How do concepts of mental life vary across cultures? By asking simple questions about humans, animals and other entities – for example, ‘Do beetles get hungry? Remember things? Feel love?’ – we reconstructed concepts of mental life from the bottom up among adults (N = 711) and children (ages 6–12 years, N = 693) in the USA, Ghana, Thailand, China and Vanuatu. This revealed a cross-cultural and developmental continuity: in all sites, among both adults and children, cognitive abilities travelled separately from bodily sensations, suggesting that a mind–body distinction is common across diverse cultures and present by middle childhood. Yet there were substantial cultural and developmental differences in the status of social–emotional abilities – as part of the body, part of the mind or a third category unto themselves. Such differences may have far-reaching social consequences, whereas the similarities identify aspects of human understanding that may be universal.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Scientific Reports Open Access 08 November 2022
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to Nature and 55 other Nature journal
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The analysis code that generated the results and visualizations that support the findings of this study is available on GitHub at https://github.com/kgweisman/mental-life-culture-development (and linked to the OSF project provided in the previous section).
Heelas, P. & Lock, A. Indigenous Psychologies: The Anthropology of the Self (Academic Press, 1981).
Lillard, A. Ethnopsychologies: cultural variations in theories of mind. Psychol. Bull. 123, 3–32 (1998).
Luhrmann, T. M. et al. Toward an anthropological theory of mind. Suom. Antropol. J. Finnish Anthropol. Soc. 36, 5–69 (2011).
Majid, A. et al. Differential coding of perception in the world’s languages. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 11369–11376 (2018).
Lienhardt, G. Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford Univ. Press, 1961).
Ingold, T. Becoming persons: consciousness and sociality in human evolution. Cult. Dyn. 4, 355–378 (1991).
Astuti, R. Are we all natural dualists? A cognitive development approach. The Malinowski Memorial Lecture, 2000. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 7, 429–447 (2001).
Astuti, R. Are we all natural dualists? A cognitive developmental approach. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 7, 429–447 (2001).
Bloom, P. Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (Basic Books, 2004).
Spelke, E. S. in Core Knowledge and Conceptual Change (eds Barner, D. & Baron, A. S.) 279–300 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016). https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190467630.003.0016
Wellman, H. M. in Navigating the Social World: What Infants, Children and Other Species Can Tell Us (eds Banaji, M. R. & Gelman, S. A.) 69–74 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013). https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199890712.003.0014
Wynn, K. Some innate foundations of social and moral cognition. Innate Mind 3, 330–347 (2008).
Emmons, N. A. & Kelemen, D. The development of children’s prelife reasoning: evidence from two cultures. Child Dev. 85, 1617–1633 (2014).
Emmons, N. A. & Kelemen, D. A. I’ve got a feeling: urban and rural indigenous children’s beliefs about early life mentality. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 138, 106–125 (2015).
Bering, J. M. & Bjorklund, D. F. The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Dev. Psychol. 40, 217–233 (2004).
Bering, J. M., Blasi, C. H. & Bjorklund, D. F. The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. Br. J. Dev. Psychol. 23, 587–607 (2005).
Harris, P. L. & Giménez, M. Children’s acceptance of conflicting testimony: the case of death. J. Cogn. Cult. 5, 143–164 (2005).
Astuti, R. & Harris, P. L. Understanding mortality and the life of the ancestors in rural Madagascar. Cogn. Sci. 32, 713–740 (2008).
Lane, J. D., Zhu, L., Evans, E. M. & Wellman, H. M. Developing concepts of the mind, body, and afterlife: exploring the roles of narrative context and culture. J. Cogn. Cult. 16, 50–82 (2016).
Watson-Jones, R. E., Busch, J. T. A., Harris, P. L. & Legare, C. H. Does the body survive death? Cultural variation in beliefs about life everlasting. Cogn. Sci. 41, 455–476 (2017).
Richert, R. A. & Harris, P. The ghost in my body: children’s developing concept of the soul. J. Cogn. Cult. 6, 409–427 (2006).
Richert, R. A., Harris, P. L. & Richert, R. A. Dualism revisited: body vs. mind vs. soul. J. Cogn. Cult. 8, 99–115 (2008).
Cohen, E. & Barrett, J. When minds migrate: conceptualizing spirit possession. J. Cogn. Cult. 8, 23–48 (2008).
