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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Neurodualism: People Assume that the Brain Affects the Mind more than the Mind Affects the Brain

Valtonen, J., Ahn, W., & Cimpian, A.
Cognitive Science


People commonly think of the mind and the brain as distinct entities that interact, a view known as dualism.  At the same time, the public widely acknowledges that science attributes all mental phenomena to the workings of a material brain, a view at odds with dualism. How do people reconcile these conflicting perspectives? We propose that people distort claims about the brain from the wider culture to fit their dualist belief that minds and brains are distinct, interacting entities: Exposure to cultural discourse about the brain as the physical basis for the mind prompts people to posit that mind–brain interactions are asymmetric, such that the brain is able to affect the mind more than vice versa. We term this hybrid intuitive theory neurodualism. Five studies involving both thought experiments and naturalistic scenarios provided evidence of neurodualism among laypeople and, to some extent, even practicing psychotherapists. For example, lay participants reported that “a change in a person’s brain” is accompanied by “a change in the person’s mind” more often than vice versa. Similarly, when asked to imagine that “future scientists were able to alter exactly 25% of a person’s brain,” participants reported larger corresponding changes in the person’s mind than in the opposite direction. Participants also showed a similarly asymmetric pattern favoring the brain over the mind in naturalistic scenarios.  By uncovering people’s intuitive theories of the mind–brain relation, the results provide insights into societal phenomena such as the allure of neuroscience and common misperceptions of mental health treatments.

From the General Discussion

In all experiments and across several different tasks involving both thought experiments and naturalistic scenarios, untrained participants believed that interventions acting on the brain would affect the mind more than interventions acting on the mind would affect the brain, supporting our proposal. This causal asymmetry was strong and replicated reliably with untrained participants. Moreover, the extent to which participants endorsed popular dualism was only weakly correlated with their endorsement of neurodualism, supporting our proposal that a more complex set of beliefs is involved. In the last study, professional psychotherapists also showed evidence of endorsing neurodualism—albeit to a weaker degree—despite their scientific training and their stronger reluctance, relative to lay participants, to believe that psychiatric medications affect the mind.

Our results both corroborate and extend prior findings regarding intuitive reasoning about minds and brains. Our results corroborate prior findings by showing, once again, that both lay people and trained mental health professionals commonly hold dualistic beliefs. If their reasoning had been based on (folk versions of) a physicalist model such as identity theory or supervenience, participants should not have expected mental events to occur in the absence of neural events. However, both lay participants and professional psychotherapists did consistently report that mental changes can occur (at least sometimes) even in situations in which no neural changes occur. (Underline inserted for emphasis.)