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What does it mean that humans are conscious,
in the everyday sort of sense, and can science explain how and why it happens?
Why are we conscious in the subjective way we are, when other creatures
get along perfectly well without this particular capacity?
In order to approach this question,
Humphrey believes we must first
describe the processes of consciousness in such a way that a Martian scientist
would not only understand them abstractly, but factually (and empathically too,
if that were possible).
Seeing Red tackles this task
with a directness and dignity seemingly not often achieved in current technical
writing. Based on a set of lectures given at Harvard University in 2004, the
book is completely engaging and comfortably authoritative. Humphrey draws on
decades of study and reflection on mind, self, and consciousness. Readers of
his earlier works will recognize Humphrey's insightful premises, and will be yet
again impressed with the robustness of his positions and ideas. (It is
important to point out here that new readers as yet unfamiliar with
Humphrey's substantial body of earlier work will be just as impressed.)
The central theme of Seeing Red
appears deceptively simple, though it may take a bit of patience initially in
order to grasp the implications of the book's title. The point is that an
understanding of consciousness can be inferred from an understanding of what
goes into the processes of seeing red (or any other color, for that matter).
Further, perhaps, one could say that consciousness and the sense of self are
actually products of basic perceptual processing such as seeing red.
But seeing red isn't really as
simple as it would appear.
One component of seeing red is
the primary sensation of it, and another is the viewer's awareness of
this sensation of redness and the perception of the red object or field. However,
the human viewer also experiences himself or herself as the subject of
the experience. That is, we both experience redness, and are
aware of ourselves as the subject that is experiencing redness.
Humphrey's work has long supported
an evolutionary process behind consciousness and the sense of self experienced
by our species, and this book further develops the foundation for this approach.
Whereas it was enough for early organisms to simply respond directly to the
environment, evolution has gradually resulted in much more complex, internalized
processes in our species (and many others of course). The ability to
experience self as both subject and object depends on these processes.
The phenomenon known as blindsight
illustrates (so to speak) that sensation and perception are co-occurring rather
than sequential processes, and thus are more complex than usually thought. Humphrey
as a young scientist worked with a monkey whose visual cortex had been removed.
As expected, the result of the surgery was apparent blindness. However, Humphrey
found over several years that she nonetheless developed an ability to respond
to visual presentation.
This phenomenon has since been well
documented in humans. In conditions where the eyes themselves are intact but the
visual pathway or cortex is damaged or destroyed, some human experiencers are unable
to "see" (and do report lack of visual experience) while in fact being
subtly responsive to visual stimuli or scenes. One infers that there must be
multiple pathways from the eyes (and probably other sensory systems) into our
neurology, independent of the routes and processes that lead to conscious
But how does this understanding of
basic sensory and perceptual processing help us in understanding our type of
consciousness? Humphrey explained in a postscript to Seeing
When a person smells a rose, he responds to
what's happening at his nostrils with a "virtual action pattern": one
of a set of action patterns that originated far back in evolutionary history as
evaluative responses to various kinds of stimulation at the body surface -- a
form of bodily expression. In modern human beings these responses are still
directed to the site of stimulation, and still retain vestiges of their
original function and hedonic tone; but today, instead of carrying through into
overt behaviour, they have become closed off within internal circuits in the
brain; in fact the efferent signals now project only as far as sensory cortex,
where they interact with the incoming signals from the sense organs to create,
momentarily, a self-entangling, recursive, loop. The theory is that the person's
sensation arises in
the act of making the response -- as
extended, by this recursion, into the "thick moment" of the conscious
present; moreover, that the way he represents what's happening to him comes through monitoring how he is
This thick moment (Humphrey's coinage) is arguably
where the self resides, conscious of itself as both subject and object and
unbounded in time and space.
And why did evolution produce our
type of consciousness? Because the sense of self that humans alone experience
has been, for our species, adaptive. Humphrey proposes that "Consciousness
matters because it is its function to matter. It has been designed to
create in human beings a Self whose life is worth pursuing." Having a
self that wants to survive, and that has its "thick moment" in which
to internally represent time present and time past, has been an especially effective
evolutionary strategy for us.
This is the point at which readers
will begin to explore those nagging philosophic questions about the meaning
of consciousness and self, whether they really matter, if the "self"
is only a time-limited if adaptive trick to perpetuate our version of DNA.
In response to a plaintive inquiry
about whether consciousness could survive physical death, Humphrey once wrote, "Consciousness
is something we do with our brains. This is both good news and bad news. The
bad news is obvious. The good news is that each moment of consciousness is, as
you already know it is, amazingly precious."
© 2006 Keith Harris
Keith Harris, Ph.D.,
is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for
mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by