Cohen, E., Burdett, E., Knight, N. & Barrett, J. Cross-cultural similarities and differences in person–body reasoning: experimental evidence from the United Kingdom and Brazilian Amazon. Cogn. Sci. 35, 1282–1304 (2011).
Gray, H. M., Gray, K. & Wegner, D. M. Dimensions of mind perception. Science 315, 619 (2007).
Weisman, K., Dweck, C. S. & Markman, E. M. Rethinking people’s conceptions of mental life. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 11374–11379 (2017).
Malle, B. F. How many dimensions of mind perception really are there? Proc. 41st Annuual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society 2268–2274 (2019).
Willard, A. K. & McNamara, R. A. The minds of God(s) and humans: differences in mind perception in Fiji and North America. Cogn. Sci. 43, (2019).
Takahashi, H., Ban, M. & Asada, M. Semantic differential scale method can reveal multi-dimensional aspects of mind perception. Front. Psychol. 7, 1717 (2016).
Ojalehto, B. L., Medin, D. L. & García, S. G. Grounding principles for inferring agency: two cultural perspectives. Cogn. Psychol. 95, 50–78 (2017).
Haslam, N., Kashima, Y., Loughnan, S., Shi, J. & Suitner, C. Subhuman, inhuman, and superhuman: contrasting humans with nonhumans in three cultures. Soc. Cogn. 26, 248–258 (2008).
Luhrmann, T. Mind and Spirit: a comparative theory. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 26, 9–27 (2020).
Luhrmann, T. M. et al. Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 118, e2016649118 (2021).
Aulino, F. From karma to sin: a kaleidoscopic theory of mind and Christian experience in northern Thailand. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 26, 28–44 (2020).
Brahinsky, J. Crossing the buffer: ontological anxiety among US evangelicals and an anthropological theory of mind. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 26, 45–60 (2020).
Dulin, J. Vulnerable minds, bodily thoughts, and sensory spirits: local theory of mind and spiritual experience in Ghana. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 26, 61–76 (2020).
Dzokoto, V. A. Adwenhoasem: an Akan theory of mind. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 26, 77–94 (2020).
Ng, E. The mind and the devil: porosity and discernment in two Chinese charismatic-style churches. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 26, 95–113 (2020).
Smith, R. E. Empowered imagination and mental vulnerability: local theory of mind and spiritual experience in Vanuatu. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 26, 114–130 (2020).
Weisman, K., Dweck, C. S. & Markman, E. M. Children’s intuitions about the structure of mental life. in Proc. 39th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (2017).
Weisman, K., Dweck, C. S. & Markman, E. M. Folk philosophy of mind: changes in conceptual structure between 4–9y of age. in Proc. 40th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (2018).
Lorenzo-Seva, U. & ten Berge, J. M. F. Tucker’s congruence coefficient as a meaningful index of factor similarity. Methodology 2, 57–64 (2006).
Taylor, C. A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007).
Heim, M. The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).
Virág, C. The Emotions in Early Chinese Philosophy (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017).
Tsai, J. L., Knutson, B. & Fung, H. H. Cultural variation in affect valuation. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 90, 288–307 (2006).
Tsai, J. L., Miao, F. F. & Seppala, E. Good feelings in Christianity and Buddhism: religious differences in ideal affect. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 33, 409–421 (2007).
Adams, G. The cultural grounding of personal relationship: enemyship in North American and West African worlds. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 88, 948–968 (2005).
Asamoah-Gyadu, K African Charismatics (Brill, 2004).
Meyer, B Translating the Devil (African World Press, 1999).
Eriksen, A. Gender, Christianity and Change in Vanuatu (Ashgate, 2008).
Clegg, J. M., Wen, N. J. & Legare, C. H. Is non-conformity WEIRD? Cultural variation in adults’ beliefs about children’s competency and conformity. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 146, 428–441 (2017).
Forsyth, M. in A Bird That Flies With Two Wings: Kastom and State Justice Systems in Vanuatu 95–137 (Australian National Univ., 2009).
Curtin, C. M. et al. Kinship intensity and the use of mental states in moral judgment across societies. Evol. Hum. Behav. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2020.07.002 (2020).
Enke, B. Kinship, cooperation, and the evolution of moral systems. Q. J. Econ. 134, 953–1019 (2019).
