Cover story: Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey

The art featured on the cover of Sentience is dear to author Nicholas Humphrey—and hangs in his living room

Author Nicholas Humphrey.

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, Sentience describes author Nicholas Humphrey’s quest for answers: from his discovery of blindsight in monkeys and his pioneering work on social intelligence to breakthroughs in the philosophy of mind.

Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist, has spent his career studying the evolution of intelligence and consciousness. When working on the cover design for Sentience, his mind was drawn to something close to home: a 1968 painting called “June Blue” from American artist Budd Hopkins that hangs in Humphrey’s living room.

“June Blue” by Budd Hopkins.

Humphrey met Hopkins in the 1980s in New York through a mutual friend. In addition to his work in visual arts, Hopkins had become a prominent figure in the study of alien abduction and UFOs. Humphrey recalled that Hopkins had been collecting stories from young women survivors of alien abductions 

“Budd’s technique was to interview the women using hypnotic regression to bring up hidden memories,” Humphrey said. “As a psychologist, of course, I wanted to know more. So I asked whether I could observe him doing an interview. He invited me and my partner, Ayla, to attend several sessions, which took place in his New York studio.”

Hopkins’ studio was full of his paintings from the last twenty years of work. The works, like “June Blue,” were largely oversized and done in an abstract expressionist style. “I was struck not just by their beautiful composition, but by the way they seemed to reveal overlapping layers of subjective reality,” Humphrey said. “In fact not abstract at all, but an exploration deep into the recesses of the mind.”

In the end, Humphrey concluded that the alien abduction interviews didn’t interest him. “But the paintings were another matter,” Humphrey said. “They were the real thing.”

Humphrey and his partner were determined to buy one of Hopkins’ paintings, and gathered the money. Thus “June Blue” has been in their lives ever since.

“It has dominated our various living rooms for the last 35 years. Now it’s on the cover of my book, which is—in its own way—an exploration of the layers of consciousness.”

Learn more about Sentience, and read a feature on Humphrey in The New Yorker