The mind is a guess

My recent Beyond Boundaries column for the latest issue of The Psychologist explores how the idea of the ‘mind’ as a single distinct concept is an assumption that many cultures don’t share.

I’d like to talk about people who don’t have minds. This isn’t going to be one of those ingenious philosophy arguments where I claim that we’re all zombies, nor a smug assertion that we’re just a bunch of neurons, but a brief visit to people who genuinely don’t have minds – at least not as we understand them.

The idea that the self can be split into body and mind is at the root of psychology, but there is no laboratory test, questionnaire or brain scan that tells us this – it is a product of our culture. In fact, we inherited the notion from the Ancient Greeks and it has stuck with us because we find it convenient (presumably, a bit like stuffed vine leaves). If you’re not sure how we can possibly think about ourselves without thinking about the mind, it will be easier, perhaps, to briefly touch upon other forms of psychology where the mind does not exist in the form we understand it.

In traditional Haitian culture, there is no direct equivalent of the mind. The self is made up of a three components. The corps cadavre is the physical body; the ti-bon anj or ‘little good angel’ loosely represents what we would consider as agency, awareness and memory; while the gwo bon anj or the ‘big good angel’ is the animating principle that manages motivation and movement. Incidentally, a traditional Haitian zombie is created when a sorcerer steals the ‘little good angel’ leaving a coordinated body capable of understanding and following instructions but without reflective thought, clearly demonstrating a split where we see a single mental realm.

The traditional Javanese concept of the self, a synthesis of many Eastern influences, is even more complex. Humans consist of the selira or body which is the source of physical desires. The organic structure is kept active and alive by the atma (energy), the kama (sensory desire), and the prana (vital principle). Unlike other beings, humans also have manas (deliberate thinking), manasa (intellect) and jiwa (immortal essence).

We often assume that understanding other cultures is about comprehending how other people ‘think’ about the world, when many other cultures do not even have an equivalent concept of the mind. Consequently, Western psychology is about as culturally neutral as Coca Cola.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by going here.
 

Link to column in The Psychologist.

6 Comments

  1. Posted February 23, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like you are making a case for the transpersonal?

  2. renee
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    tried to go to the link, but even when I’m logged in I get a message that I have to be logged in as a member to read the article. /shrug oh well …

  3. renee
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Might help if the blog post had an author’s name to it so I could search for that, or alternately the title of the article itself.

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      “This entry was written by vaughanbell and posted on February 22, 2012 at 11:50 pm and filed under Togetherness. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.”

  4. Rory
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    “Western psychology is about as culturally neutral as Coca Cola.”

    Is it not very neutral because Coca Cola was invented and first produced in the United States, or is it fairly neutral in the realm of soda-pop because Coca Cola is nearly globally available and the 2nd most understood word after “ok”? Maybe it’s a mix of both, and so Western psychology could be EXACTLY as culturally neutral as Coca Cola? …I quite like that idea.

  5. Posted April 8, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    We are putting together an experiemental scifi horror short – Abel and Cain. With a bit of Tree of Life influence, our main character study begs an answer to “What inspires?” Intellect or Physical deisre…


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  1. [...] still, we have to account for cultural differences in perception. This can be quite significant, as argued by Ulric Neisser, the idea of the ‘mind’ as a single distinct concept is an assumption that many cultures [...]

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