Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Meeting of Minds

Today we are presenting a fascinating new paper by a team of psychologists, including Kurt Gray, Joshua Knobe, Mark Sheskin, Paul Bloom and Lisa Feldman Barrett and here the scientists frame the mystery they want to solve:
Do people’s mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove a sweater? This seems absurd: How could removing a piece of clothing change one’s capacity for acting or feeling? In six studies, however, we show that taking off a sweater—or otherwise revealing flesh—can significantly change the way a mind is perceived. In this article, we suggest that the kind of mind ascribed to another person depends on the relative salience of his or her body—that the perceived capacity for both pain and planned action depends on whether someone wears a sweater or tank-top.
To understand why sweaters and tank-tops influence the kind of minds we perceive, it’s important to know about the different qualities we imagine in others. In general, people assess the 'minds' of others and it doesn’t matter if it’s the “mind” of a pet, an iPhone or a perceived deity. This assessment is aligned along two distinct dimensions.

Firstly, we grade other peoples' minds in terms of agency, Whereby Human beings have lots of agency but goldfish less so. Secondly, we also think of other peoples' minds in terms of the ability to have experience, to feel and perceive.

The psychologists suggest that these dual dimensions are actually a duality, and that there’s a direct tradeoff between the ability to have agency and experience. For example, if we endow someone with lots of feeling, then they probably have less agency, and if someone has lots of agency, then they probably are less sensitive to experience.

In other words, we automatically assume that the capacity to think and the capacity to feel are in opposition. It’s a zero sum game.

This work also raises important philosophical questions. Ever since Descartes, it’s been suggested that people are natural dualists, dividing the world into an immaterial realm full of souls and a physical world full of objects.

This simple framework, however, appears to be a bit too simple. Instead, the psychologists propose that humans are actually Platonic dualists, following Plato’s belief that there are two distinct types of mind: a mind for thinking and reasoning and a mind for emotions and passions.

What’s surprising is how easily we switch between these different mental capacities. All it takes is a peek of skin before a thinker morphs into a feeler.

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