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Our Malleable Minds

New blog explores how experiences shape the brain and mind

People are not all the same. There is astonishing diversity among human languages, cultures, and bodies. Sounds that come naturally to speakers of one language may sound alien to speakers of another. Customs that are commonplace in one community may appear fantastic to someone across the globe. Actions that one person performs easily may be impossible for someone with a different kind of body—imagine trying to dunk like Michael Jordan, or sing like Mariah Carey.

How is the diversity of the human experience reflected in the mind? What is universal about the concepts we form, and what depends on the particulars of our physical and social experiences? Can two people ever share the same thought? Can one person ever have the same thought twice, or do thoughts necessarily change from person to person and from moment to moment? Malleable Mind will explore emerging answers to these questions.

People’s experiences vary, so it would seem natural that many of the concepts they form vary accordingly. Perhaps surprisingly, this has not been the dominant view in the cognitive sciences. From Plato to Pinker, influential thinkers have argued that despite superficial variations, most concepts are universal across languages, cultures, and individuals.

In the light of emerging research, however, this dogma is going the way of the dodo bird. Experience matters. Even if there is a universal starting point to the mind in infancy, this is not where the process of concept formation ends—it’s where it begins.

Language, culture, and the body are ever-present aspects of the context in which we use our minds. Since thinking depends on context, people with different languages, cultures, and bodies tend to think, feel, and act differently, in predictable ways [1]. Our conceptions of time, space, objects, colors, and sounds are all conditioned by the ways we talk about them [2,3]. Our feelings and choices are shaped by peculiarities of the bodies we use to interface with the world. Left- and right-handers, for instance, may arrive at opposite decisions when presented with the same set of alternatives, as a consequence of the way they tend to use their “good” and “bad” hands [4].

Even fleeting aspects of the environmental context influence our thoughts. A dark room can make people more prone to cheat [5]. A warm room can make them more sociable [6]. A chair that improves our posture can make us feel proud [7], whereas a broken chair that leans to the left can make us “lean to the left” in our political attitudes, expressing more support for liberal views [8].

Fleeting bodily states also affect the mind. Having an empty stomach can make us more impulsive [9], having a full bladder can make us more self-controlled [10], and having clean hands can make us less moralistic [11].

The malleability of the mind has implications for theories of cognition, suggesting that philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists may need to overhaul their concept of “concepts.” Rather than thinking of concepts as something we have in our minds, like entries in a mental encyclopedia, it may be more fruitful to think of concepts as something that we do with our minds. Thoughts are instantiated in brains, and brains are always changing—therefore, our thoughts are always changing.

Understanding how experiences shape our thoughts—and how people with different patterns of physical and social experience come to think differently—can help us make sense of behavior that seems mysterious on a one-size-fits-all model of the mind. Paradoxically, exploring the ways in which minds differ from person to person and from moment to moment may be the best way to discover universal processes by which people acquire and use their knowledge. More broadly, understanding how individuals and groups with different experiential histories tend to think, feel, communicate, and make decisions differently may point the way toward a more flexible and inclusive view of human nature.

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1. Casasanto, D. (2011). Different Bodies, Different Minds: The body-specificity of language and thought. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 378–383.

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2. Boroditsky, L., (2011) How language shapes thought. Scientific American, February, 63-65.

3. Dolscheid, S., Shayan, S., Majid, A., & Casasanto, D. (2011). The Thickness of Musical Pitch: Psychophysical evidence for the Whorfian hypothesis. In L. Carlson, C. Hölscher, & T. Shipley (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 537-542). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

4. Casasanto, D. (2009). Embodiment of Abstract Concepts: Good and bad in right- and left-handers. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138(3), 351-367.

5. Zhong, C., Bohns, V. K., & Gino, F. (2010). Good lamps are the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 311-314.

6. IJzerman, H., & Semin, G.R. (2009). The thermometer of social relations: Mapping social proximity on temperature. Psychological Science, 20, 1214-1220.

7. Stepper, S., & Strack, F. (1993). Proprioceptive determinants of emotional and nonemotional feelings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 211–220.

8. Oppenheimer, D.M. & Trail, T. (2010). When leaning to the left makes you lean to the left. Social Cognition, 28(5), 651-661.

9. Danziger, S., Levav, J., and Avnaim-Pesso, L., (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 6889–6892.

10. Tuk, M.A., Trampe, D. & Warlop, L. (2011). Inhibitory spillover: increased urination urgency facilitates impulse control in unrelated domains. Psychological Science, 22, 627-633.

11. Zhong, C.B., & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313, 1451-1452.

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