Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness
The story of a quest to uncover the evolutionary history of consciousness from one of the world's leading theoretical psychologists.
We feel, therefore we are. Conscious sensations ground our sense of self. They are crucial to our idea of ourselves as psychic beings: present, existent, and mattering. But is it only humans who feel this way? Do other animals? Will future machines? Weaving together intellectual adventure and cutting-edge science, Nicholas Humphrey describes in Sentience his quest for answers: from his discovery of blindsight in monkeys and his pioneering work on social intelligence to breakthroughs in the philosophy of mind.
The goal is to solve the hard problem: to explain the wondrous, eerie fact of “phenomenal consciousness”—the redness of a poppy, the sweetness of honey, the pain of a bee sting. What does this magical dimension of experience amount to? What is it for? And why has it evolved? Humphrey presents here his new solution. He proposes that phenomenal consciousness, far from being primitive, is a relatively late and sophisticated evolutionary development. The implications for the existence of sentience in nonhuman animals are startling and provocative.
Praise for Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness
Included in Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2023
"The history of science has alwyas relied on hard lines and clear categories, and for a long time one of the hardest of those lines was that between sentience and non-sentience. But as theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey explores in Sentience, that line may not be as clear as initially thought, as discoveries in machine-learning, neurobiology, and animal consciousness raise more questions than they answer."
— Lit Hub
"Wonderfully approachable . . . with a writing style somewhere between a deep conversation and a thought process. I particularly loved Humphrey's description of his heading off to Elba to investigate the paranormal claims of the eccentric Hugh Sartorius Whitaker and his experiences with Dian Fossey (not always pleasant) when visiting to study the 'natural psychologist' ability of gorillas. . . . Reading this book was a real pleasure."
— Brian Clegg, Popular Science (UK)
“A stimulating exercise in experiment and speculation. . . [a] fascinating premise. . . . Complex and sometimes counterintuitive concepts rendered with admirable skill.”
— Kirkus Reviews
"Nicholas Humphrey’s Beautiful Theory of Mind. . . . In his new book, Sentience, a neuropsychologist argues that consciousness evolved to make us feel that life is worth living."
—The New Yorker
"Sentience is full of provocative ideas, as well as lively anecdotes from decades of pondering these issues. Humphrey’s thesis offers a great deal to think about....[H]is book earns its place...and is a valiant reminder of how much there still is to understand."
— New Scientist
“bold, brilliant, honest … [Humphreys’] directness and philosophical sophistication are unusual in the crowded and noisy neuroscientific marketplace … [An] important contribution to the debate. All future writers on consciousness will need to take Humphrey’s speculations seriously. It is no less significant because it’s written breezily and accessibly. I know of no better survey of the big questions in discussions about consciousness.”
— The Fortean Times