Who and what do you think has a mind? Research provides fascinating insights.
The mind is where we experience the world and how we take action in relation to the world — or at least so it seems. Although every person’s mind is, in a sense, the most intimate part of their being, there is much that we don’t know about our own minds, and those of others.
Psychologists have been busy doing all sorts of studies about minds, including our assumptions about minds other than our own. If you’d like to read an engaging treatment in this area, I recommend The Mind Club by Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray. The subtitle is informative: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters.
You may know your own mind, but how can you be sure that other people have minds? They might be zombies! This leads to deep philosophical issues, but Wegner and Gray are more interested in practicalities. The easiest assumption is that most human adults think and have experiences. This part is easy. But what about the less obvious possibilities for having a mind?
Non-human animals: do they have minds? Your dog or cat for sure, but amoeba surely not. Then there are machines, including robots. Does your smartphone have a mind? Presumably not, but sometimes it seems convenient to think it does, especially when it starts giving trouble. Another challenging case involves people in a persistent vegetative state (a long-term coma), unable to communicate. It’s uncertain whether they are thinking.
Thinking doers and vulnerable feelers
To help understand these different categories, Wegner and Gray introduce two categories, agency and experience. A capable adult has agency, namely the capacity to initiate action, and can experience sensations and feelings, such as pain and elation. However, others may be classified as having only agency or only experience.
A baby, for example, has little capacity for agency but can certainly have experiences. On the other hand, most people think a robot can act but is unlikely to have feelings. It turns out, based on many experiments, that there is a basic dichotomy in the way most people think about other minds: they are perceived as either thinking doers or vulnerable feelers. This dichotomy has many ramifications.
Those seen as vulnerable feelers are usually treated with sympathy, even when they do bad things. Non-human animals such as kittens and puppies are usually treated as vulnerable feelers, so when they cause harm by biting or scratching they are seldom blamed, except when it is done to someone even more vulnerable, like a baby. On the other hand, some animals are seen as doers, like sharks.
“Our compassion for vulnerable moral patients translates into rage when they are harmed. People care when adults are injured, but they are incensed when children or animals suffer.” (p. 104)
One of the consequences of this dichotomy is that people who are either villains or heroes are perceived as less sensitive to pain. This can help to explain why so many people think it is acceptable to punish criminals severely, with long prison sentences and torture via extended isolation, even though criminologists have shown this is neither rehabilitative nor protective of the community.
Heroes are also seen as relatively imperious to pain. One study asked subjects whether pain should be inflicted on either a bank teller or Mother Teresa. Most said neither but, when forced to choose, selected Mother Teresa because she had more capacity to take it. She was seen as a thinking doer and hence less vulnerable to pain.
Whistleblowing and nonviolent action
Wendy Addison has pointed out the implications for whistleblowers, those people who speak out in the public interest. Employers commonly see whistleblowers as villains and subject them to reprisals. Members of the public, on the other hand, often see whistleblowers as heroes, but the trouble is that this makes them see more capable of handling the reprisals. Seeing whistleblowers as either villains or heroes may be a factor in the resistance to giving them financial rewards.
People who are disadvantaged due to disability, illness, harassment or assault can gain sympathy by being seen as vulnerable feelers. However, this has a disadvantage: they can be assumed not to have agency to respond to their situation, leading others to think of them in as objects of charity rather than having the capacity to take action.
Another possible application of the doer-feeler dichotomy is in relation to nonviolent action. When peaceful protesters come under attack by police, this can be seen as unfair and generate outrage. A video of students sitting in a protest and being pepper-sprayed by police became famous. The students were not threatening anyone, so to many viewers harming them seemed outrageous.
However, sometimes protesters are seen as heroes, especially when they undertake more energetic actions such as chaining themselves to bulldozers or swimming in front of ships. This can turn them from vulnerable feelers to thinking doers and make it seem like they are better able to endure pain and bad treatment.
Wegner and Gray introduce a sequence of possible minds: animals, machines, patients (vulnerable feelers, without agency), enemies, the silent (people who cannot communicate), groups, the dead, God and the self. Each one of these topics, comprising the chapters in the book, provides fascinating insights.
One of the psychological processes that helps explain how people think about minds is called dyadic completion. If there is an injustice, people believe someone must be responsible. Pure randomness is not satisfying psychologically. Wegner and Gray describe a case from 1457 in France in which a pig ate a baby, and the pig was put on trial. Something terrible had happened and so the pig was attributed agency and responsibility.
Dyadic completion is also involved in many conspiracy theories. When something bad happens, the normal explanation may seem inadequate. For many in the US, the 9/11 attacks were so horrific and traumatic that it wasn’t enough to blame only the 19 individuals who piloted the aeroplanes. They assumed something bigger and more sinister must be involved.
Your own mind
Of all the minds in the world, the one we think we know the most is our own self. Yet psychologists have carried out numerous experiments showing that self-knowledge is often quite limited. People do things but often misconceive the reasons why they do them. Pioneering studies by Benjamin Libet showed that when people make a decision, for example to push a button, the brain is activated a fraction of a second before the intention enters the conscious mind. The implication is that the conscious feeling that you are making a decision is an illusion: it is a rationalisation for what the unconscious mind has already decided.
The Mind Club is written in an entertaining fashion and is filled with all sorts of observations about minds. You can learn a lot even if you don’t agree with every point raised by the authors. The book is a highly successful popularisation. I can recommend it to you knowing that whether you decide to read it is not necessarily something you can consciously control!
“Trying to perceive your dead mind is paradoxical, because you have to perceive a state that is incapable of perception – which is impossible while you are currently perceiving.” (p. 243)
“Despite the ultimate uncertainty surrounding the question of other minds, it is likely that everyone you know has the same powerful emotions and deep thoughts as you do. Unfortunately, your own collection of memories, thoughts, and feelings – your mind – prevents you from truly appreciating that fact. Being one mind prevents you from truly appreciating the minds of others.” (p. 321)