Legare, C. H. The development of cumulative cultural learning. Annu. Rev. Dev. Psychol. 1, 119–147 (2019).
Nook, E. C., Sasse, S. F., Lambert, H. K., McLaughlin, K. A. & Somerville, L. H. Increasing verbal knowledge mediates development of multidimensional emotion representations. Nat. Hum. Behav. 1, 881–889 (2017).
Widen, S. C. Children’s interpretation of facial expressions: the long path from valence-based to specific discrete categories. Emot. Rev. 5, 72–77 (2013).
Stenhaug, B. A., Frank, M. C. & Way, J. S. The latent factor structure of developmental change in early childhood. Proc. 42nd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society 323–328 (2020).
Saxe, A. M., McClelland, J. L. & Ganguli, S. A mathematical theory of semantic development in deep neural networks. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 166, 11537–11546 (2019).
Heyes, C. Submentalizing: I am not really reading your mind. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 9, 131–143 (2014).
Chudek, M., McNamara, R. A., Birch, S., Bloom, P. & Henrich, J. Do minds switch bodies? Dualist interpretations across ages and societies. Relig. Brain Behav. 8, 354–368 (2018).
Slingerland, E. & Chudek, M. The prevalence of mind–body dualism in early China. Cogn. Sci. 35, 997–1007 (2011).
Forstmann, M. & Burgmer, P. Adults are intuitive mind–body dualists. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 144, 222–235 (2015).
Stanovich, K. E. Implicit philosophies of mind: the dualism scale and its relation to religiosity and belief in extrasensory perception. J. Psychol. 123, 5–23 (1989).
Gray, K., Knickman, T. A. & Wegner, D. M. More dead than dead: perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state. Cognition 121, 275–280 (2011).
Gray, K., Knobe, J., Sheskin, M., Bloom, P. & Barrett, L. F. More than a body: mind perception and the nature of objectification. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 101, 1207–1220 (2011).
Hood, B., Gjersoe, N. L. & Bloom, P. Do children think that duplicating the body also duplicates the mind? Cognition 125, 466–474 (2012).
Barrett, H. C. et al. Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 4688–4693 (2016).
Levisen, C. & Jogie, M. R. The Trinidadian ‘Theory of Mind’: personhood and postcolonial semantics. Int. J. Lang. Cult. 2, 169–193 (2015).
Wierzbicka, A. Soul and mind: linguistic evidence for ethnopsychology and cultural history. Am. Anthropol. 91, 41–58 (1989).
Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychol. Rev. 98, 224–253 (1991).
& Aulino, F. Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in an Aging Thailand (Cornell Univ. Press, 2019).
Chudek, M. & Henrich, J. Culture–gene coevolution, norm-psychology and the emergence of human prosociality. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 218–226 (2011).
Brink, K. A., Gray, K. & Wellman, H. M. Creepiness creeps in: uncanny valley feelings are acquired in childhood. Child Dev. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12999 (2017).
Lane, J. D., Wellman, H. M. & Evans, E. M. Children’s understanding of ordinary and extraordinary minds. Child Dev. 81, 1475–1489 (2010).
Norenzayan, A Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013).
R Core Team. R: A language and environment for statistical computing (2013).
Revelle, W. psych: Procedures for personality and psychological research (v1.8.4) (2018).
Wild, F. lsa: Latent sematic analysis (v0.73.2) (2020).
Weisman, K., Legare, C. H. & Luhrmann, T. M. Similarities and differences in concepts of mental life among adults and children in five cultures. Open Sci. Found. https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/8S36E (2020).
Thanks to the research teams in each field site; to Ellen Markman and Carol Dweck for wise advice on these studies; and to Bertram Malle and two anonymous reviewers for thoughtful feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript. See Supplementary Information for extended acknowledgements. This material is based on work supported by the John Templeton Foundation under Grant No. 55427 to T.M.L., by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE-114747 to K.W., and by a William R. & Sara Hart Kimball Stanford Graduate Fellowship to K.W. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Peer review information Nature Human Behaviour thanks Bertram Malle and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Weisman, K., Legare, C.H., Smith, R.E. et al. Similarities and differences in concepts of mental life among adults and children in five cultures. Nat Hum Behav 5, 1358–1368 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01184-8
This article is cited by
Scientific Reports (2022)
Nature Human Behaviour (2021)