Sensational Visions of Self

Review of Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness
by Nicholas Humphrey, Harvard University Press, 151 pp, hardback £12.95, ISBN 0-674-02179-7

Times Higher Education Supplement, 29 September 2006

(This is the version submitted. It may have been edited before publication.)

I like short books. Better still, 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. Based on a series of lectures at Harvard University, it is written in a simple and direct style, beginning with Humphrey asking his audience to look at an expanse of red. You might, right now, look at something red too.

What does it mean to see red? Scientists can measure the light and the mixture of wavelengths, but seeing red is a subjective experience. So this apparently simple question throws us right to the heart of that great mystery – consciousness.

This is Humphrey’s forte, and in Seeing Red he brings together all his previous research and theorising to give us a counter-intuitive, and distinctly uncomfortable way of thinking about the nature of seeing.

A traditional theory of vision is that first we get visual sensations and then we use those sensations to perceive things in the external world. This is completely wrong, says Humphrey. Instead he claims that sensation and perception are independent mental processes, occurring in parallel, not in series, and evolved for different functions.

Part of his reasoning comes from the strange phenomenon of blindsight. In the 1970s Humphrey worked with a monkey called Helen whose visual cortex had been removed. At first she seemed completely blind, but she eventually learned to find her way around by vision. Subsequently human patients were found who claimed to see nothing in part of their visual field, but who could still make visual discriminations. In other words, they seemed to have perception without sensation.

But if conscious sensations are independent of perception why do we need them at all? The heart of Humphrey’s theory is that seeing red is not a process of passively receiving impressions, or building up internal images, but is something we do. He calls it redding. This means putting sensation on the production side of the mind rather than the reception side, a move which, he argues, has some quite unexpected and exciting implications. Sensation ought to be especially susceptible to top-down influences, to control by the person, or to being altered by drugs, which helps make sense of imagery and hallucinations. In addition, the active nature of vision might help one person simulate the mental states of another, so allowing for empathy and mind reading.

And so we come to the nature of self. Humphrey claims that an experience is impossible without an experient – a claim that any long-term meditator will reject – and then shifts to the more interesting claim that an experient is impossible without experiences. So the self arises with sensations, and sensation is what makes consciousness matter. It lends “a hereness, a nowness, a me-ness to the experience of the present moment” and in so doing “It lifts the subject out of zombiedom”.

This created self must be an illusion but, in a final twist, Humphrey tries to explain why we so readily believe in spirits, souls and inner selves. He suggests that belief in mind-body duality is not just a regrettable mistake, but is an adaptation that has helped individuals live longer and more productive lives. So it is Nature herself, working through natural selection, that has tricked us. Being deluded about our selves lies in our genes.

I am left tantalisingly unsure about whether Humphrey really has said anything new and worthwhile about self and consciousness, as he undoubtedly has for vision and imagination. But a book that makes me think so hard, in just a hundred and fifty small pages, is one I must recommend.