal properties." Then, he illustrates multiple lines of evidence on what consciousness is for - why it may not enable you to *do* something but still has the crucial function of *encouraging* you to do something - and that primary individualism, by helping us develop a theory of mind, is beneficial for the individual *and* for the social group. Finally, he surveys the important work of scientists and convincingly argues why philosophers are still necessary, arguing that "the probability is that brain scientists would not recognize the NCC [neural correlates of consciousness] for what it is even if it were right in front of them."

With this foundation in place, it's the second half of Soul Dust which truly astonishes, for here, Humphrey shows why life can be beautiful in the face of death.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Wiltonian on 6 Dec. 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am truly grateful to Nicholas Humphrey for this book. I have been concentrating on how scientists see consciousness for some time now and I normally gain something of value whilst disagreeing with a lot. With this book Nicholas Humphrey has bridged the gap between the academic study of this topic and all the rest of us. After a relatively short scientific gestation period, the study of consciousness has caught us all up!

The study was pulled from the hands of philosophers who had made little progress and finally put into the spotlight by scientists. Admittedly, the neuroscientists seemed to be leading the pack. But here is Nicholas Humphrey, a Professor of Psychology, coming up on the outside.

Not only has he positioned consciousness with respect to evolution, convincingly in my view, he has also expounded a theory for the way we view the world around us through the veil of consciousness. That theory, which I am not going to attempt to paraphrase here, could have undermined my own thinking but it hasn't. If anything it has cleansed my vision. It has made everything around me more real and more meaningful.

Nicholas Humphrey's book is a breakthrough and a joy to read. After 20 or so years of scientific study perhaps now, with this book, science can approach this topic in a way that will have relevance for us all.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Hande Z TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 17 Feb. 2012
Format: Paperback
At the end of this plainly engaging and lucid (apart from the "45 degree right angle controversy debated by other reviewers) one might easily forget that Humphrey was presenting a new theory about consciouness. Sprinkling literary quotations from Kundera to Lispector this book is indeed a novel scientific treatise. Part 2 of the book was written on the focal point of Clarice Lispector's words: "How curious that I am unable to say who I am...The moment I try to speak, not only do I fail to express what I feel, but what I feel slowly transforms itself into what I am saying." Humphrey probably suspected that we might forget this as he was quick to state that his book "is intended to be a book of serious science and philosophy". His theory seeks to account for what consciousness is by an account of what it does and what it appears to be doing for humans on the macro scale - making us believe that life is worth living. Yet Humphreys is not one who believes in the supernatural and his allusion to consciousness of the soul is to a soul that exist in this material world, not one that continues to be hereafter - though our consciousness may make us believe it does.
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