Jose Carillo's Forum


This section features wide-ranging, thought-provoking articles in English on any subject under the sun. Its objective is to present new, mind-changing ideas as well as to show to serious students of English how the various tools of the language can be felicitously harnessed to report a momentous or life-changing finding or event, to espouse or oppose an idea, or to express a deeply felt view about the world around us.

The outstanding English-language expositions to be featured here will mostly be presented through links to the websites that carry them. To put a particular work in better context, links to critiques, biographical sketches, and various other material about the author and his or her works will usually be also provided.

Is consciousness a magical-mystery show we stage in our heads?

One of the great riddles of science is how human consciousness evolved. In a new book, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (Quercus Publishing Plc, 288 pages), theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey has come up with this audaciously fascinating answer: consciousness is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that people stage for themselves inside their own heads.

Soul Dust

Humphrey blends the findings of neuroscience and evolutionary theory with a wealth of insights from philosophy and literature to show how consciousness came to be, what biological purpose it serves, and why people value it so highly. He explains that it’s the mind’s self-made show that makes the individual feel special and transcendent and that paves the way for reaping the rewards and anxieties of living in what Humphrey calls the “soul niche.”

British zoologist and journalist Matt Ridley, author of Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, says in a review of Humphrey’s Soul Dust: “Scientists sometimes stand accused of missing the magic as they reduce nature to explanations. In this surprising and poetic book, Nicholas Humphrey does the opposite: he delves into the brain and discovers that the magic is the whole point of consciousness.” University of California psychology professor V.S. Ramachandran, author of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human, is similarly impressed: “Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist at the top of his game, combines the romantic spirit of a Shelley or Keats with the razor-sharp intellect of a Sherlock Holmes.”

But British philosopher, novelist, and cultural critic Raymond Tallis is dismissive of Humphrey’s theory. In “A mind of one’s own,” a review of Soul Dust that came out in the February 24, 2011 issue of The New Statesman, Tallis observes: “His ‘explanation’ is confused and confusing, not the least for his conclusion that consciousness is ‘a magical mystery show that you lay on for yourself,’ a ‘self-created entertainment for the mind,’ staged by one part of the brain to influence another part of the brain… ‘Laying on a show,’ rather than offering an explanation, is precisely the kind of thing that has to be explained; indeed, it seems a somewhat late, higher-level or sophisticated mode of consciousness that presupposes, rather than helps us to understand, more basic modes of awareness such as sensation.”

Read Chapter 1 of Nicholas Humphrey’s Soul Dust in the Princeton Press website now!

Read Raymond Tallis’s critique of Nicholas Humphrey’s Soul Dust and related books in The New Statesman now!

Nicholas Keynes Humphrey is an English psychologist who has held posts at Oxford University and Cambridge University and is now professor emeritus of psychology at the London School of Economics. His work has tackled issues such as consciousness and belief in the supernatural from a Darwinian perspective. He is the author of several books, among them A History of the Mind and Seeing Red.

In “Application Adventure: A Dad’s College Essay,” an article that came out in the March 3, 12011 issue of The New York Times, Dwight Garner reviews Andrew Ferguson’s CRAZY U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (Simon and Schuster, 228 pages). Garner says of the book: “Let me not overpraise Crazy U. But its slimness and modesty are what’s winning about it. It’s a calm, amusing, low-key meditation on a subject that is anything but calm, amusing or low key. Many parents will grip it, I suspect, as if it were a cold compress they might apply to their fevered foreheads.”

Read Dwight Garner’s “Application Adventure: A Dad’s College Essay” in The New York Times now!

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