The Self Illusion

How the social brain creates identity

Mind-Body Dualism Is Not Always Healthy

Taking a materialist perspective leads to healthier behaviours

When it comes to the mind and brain, we are so used to hearing that taking a non-materialist approach to life is so much more enriching and fulfilling that taking a materialist approach. Those of us who wish to equate the mind with the output of the brain are often criticised for our reductionist approach. Materialism is ridiculed for its attempts to equate the mind and experience of consciousness as the output of a machine. If brain activity is reducible to patterns of information distributed as binary on/off states in neurons, then you should be able to build conscious robots. As the philosopher John Searle points out, if brains are like computers, and minds are like computer programs then a mind can exist on any suitable computer, whether it's made of gray matter, silicon, or a suitably arranged collection of beer cans. With arguments like that, it is easy to see why materialism is such an easy target for most people.

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If the mind is not tethered to the body (and how could a non-physical thing be physical in origin?) then it is spiritual and we are constantly told that those who have a spiritual outlook are much happier. Believers may be happier people but as my colleague Paul Bloom points out, this is more to do with them belonging to the majority group in society rather than a minority of non-believers. For example, atheism is more prevalent in Scandinavian countries but not associated with the same levels of discontent reported in the US. Dualists also tend to endorse free will and reject determinist accounts of behaviour. They are happier in their jobs and outperform colleagues. All in all, materialism gets a pretty bad press.

Dualism is also likely to be the intuitive default that develops as children come to appreciate the content of their own minds and that of others. Paul and I have shown that while young children accept that a machine could copy material aspects of an individual, aspects of the mind are unique and not duplicable. It is a universal construct found in every religion and can be seen to be the basis for after-life beliefs—if the mind is not constrained to the body then it can survive death. Jesse Bering has shown that even adults that explicitly eject after-life beliefs nevertheless talk about the deceased as if their minds were still aware.

As a card-carrying materialist with no beliefs in dualism, it is heartening to read about a study just out in Psychological Science that demonstrates that taking a materialist stance is not all bad. Participants who were primed with dualism were reported to engage in less healthy behaviors and less positive attitudes towards food than participants primed with materialism. Participants primed with materialism chose, bought, and consumed healthier meals. The authors conclude that taking a more physicalist perspective in at-risk populations may lead to change towards healthier lifestyles or at least it is better than praying for it.

Bruce Hood, Ph.D., is the Chair in Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol.

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