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Monday, November 8, 2021

What the mind is

B. F. Malle
Nature - Human Behaviour
Originally published 26 Aug 21

Humans have a conception of what the mind is. This conception takes mind to be a set of capacities, such as the ability to be proud or feel sad, to remember or to plan. Such a multifaceted conception allows people to ascribe mind in varying degrees to humans, animals, robots or any other entity1,2. However, systematic research on this conception of mind has so far been limited to Western populations. A study by Weisman and colleagues3 published in Nature Human Behaviour now provides compelling evidence for some cross-cultural universals in the human understanding of what the mind is, as well as revealing intercultural variation.


As with all new findings, readers must be alert and cautious in the conclusions they draw. We may not conclude with certainty that these are the three definitive dimensions of human mind perception, because the 23 mental capacities featured in the study were not exhaustive; in particular, they did not encompass two important domains — morality and social cognition. Moral capacities are central to social relations, person perception and identity; likewise, people care deeply about the capacity to empathize and understand others’ thoughts and feelings. Yet the present study lacked items to capture these domains. When items for moral and social–cognitive capacities have been included in past US studies, they formed a strong separate dimension, while emotions shifted toward the Experience dimension. 

Incorporating moral–social capacities in future studies may strengthen the authors’ findings. Morality and social cognition are credible candidates for cultural universals, so their inclusion could make cross-cultural stability of mind perception even more decisive. Moreover, inclusion of these important mental capacities might clarify one noteworthy cultural divergence in the data: the fact that adults in Ghana and Vanuatu combined the emotional and perceptual-cognitive dimensions. Without the contrast to social–moral capacities, emotion and cognition might have been similar enough to move toward each other. Including social–moral capacities in future studies could provide a contrasting and dividing line, which would pull emotion and cognition apart. The results might, potentially, be even more consistent across cultures.