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What Ghosts Can Teach Us About the Nature of the Mind

Psychology Technology
What Ghosts Can Teach Us About the Nature of the Mind


  • Why humanoid robots are so creepy
  • The reason certain songs get stuck in your head
  • Why ghosts always have unfinished business

Kurt Gray is a UNC Chapel Hill social psychologist who studies subjective experience, mind perception, and moral cognition. Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist and the scientific director of The Imagination Institute. The two recently sat down on The Psychology Podcast to discuss what it means to feel empathy, have a mind, and be a human being.

Scott: You define the “mind club” as “that special collection of entities who can think and feel.” In order to have a mind, do you need to satisfy both criteria?

Kurt: That’s a great question. There’s really two mind clubs: a thinking mind club and a feeling mind club. You and I have both the ability to think and feel, but some things only have one ability. Animals are often seen to only feel, and corporations are seen only to think.

Scott: In the field of cognitive psychology, is there a distinction between the study of emotions and the study of mind? Is “mind” something that naturally incorporates emotions?

Kurt: I think it’s a really vague concept, what mind is and what emotions are. There have been debates going on for centuries about who has a mind and who has emotions. It seems like a philosophical issue.

Scott: For sure.

Let’s back up a second and talk about how you met Daniel Wegner and how The Mind Club came to fruition.

Kurt: I met Dan Wegner [as] his grad student. After college, I took a year off to go to Australia and surf and pick grapes. The first time I ever spoke to him was coming back from picking grapes one afternoon, and my cell phone rang and it was Dan. He said, “Would you like to come do grad school with me and explore the mysteries of the human mind?” I said, “That sounds pretty amazing.”

He was going to write a book about mind perception by himself, but in 2010, he had been diagnosed with ALS. He wondered if I might be willing to help him finish the book if he didn’t have time to finish writing it, [and] of course I said yes.

When I was writing the chapters after he’d passed away, I still had this ability to perceive Dan’s mind and wonder, “Is this what Dan would have wanted to say?” Most of the time, I think yes. Much of the book is as Dan would have written it, down to the weird jokes and the weird examples. It took me about three years after he passed away to get it all written.

“The self is a matter of perception. It’s something we make.”

Scott: I think he would be very proud of you. It’s very interesting.

You talk about cryptominds a lot in this book.

Kurt: A cryptomind is just something that’s cryptic to us. We have a hard time understanding whether there’s a mind present or not, like an animal or a machine.

Scott: Let me jump all the way to the self, and we’ll work backwards. Do we have trouble understanding ourselves?

Kurt: We sure do. Psychology and philosophy have plumbed the limits of our own self-knowledge and wondered what it means to be a person.

Scott: Have you read, I think Bruce Hood wrote it, about how the self is a myth or an illusion? He asked people to close their eyes and try to locate where they think the self is. What scared me about that exercise is when I closed my eyes, I had trouble. I located it in multiple areas depending on what image of myself I thought of. Is that bad?

Kurt: I’m not a clinical psychologist, but I’m pretty sure it’s normal. I mean, I share your intuition. If I try to pin down the self, I might not even put the X just on my self, because who I am is determined by my wife and my colleagues, my pets, my work. Maybe I put part of the X in The Mind Club because I poured so much of myself into the book.

Scott: Absolutely, our self-concept is constantly changing. How does that relate to the mind? How does your main thesis, that mind is a matter of perception, relate to the self?

Kurt: I think it perfectly relates, because at least in psychology, we understand that the self is a matter of perception. It’s something we make.

We often think of the minds of others as something that’s really there. There is an objective fact of the matter, whether your pet can be embarrassed, whether your cat has deep thoughts. But for the most part, the minds of pets and machines and vegetative patients are a matter of perception.

“If you’re more of a vulnerable feeler than a thinking doer, we tend to have more compassion for you.”

Scott: You talk about this phrase “dyadic morality” in virtually every chapter. What is dyadic morality, and how does it relate to whether something is immoral or not?

Kurt: Dyadic morality is the idea that we understand morality in terms of two. Two roles or two minds. The word “dyad” is the Greek word for “two.” When we think of immoral or moral things, we think of a perpetrator and a victim. That’s all a dyad really is. Murder has a murderer and a victim, abuse has an abuser and abusee, and we take that template to understand everything around us.

The important thing is that those two people aren’t just things. They’re minds. [For] an abuser or a perpetrator, we think in terms of responsibility, planning, intention. Those are what we’d call “agency.” You can think of it as a thinking doer. On the other hand, the victim is a vulnerable feeler. We’re concerned about their suffering and their feelings. Morality is really about pairing together a thinking doer and cause of suffering to a vulnerable feeler. That’s all it is.

When we pass judgment, we’re primarily concerned with the thinking behind the doing. If you murder someone while you’re sleepwalking, then you’re still doing it. Your mind is still involved in some sense, right? Your brain’s making you move and kill someone, but it’s not “mind” in the sense that we normally think of, and certainly not “mind” in the sense that we think deserves more responsibility. In the case of the sleepwalker, everyone acknowledged that he killed his father-in-law, but no one thought that he was responsible. He lacked that thinking part of his mind, even if he was still doing it.

