Nicholas Humphrey

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Nicholas Humphrey
Nicholas Humphrey
Nicholas Keynes Humphrey

(1943-03-27) 27 March 1943 (age 81)
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Spouse(s)Caroline Waddington
(m. 1967; div. 1977)
Ayla Kohn
(m. 1994)
AwardsMind & Brain Prize (2015)
Scientific career
InstitutionsLondon School of Economics
Doctoral advisorLawrence Weiskrantz
Doctoral studentsDylan Evans

Nicholas Keynes Humphrey (born 27 March 1943) is an English neuropsychologist based in Cambridge, known for his work on evolution of primate intelligence and consciousness. He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda; he was the first to demonstrate the existence of "blindsight"[citation needed] after brain damage in monkeys; he proposed the theory of the "social function of intellect"[citation needed]. He is the only scientist to have edited the literary journal Granta.

Humphrey played a significant role in the anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s and delivered the BBC Bronowski memorial lecture titled "Four Minutes to Midnight" in 1981.

His 10 books include Consciousness Regained, The Inner Eye, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith, The Mind Made Flesh, Seeing Red, and Soul Dust. He has received several honours, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, the Pufendorf Medal and the British Psychological Society's book award.

He has been lecturer in psychology at Oxford, assistant director of the Subdepartment of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge, senior research fellow at Cambridge, professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research, New York, and school professor at the London School of Economics.


Humphrey is the son of the immunologist John H. Humphrey and his wife Janet Humphrey (née Hill), daughter of the Nobel Prize–winning physiologist Archibald Hill and the social reformer Margaret Hill. His great uncle was the economist John Maynard Keynes. Humphrey married Caroline Waddington, daughter of C. H. Waddington, in 1967 (divorced 1977). In 1994 he married Ayla Kohn, with whom he has two children.

Early career[edit]

Nicholas Humphrey was educated at Westminster School (1956–61) and Trinity College, Cambridge (1961–67).

His doctoral research at Cambridge, supervised by Lawrence Weiskrantz, was on the neuropsychology of vision in primates. He made the first single cell recordings from the superior colliculus of monkeys, and discovered the existence of a previously unsuspected capacity for vision after total lesions of the striate cortex.[1] This capacity was later confirmed in human beings and is now called "blindsight".[2]

On moving to Oxford, he turned his attention to evolutionary aesthetics. He did research on monkey visual preferences[citation needed] (especially colour preferences) and wrote the essay "The Illusion of beauty", which, as a radio broadcast, won the Glaxo Science Writers Prize in 1980.

Work in evolutionary psychology and philosophy of mind[edit]

He returned to Cambridge, to the Sub Department of Animal Behaviour in 1970, and there met Dian Fossey, who invited him to spend three months at her gorilla study camp in Rwanda. His experience with the gorillas, and a subsequent visit to Richard Leakey's field-site on Lake Turkana, set Humphrey thinking about how cognitive skills – intelligence and consciousness – could have arisen as an adaption to social life. In 1976 he wrote an essay titled "The Social Function of Intellect", which is widely regarded[citation needed] as one of the foundational works of evolutionary psychology and the basis for Machiavellian intelligence theory. This paper formed the basis of his first book, Consciousness Regained: Chapters in the Development of Mind (1983).

In 1984 Humphrey left his academic post at Cambridge to work on his Channel 4 television series The Inner Eye, on the development of the human mind. This series was finished in 1986 with the release of a book of the same name.

In 1987, Daniel Dennett invited Humphrey to work with him at his Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. They worked on developing an empirically based theory of consciousness, and undertook a study on Multiple Personality Disorder.

Humphrey's next book, A History of the Mind (1992), put forward a theory on how consciousness as feeling rather than thinking may have evolved. This book won the inaugural British Psychological Society's annual Book of the Year Award in 1993.

His writings on consciousness continued in The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Evolution and Psychology (2002), Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness (2006), and most recently Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness (2011).

Other work[edit]

Humphrey became active in the anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s. This led to an invitation to deliver the Bronowski lecture on the BBC in 1981. He titled his lecture, on the dangers of the arms race, "Four Minutes to Midnight". With Robert Lifton he edited an anthology of writings on war and peace, In a Dark Time, which was released in 1984 and was awarded the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize.

In 1992, Humphrey was appointed to a Senior Research Fellowship at Darwin College, Cambridge funded by the Perrott-Warwick Fellowship in parapsychology. He undertook a sceptical study of parapsychological phenomena such as extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis, resulting in his book Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief (1995) (in America this book was published under the title Leaps of Faith).

Humphrey has worked on a number of TV and radio documentaries as well as The Inner Eye. The topics range from the psychology of paranormal belief to the psycho-history of mediaeval animal trials.

In 2005, he visited the Ulas family of human quadrupeds in southern Turkey and published a report on them with John Skoyles and Roger Keynes. A documentary entitled The Family That Walks on All Fours based on this visit was broadcast on BBC2 in March 2006, and on NOVA in November 2006.

Over the last ten years Humphrey has been investigating the placebo effect, and has put forward a novel theory with John Skoyles of what he calls the "health management system" through which the brain has top-down control over the body's healing resources.[3]

He has recently become an Advisor to the BMW Guggenheim Lab, and in 2016 he gave the annual Medawar Lecture at UCL.[4]

Humphrey is an atheist and suggested the analogy of religion to viruses to Richard Dawkins.[5]

National Life Stories conducted an oral history interview (C1672/12) with Nicholas Humphrey in 2016 for its Science and Religion collection held by the British Library.[6]


  • Consciousness Regained: Chapters in the Development of Mind, Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • In a Dark Time, (ed. with R. J. Lifton), Faber & Faber 1984, Harvard University Press, 1984.
  • The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution, Faber & Faber, 1986; Oxford University Press 2002, ISBN 9780192802446 [1]
  • A History of the Mind, Chatto & Windus 1992, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
  • Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief, Chatto & Windus, 1995.
  • How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem, Imprint Academic, 2000.
  • The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Evolution and Psychology, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Quercus Publishing, 2011, Princeton University Press, 2011
  • Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness, The MIT Press, 2023

Video links[edit]

Journal articles[edit]

Other works[edit]


  1. ^ HUMPHREY, N. K.; WEISKRANTZ, L. (1967). "Vision in Monkeys after Removal of the Striate Cortex". Nature. 215 (5101): 595–597. doi:10.1038/215595a0. ISSN 0028-0836.
  3. ^ Humphrey N, Skoyles J (2012). "The evolutionary psychology of healing: a human success story". Curr Biol. 22 (17): R695-8. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.06.018. PMID 22975000.
  4. ^ "Medawar Lecture 2016". London Evolutionary Research Network. 15 December 2015. Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  5. ^ Andrew Brown, "The human factor", The Guardian, 29 July 2006.
  6. ^ National Life Stories, "Jones, Steve (1 of 13) National Life Stories Collection: Science and Religion", The British Library Board, 2016. Retrieved 9 October 2017.

External links[edit]