Psychology Magazine

How Universal Is The Mind?

By Andrew D Wilson @PsychScientists
If someone asked you to describe the psychological aspects of personhood, what would you say? Chances are, you'd describe things like thought, memory, problem-solving, reasoning, maybe emotion. In other words, you probably list the major headings of a cognitive psychology text-book. In cognitive psychology, we seem to take it for granted that these are, objectively, the primary components of "the mind" (even if you reject a mind/body dualism, you probably accept some notion that there are psychological processes similar to the ones listed above). I've posted previously about whether the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive even makes sense. But, here, I want to think about the universality of the "mind" concept and its relationship to the modern view of cognition.
In fact, this conception of the mind is heavily influenced by a particular (Western) cultural background. Other cultures assign different characteristics and abilities to the psychological aspects of personhood. Wierzbicka (2005) delves into this problem in detail. She argues that speakers of a particular language make assumptions about what must be universal based on their own ability to imagine doing without a certain concept. Important cross-cultural differences in meaning become lost in translation. For instance, Piaget’s “The moral judgment of the child” was translated to English by substituting the French “juste” with the English “fair.” So, English readers think they are reading about the development of fairness in children, when this was not the author’s intention.
Translation is a deep problem, but it is often ignored in psychology. Generalisations about cognition must be made in some language, but, language is specific to particular cultures. Our choice of language, then, inevitably will bias how we talk about cognition across cultures.
“If we uncritically formulate some hypothetical universals in one particular natural language, for example, English, we run the risk of distorting them by imposing on them the perspective embedded in that particular language; and the same applies to our description of cultural differences” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 257).

So, back to the mind and our current view of cognition. Cross-linguistic research shows that, generally speaking, every culture has a folk model of a person consisting of visible and invisible (psychological)  aspects (Wierzbicka, 2005). While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of "the mind" and the modern view of cognition.But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood?
In Korean, the concept "maum" replaces the concept "mind". "Maum" has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as "heart". Apparently, "maum" is the "seat of emotions, motivation, and "goodness" in a human being" (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean "meli" (head). But, "maum" is clearly the counterpart to "mind" in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about "maum" and body in the same way that there are English texts on "mind" and body.
The Japanese have yet another concept for the invisible part of the person - "kokoro"."Kokoro" is a "seat of emotion, and also, a source of culturally valued attention to, and empathy with, other people" (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 272). To illustrate the contrast between "kokoro" and "mind", Wierzbicka gives the following example: A Japanese television programme proclaims, "The 21st century should be the age of kokoro. Let's make a point of meeting with other people" (Hasada, 2000: 110). If an English speaker declared the 21st century to be "the age of the mind" then "meeting with other people" probably would not be a priority - thinking and knowing would be. In contrast to the Korean "maum", "kokoro" is not associated with will and motivation ("hara" meaning belly serves this purpose in Japanese). But, "hara" is not associated with the psychological component of the body, the way "kokoro" is. In other words, "maum" is all about motivation and "kokoro" is all about feelings and "mind" is all about thinking.
Interestingly, Russia, which kind of sits between East and West uses "dusa" as the counterpart to the psychological part of the person. "Dusa" is often translated as "soul", but also sometimes as "heart" or "mind." "Dusa" is associated with feelings, morality, and spirituality. The "dusa" is responsible for the ability to connect with other people. This meaning seems to lie somewhat more with the Eastern conception than with the highly cognitive concept of "mind."
In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.
To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of "cognition" is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of "the mind", it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we've carved up the psychological realm - what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.
Hasada, Rie (2000). An Exploratory Study of Expression of Emotions in Japanese: Towards a Semantic
Interpretation. Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University..
Wierzbicka, A. (2005). Empirical universals of language as a basis for the study of other human universals and as a tool for exploring cross-cultural differences. Ethos, 33(2), 256-291. 

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

Paperblog Hot Topics

Magazines