Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness

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MIT Press, Feb 14, 2023 - Science - 256 pages
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The story of a fifty-year 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 his fifty-year 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 in full a new, plausible solution 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.

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About the author (2023)

Nicholas Humphrey, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the London School of Economics, is a theoretical psychologist based in Cambridge, who studies the evolution of intelligence and consciousness. His interests are wide-ranging. He was the first to demonstrate the existence of 'blindsight' after brain damage in monkeys, did research on mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, proposed the celebrated theory of the 'social function of intellect' and has investigated the evolutionary background of religion, art, healing, death-awareness, and suicide. His honors include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, the Pufendorf Medal and the International Mind and Brain Prize. His most recent books are Seeing Red and Soul Dust.

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