… what would happen to your personality? I mean, if we took the brain of an African-Caribbean and stuck it in the body of a white Englishman – would the resulting person be black, or white?
And what about if you took the brain of a woman and transplanted it into a man? A rich person into the body of a poor person? Would their behaviour change, or stay the same?
What about transplanting the brain of a Catholic into the body of an atheist?
These are all questions designed to dig into whether social categories depend on ‘essentialism’ – the folk-logic argument that items carry with them some kind of essence that defines what they are. If you think that a man’s body with a woman’s brain would act like a man then you are (in one interpretation, at least) an ‘essentialist’.
Essentialism is interesting because it seems to be closely related to a range of spiritual and religious beliefs. It’s what psychologist Bruce Hood calls “Supersense”.
Now, the brain-transplant situation is a little more complicated because social categories can be driven by situations as much as brain function, but what’s interesting about this new study, lead by Marcos Pereira at the Universidade Federal da Bahia in Brazil, is that they compared how responses varied in different countries.
Take a look at this figure. These show the responses from students at three of the top universities in Spain, Brazil, and England. When the bar goes above the line, it indicates essentialist beliefs (i.e. the new creature would act in a manner appropriate for its body, not its mind).
So, taking the first case, of a white man’s brain transplanted into a black man. In Spain, the response averaged zero – so they were equally split as to whether behaviour would be ‘black’ or ‘white’. In Brazil, they tended to think in essentialist terms – the new creation would be ‘black’. In England, on the other hand, it would be white.
There’s a couple of things to note about this study. Firstly, overall the English students were much less essentialist, on average, than the Spanish or Brazilian.
Secondly, the Spanish seem to be more essentialist about Catholicism (“cat oth”) than politics (“rig lef”).
They also asked the question the other way around – what would happen if you put the brain of a non-Catholic into the body of a Catholic. The results were similar, except for the English. Put this way round, the English are more essentialist (although still less so than the Spanish and the Brazilians).
In other words, for the English, a non-Catholic body becomes Catholic if you put a Catholic brain in. But put a Catholic brain into a non-Catholic body, and they are more inclined to think the result would be non-Catholic. Very odd!
In fact, this reflects a general trend. In all three countries, the students were more essentialist if it was a ‘non-dominant’ brain going into a ‘dominant’ body. A female brain put into a male body is more likely to be male than a male brain put into a female body is likely to be female.
But for me, at least, the most interesting result of this study is that the students were not particularly essentialist about Catholicism. They saw it as being more similar to politics than to age or gender. It’s something you decide (or is generated by your brain) rather than something that you are as a result of birth or society.
Pereira ME, Alvaro Estramiana JL, & Schweiger Gallo I (2010). Essentialism and the expression of social stereotypes: a comparative study of Spain, Brasil and England. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 13 (2), 808-17 PMID: 20977029