Nicholas Humphrey

Nicholas Humphrey is assistant director of research at the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge University.

Both this and the following statement are false. Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s book is well worth £9.95.

Straw Ghosts

Nicholas Humphrey, 2 October 1980

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I used sometimes to have tea with the philosopher C.D. Broad, and we would talk about ghosts. Professor Broad lived in Newton’s rooms in Trinity, and his favourite spot for talking and for tea was an armchair placed beside the window where in 1665 Newton caught a beam of sunlight in the prism he had bought at Stourbridge fair and spread it like a rainbow on the floor. Seated in this chair one afternoon Broad told me of his fears that the spirit world in the mid-20th century was losing all its colour. Not that spirits as such had finally gone to rest – new reports of hauntings, poltergeists and so on reached him every day – but it seemed that these modern spirits no longer cut the dash they used to do. Their activities were becoming – dare he say it? – increasingly vulgar. Only the previous day he had heard of a poltergeist which was shifting caravans around a holiday camp near Great Yarmouth. If this trend continued, Banquo would soon be advertising tartans on the television and Hamlet’s father taking coach-parties round Elsinore. The old philosopher’s face fell as he contemplated the disagreeable prospect, and I understood only too well why he had concluded his celebrated Lectures on Psychical Research: ‘For my own part I should be more annoyed than surprised if I should find myself in some sense persisting immediately after the death of my present body.’ I do hope he is not now passing his post-mortem retirement in the great caravan site in the sky.

An Ecology of Ecstasy

Nicholas Humphrey, 17 April 1980

Suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire, and with an extraordinary momentum his vital forces were strained to the utmost all at once. His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold … His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light. All his agitation, all his doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of serene and harmonious joy and hope, full of understanding and the knowledge of the final cause.

New Ideas, Old Ideas

Nicholas Humphrey, 6 December 1979

At the end of his life, the distinguished biologist C.H. Waddington took part in a discussion about the nature of mind. The circumstances were unusual. Waddington lay flat on his back, and his words were read from a prepared text by a friend. The discussion between him and the other two participants was lively: until, that is, there came a point when Waddington, having momentarily silenced his colleagues, abruptly left the room. The platform on which he was resting sank beneath him and his body was committed to the flames.


Animal Trials

5 December 2013

The stories of Europe’s animal trials are ever worth retelling, but missing from Edward Payson Evans’s compendium of criminal prosecutions against both animals and objects is perhaps the strangest case of all, and the only case I know of from Great Britain: the trial for murder of a statue of the Virgin Mary, which took place in the Welsh village of Hawarden in the year 946 (LRB, 5 December). According...

Getting the wiggle into the act

Colin McGinn, 10 September 1992

Consciousness is not sempiternal, it has a history, a natural genesis. Once upon a time the universe contained no consciousness; then it sprang up here and there; and now the planet is flooded...

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Pictures of Ourselves

P.N. Johnson-Laird, 22 December 1983

During World War Two, my father was walking out of a greengrocer’s shop in London when a flying bomb crashed and exploded nearby. The blast swept him off his feet, but he was otherwise...

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