Women are more likely to perceive the mind as separate from the brain, body

digital simulation of brain nerve electrical signals
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New research by a Northeastern scientist says men and women differ in how they perceive bodies and minds, with women being more likely to see the mind as operating independently of body systems.

“How we see minds and bodies depends on whether we’re males or females,” says Iris Berent, a Northeastern psychology professor and author of the study published in Scientific Reports.

“What this means is that women believe thoughts are less likely to be part of the body and less likely to show up on a brain scan—which reflects the body—and more likely to persist without the body, after the person dies,” Berent says.

headshot of Iris Berent
Northeastern professor of psychology Iris Berent. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Her study of 240 participants, including students at Northeastern, shows that women are more likely than men to engage in “dualistic” thinking about the body/mind connection.

“Dualism is the belief that the mind is somehow separate from the body, that the body’s physical but the mind is something else,” Berent says.

Science tells us it’s utterly wrong—everything we think, know and feel happens right in the body, in the brain,” she says.

“And yet this study shows that people don’t quite think so, and women are more likely to fall into this dualist trap than men.”

Berent says women’s belief in mind-body separation is directly connected to their greater ability to read the minds of others—to infer people’s emotions and thoughts based on their behavior and actions.

“It’s a basic psychological mechanism that women are probably born with. And it looks like this begets the bodies and minds contrast in women,” Berent says.

“This is in line with my past research on autism,” she says. 

She previously published a study showing that autistic people were less likely than neurotypical people to see a distinction between mind and body.

Asked what qualities would transfer to a human replica, autistic people included thoughts and feelings while neurotypical people were less likely to do so, Berent says.

She says when she reproduced the experiment among neurotypical women and men, she found that men were more likely than women to believe a person’s thoughts and feelings would transfer to a replica.

This behavior is in line with the fact that, like males, autistic people score lower on tests that examine their ability to reason about what’s going on in the minds of others,  which is why they are often perceived as having social problems, Berent says.

It is these very problems in “reading” the minds of others that lead autistic people to view other people’s minds as less distinct from their bodies, she says.

“There is a theory advanced by psychologist Simon Baron Cohen that an autistic brain is a hyper male brain, that it’s like a male brain on steroids—It’s a more exaggerated male brain,” Berent says.

“My research is in line with the possibility that autistic people and males have some characteristics in common” that distinguish them from neurotypical females, she says.

Men also saw thoughts as being somewhat ethereal, or operating outside the body, but the tendency was more pronounced in women, says Berent.

“Maybe it’s natural for people to contrast bodies and minds. Maybe this is just how the mind works,” Berent says.

She says her research indicates the sex differences are a result of nature, the innate ability to “read” the minds of others, and not culture alone. 

Berent says the findings have “enormous implications for society in many domains,” including how people think about science, religion, psychiatric disorders and even the justice system.

“There is this famous finding that if you present jurors, or even good judges, with a brain scan and say ‘this murderer has a different brain,’ they think the accused murderer is less responsible and they will be more lenient,” she says.

Similar biases arise for psychiatric disorders.

“All psychiatric disorders are brain disorders,” Berent says. “You can modify the brain by thinking and you can modify the brain by drugs,” she says.

“But if people think the disorder is just related to the mind, then they think medications won’t work. Whereas if they think that a disorder arises from something biological, then they think psychotherapy won’t work. Dualist thinking, then, can have devastating consequences. By shedding light on this human bias, I hope this research will open the door to fighting it.”

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at c.hibbert@northeastern.edu or contact her on Twitter @HibbertCynthia.