Scott: On the opposite end of the spectrum with the vulnerable feelers, we tend to have the most compassion for them. If you’re more of a vulnerable feeler than a thinking doer, we tend to have more compassion for you.

Kurt: Certainly. People get incensed when people harm babies and puppies and orphans. These are all things that we think are very vulnerable and sensitive to pain. We don’t really get upset when CEOs get injured or professional wrestlers get injured, right? It’s really about this vulnerability which makes them ideal victims and then makes us empathize with them.

Scott: Could that be problematic in that we might not have as much empathy for the people we’ve put in the enemy category? Maybe we could actually lack empathy for them because we do that.

Kurt: Certainly. Just because we perceive a mind a certain way, especially when it comes to human minds, doesn’t mean that it’s true. We can perceive that a CEO of a Fortune 500 company is cold and calculating and doing things just for profit, but maybe he or she is actually very sensitive to criticism and very caring, [and] their role just prevents us from seeing that. Again, it’s all about perception.

“We throw these words around that label the person in a way that strips them of their humanity.”

Scott: It is. There could be certain individuals in the company who could have been more innocent than others, but we lump them as a part of the whole group and strip them of their humanity.

You talk about how the dehumanization of our enemy strips them of their agency and experience. We do that in lots of subtle ways, like with the person who doesn’t like their partner. They think their partner’s not [paying] enough attention [to] them, and they call him a narcissist. We throw these words around that label the person in a way that strips them of their humanity. They sometimes make [us] feel better about ourselves as well.

Kurt: It’s easy to strip away mind from people who disagree with us, or who make us feel bad about ourselves, or who are just different than us, people of different religions or races.

Scott: Why are humanoid robots creepy?

Kurt: Ah, this has been noticed for almost 50 years now. A Japanese roboticist named Mori came up with this idea called the “uncanny valley.” The idea of the uncanny valley is that we generally like robots the more human-like they are, the more they express emotion and feelings. You like Wall-E, the robot in the animated movie?

Scott: Yes.

Kurt: It’s anthropomorphic, feeling and thinking. There’s a point at which this upward trend of liking robots the more they look human takes a steep drop. That drop into the canyon, or valley, is called the uncanny valley. You can find it all over the place. In the movie The Polar Express with Tom Hanks, people don’t like that Tom Hanks looks human, but not quite. He has these dead, gray eyes. In fact, Pixar explicitly refuses to do realistic humans because of the uncanny valley. They only do things like animals or very stylized humans like in The Incredibles.

Some people suggested it’s just the appearance that creeps us out, but I think really what’s going on is perceptions of mind. In our minds, we have this big separation between things that should feel and things that shouldn’t feel. You and me, we’re okay. Animals, that’s cool, but cars and robots, they are inanimate, they are made of metal, they should not feel. What’s creepy is when things that shouldn’t feel, like robots, seem to be able to feel. We have research suggesting that even if it doesn’t have a human face, if I tell you, “Look, there’s a robot over here. It looks pretty mechanical, but it has this deep capacity for love and fear and pain,” that’s pretty unnerving to people.

irobot touch

Scott: So fascinating.

Let’s talk about death. What’s the chances that when you die, your mind is gone forever?

Kurt: I’d say it’s a nonzero chance. You never know. What are the chances that we continue to perceive someone’s mind after they pass away? That’s very, very high.

Scott: That is high. We perceive ghosts all over the place, right? Why do ghosts always have unfinished business?

Kurt: All of these are outgrowths of how we perceive the minds of the living, and in real life, there’s this effect called the “Zeigarnik effect,” [which is that] unfinished business is always more strongly activated in your mind. If you’re listening to something in the car, and you get out of the car [without] finishing the song, then that’s the song you’re going to find yourself singing all day. You haven’t gotten to the end. It just [stays] in your mind.

In some sense, this is the same thing with ghosts. We think about a mind who has ceased to exist, but they have one more thing left to finish. Because we just can’t imagine leaving something before we’ve finished it, we can’t imagine someone leaving to the afterlife until their work is done.

Scott: You’ve actually done this study that [for] people who die when they’re in state of alertness, we perceive their mind more.

Kurt: That’s right. We asked people to say how much mind someone has after their death when they die asleep or while awake and fully alert. If you die while you’re awake and fully alert, people think you have more personality after death, and they think it’s more important to follow the wishes of your will, which I think is pretty interesting. They think you still care about it, versus if you died while you’re in a coma, then they think, “Well, whatever. We can ignore his last wishes.”

Scott: If Kurt Cobain was still alive, and his playing became really bad at age 80, and then he died at age 85, would we not idolize him as much as if he died at 27?

Kurt: I doubt it. We all understand The Rolling Stones are a huge deal and we understand The Beatles are a huge deal, but it’s really Lennon that we pine after. Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin, all sorts of music folks were immortalized in our minds. [But] when Ringo’s 90 and in some nursing home in London, we’ll just be like, “Wow, he used to be Ringo.” It’s not the same effective punch, because he didn’t end when he was famous.

Scott: Wow. We’re not advocating for [dying] at a young age, but the research suggests that if you want to be remembered or go down as a legend, whenever you die, be as alert as possible or in the middle of a masterpiece.

Kurt: That’s true. Even if you’re not doing some great creative work, you could die at the peak of your creative output. That’s probably the best way to be as famous as possible.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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