Study links mind-body dualism to unhealthy behaviors

First, a philosophical review for those who need it: as a philosophical term the word “dualism” refers to the belief in a fundamental split between the mind and the body, and more broadly between the mind and the physical world. It is classically associated with Descartes, who in the seventeenth century proposed that reality consists of mind and matter as separate, primary substances, and also with Plato, who in the fourth century B.C.E. argued pretty much the same thing. It has been a source of endless philosophical, religious, and psychological disagreement and controversy throughout history, at least in the West, where it has had a particular hold on human thinking, and has even had political and economic ramifications, since our view of the relationships among and between the body, the physical world, and the self or soul impacts and informs everything about how we understand the proper arrangement and functioning of governments, economies, societies, and technologies.

This week a new element was introduced into this age-old debate when word surfaced of a forthcoming psychological study that has shown a link between believing in mind-body dualism and engaging in physically unhealthy behaviors. This would seem at first blush to confirm the longstanding claim by critics of dualism who say that belief in an immaterial soul with a life and destiny separate from the physical world inevitably leads people to devalue everything physical and thus engage in destructive behaviors toward themselves, other people, and the earth in general.

It’s not a slam-dunk case, but it sure it interesting. Here’s a summary of the study:

Many people, whether they know it or not, are philosophical dualists. That is, they believe that the brain and the mind are two separate entities. Despite the fact dualist beliefs are found in virtually all human cultures, surprisingly little is known about the impact of these beliefs on how we think and behave in everyday life. But a new research article forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that espousing a dualist philosophy can have important real-life consequences. Across five related studies, researchers Matthias Forstmann, Pascal Burgmer, and Thomas Mussweiler of the University of Cologne, Germany, found that people primed with dualist beliefs had more reckless attitudes toward health and exercise, and also preferred (and ate) a less healthy diet than those who were primed with physicalist beliefs. Furthermore, they found that the relationship also worked in the other direction. People who were primed with unhealthy behaviors — such as pictures of unhealthy food — reported a stronger dualistic belief than participants who were primed with healthy behaviors. Overall, the findings from the five studies provide converging evidence demonstrating that mind-body dualism has a noticeable impact on people’s health-related attitudes and behaviors. Specifically, these findings suggest that dualistic beliefs decrease the likelihood of engaging in healthy behavior.

— “Mind vs. Body? Dualist Beliefs Linked with Less Concern for Healthy Behaviors,” Association for Psychological Science, July 24, 2012

Also note the fascinating — and potentially disturbing — convergence of formal psychological study, metaphysical belief, and public health policy decisions that the study may portend:

These findings support the researchers’ original hypothesis that the more people perceive their minds and bodies to be distinct entities, the less likely they will be to engage in behaviors that protect their bodies. Bodies are ultimately viewed as a disposable vessel that helps the mind interact with the physical world. Evidence of a bidirectional relationship further suggests that metaphysical beliefs, such as beliefs in mind-body dualism, may serve as cognitive tools for coping with threatening or harmful situations. The fact that the simple priming procedures used in the studies had an immediate impact on health-related attitudes and behavior suggests that these procedures may eventually have profound implications for real-life problems. Interventions that reduce dualistic beliefs through priming could be one way to help promote healthier — or less self-damaging — behaviors in at-risk populations.

The Orwellian implication of those undefined “interventions” to “reduce dualistic beliefs through priming” in order to “help promote healthier — or less self-damaging — behaviors in at-risk populations” are positively staggering. At some point will the psychological and psychiatric professions, and also the government entities and agencies whose policy decisions they help to set, truly get in the business of regulating and manipulating metaphysical beliefs on the grounds of protecting public health?


About The Teeming Brain

The Teeming Brain is a blog magazine exploring the intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in technology, politics, ecology, economics, the arts, education, and society at large.

Posted on July 26, 2012, in Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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