Monday, 23 March 2009

Do ghosts get itchy? Mind, body, and afterlife in cross-cultural perspective

This is the live blog of the first talk in CFI U.K.'s "God in the lab" meeting at Conway Hall, 21st March, 2009.

Dr Emma Cohen is an anthropologist at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford . She has researched and written on a range of widespread cultural phenomena, including spirit possession, witchcraft and sorcery, divination, mind-body dualism, afterlife beliefs, and Harry Potter. Her research addresses the question of why these phenomena are cross-culturally widespread, drawing from and developing our scientific understanding of how human minds work. In The Mind Possessed (OUP, 2007), Cohen develops a radical new approach to explaining the transmission of spirit possession ideas and practices, based on recent discoveries in the cognitive sciences and on long-term fieldwork with a group of Afro-Brazilian spirit mediums in Brazil. Her most recent work focuses on the regularities in the ways in which children and adults across different cultural contexts intuitively reason about the relationship between bodies and minds. This research further explores how the same sorts of intuitions that guide mind-body thinking also influence the form, appeal, and spread of a huge range of cultural phenomena, from Hollywood comedies about mind swaps to mind-over-matter magical displays to common ideas about illnesses and their treatments.


Cohen starts by asking everyone to imagine what they would experience if they left their body. Can one know, remember, see, learn, hope for things? Can one feel hungry, go to the toilet, feel cold, feel itchy or feel sexual desires? What is imaginable
varies culturally, only in the west is there no separation between "mind" and "body" as indicated in the two parts of the preceding list. So there is some evidence that "folk realism" is culturally variable, and only in the "west" do we think "we are our body" and that there is "no ghost in the machine".

Now try imagining being a robot? Could one be downloaded into a robot body? What does this mean for personal identity? What about illness? How does this work with mind and body being regarded to operate in different domains?

This applies in more familiar areas. A psychiatric condition is different to a neurological or physical condition. Is this only a lay perception? A survey carried out on psychiatric professionals shows that they have different views on mania versus addiction versus narcissistic personality disorder and these latter are more likely to get more attributed to psychological factors and thereby even professionals  attribute responsibility differently for these various conditions. That is the response was the same as the lay perceptions of these conditions. A mind-brain dichotomy persists in professionals. We are all common-sense dualists!

Going back to religion and anthropological studies of tribes indicates ritual related to animism and ancient ancestors are all types of common-sense dualism. This includes ideas of what happens after death. Some tribes require one's parents to be eaten and to others - such as us - this would be anathema. Another culturally variable phenomenon.

Where does this dualism come from? Is dualism a by product of the way human mind developed?

Paul Bloom says we intuitively see ourselves as mind and body as autonomous, this is "intuitive dualism". Dualism is not learned - it comes for free - based on the way the mind is organised. Dualism emerges naturally in child development.

Cohen presented the Baby Mouse experiment and the following is a found example of this from an internet search (congruent with but not identical to what Cohen presented).
An alligator jumps out of the bushes and gobbles him all up. Baby Mouse is not alive anymore.”

Just like the adults from the previously mentioned study, the children were asked about dead Baby Mouse’s psychological functioning. “Does Baby Mouse still want to go home'” we asked them. “Does he still feel sick'” “Can he still smell the flowers'” The youngest children in the study, the three- to five-year-olds, were significantly more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than children from the two older age groups were.

But here’s the really curious part. Even the preschoolers had a solid grasp on biological cessation; they knew, for example, that dead Baby Mouse didn’t need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn’t grow up to be an adult mouse. Heck, 85 percent of the youngest kids even told us that his brain no longer worked. Yet most of these very young children then told us that dead Baby Mouse was hungry or thirsty, that he felt better or that he was still angry at his brother.
One couldn’t say that the preschoolers lacked a concept of death, therefore, because nearly all of the kids realized that biological imperatives no longer applied after death. Rather they seemed to have trouble using this knowledge to theorize about related mental functions.

And in a 2005 replication of the Baby Mouse experiment published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, psychologist David Bjorklund and I teamed with psychologist Carlos Hern├índez Blasi of Jaume I University in Spain to compare children in a Catholic school with those attending a public secular school in Castell├│n, Spain. As in the previous study, an overwhelming majority of the youngest children—five- to six-year-olds—from both educational backgrounds said that Baby Mouse’s mental states survived. The type of curriculum, secular or religious, made no difference. With increasing age, however, culture becomes a factor—the kids attending Catholic school were more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than were those at the secular school. There was even a smattering of young extinctivists in the latter camp.[Quote found in forum not from Cohen]
However there were no specific religious components to these beleifs, they are pre-religious beliefs...

So we are susceptible to detect agency ("minds") in our environments even with very little information such as seeing animations of triangles.

So do bodies really matter? Is this dualism even innate? Studying infants over understanding solid objects and space and so on helpes illuminate these questions.

Two 5 month old groups of infants are tested with either discontinuous and continuous motion. Do infants apply the same expectation between human and solid objects requiring continuity of motion? No, only for objects but not for humans, can infants expect motion to be  discontinuous! This distinction at this age is indicative that intuitive dualism is innate.

Intuitive theories inform cultural ideas... And this leads to our different approaches to psychological versus physical conditions. This leads to qualitatively different approaches to different conditions. And this reasoning can cross over as in her example of "Inner Mind Training" thinking one into having better skin! An example of "Mind over matter" beliefs.

In terms of world culture it is only a privileged minority who thinks there is no ghost in the machine and this wil remain this way unless everyone is exposed to the ideas a few of us are used to in the" West".

Cohen finishes with a recent study reported by the BBC, a study into near-death experience. People who have out of body experiences during operations who float are actually unable see hidden books they could not see from the operating table, contrary to their belief that their experience actually entailed "they" left their body.

I sum this up, although Cohen did not explicitly say this, that we might be common-sense dualists but this is an empirically false belief. Our folk realism is in error.

Postscript: Republished with mostly typos fixes.