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Saturday, June 3, 2023

The illusion of the mind–body divide is attenuated in males.

Berent, I. 
Sci Rep 13, 6653 (2023).


A large literature suggests that people are intuitive Dualists—they tend to perceive the mind as ethereal, distinct from the body. Here, we ask whether Dualism emanates from within the human psyche, guided, in part, by theory of mind (ToM). Past research has shown that males are poorer mind-readers than females. If ToM begets Dualism, then males should exhibit weaker Dualism, and instead, lean towards Physicalism (i.e., they should view bodies and minds alike). Experiments 1–2 show that males indeed perceive the psyche as more embodied—as more likely to emerge in a replica of one’s body, and less likely to persist in its absence (after life). Experiment 3 further shows that males are less inclined towards Empiricism—a putative byproduct of Dualism. A final analysis confirms that males’ ToM scores are lower, and ToM scores further correlate with embodiment intuitions (in Experiments 1–2). These observations (from Western participants) cannot establish universality, but the association of Dualism with ToM suggests its roots are psychological. Thus, the illusory mind–body divide may arise from the very workings of the human mind.


People tend to consider the mind as ethereal, distinct from the body. This intuitive Dualist stance has been demonstrated in adults and children, in Western and non-Western participants and its consequences on reasoning are widespread.

Why people are putative Dualists, however, is unclear. In particular, one wonders whether Dualism arises only by cultural transmission, or whether the illusion of the mind–body divide can also emerge naturally, from ToM.

To address this question, here, we investigated whether individual differences in ToM capacities, occurring within the neurotypical population—between males and females—are linked to Dualism. Experiments 1–2 show that this is indeed the case.

Males, in this sample, considered the psyche as more strongly embodied than females: they believed that epistemic states are more likely to emerge in a replica of one’s body (in Experiment 1) and that psychological traits are less likely to persist upon the body’s demise, in the afterlife (in Experiment 2). Experiment 3 further showed that males are also more likely to consider psychological traits as innate—this is expected by past findings, suggesting that Dualism begets Empiricism.

A follow-up analysis has confirmed that these differences in reasoning about bodies and minds are linked to ToM. Not only did males in this sample score lower than females on ToM, but their ToM scores correlated with their Dualist intuitions.

As noted, these results ought to be interpreted with caution, as the gender differences observed here may not hold universally, and it certainly does not speak to the reasoning of any individual person. And indeed, ToM abilities demonstrably depend on multiple factors, including linguistic experience and culture. But inasmuch as females show superior ToM, they ought to lean towards Dualism and Empiricism. Dualism, then, is linked to ToM.