How do concepts of mental life vary across cultures? By asking simple questions about humans, animals and other entities – for example, ‘Do beetles get hungry? Remember things? Feel love?’ – we reconstructed concepts of mental life from the bottom up among adults (N = 711) and children (ages 6–12 years, N = 693) in the USA, Ghana, Thailand, China and Vanuatu. This revealed a cross-cultural and developmental continuity: in all sites, among both adults and children, cognitive abilities travelled separately from bodily sensations, suggesting that a mind–body distinction is common across diverse cultures and present by middle childhood. Yet there were substantial cultural and developmental differences in the status of social–emotional abilities – as part of the body, part of the mind or a third category unto themselves. Such differences may have far-reaching social consequences, whereas the similarities identify aspects of human understanding that may be universal.
Data Availability StatementThe behavioural data that support the findings of this study, along with analysis code and study materials, have been deposited in Open Science Framework with the identifier https://doi.org/10.17605/osf.io/8s36e (https://osf.io/8s36e)81.
The analysis code that generated the results and visualizations that support the findings of this study is available on GitHub at https://github.com/kgweisman/mental-life-culture-development (and linked to the OSF project provided in the previous section).