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Other Words for "Mind"

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 7, 2011 08:22 AM

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In English, we use certain words to describe our inner lives -- we talk about minds, thoughts, feelings, decisions, and memories. Those words have an inevitable effect on the science of psychology. Writing at their blog, Psych Science Notes, the psychologists Andrew D. Wilson and Sabrina Golonka ask how speakers of other languages think about the inner life. How would psychology be different, they wonder, if it had been developed in Japan, or Russia?

Other languages, they point out, have other words for "mind." In Korean, the word "maum" is used in a way similar to the way we use "mind" -- "there are tons of Korean books about 'maum' and body," they write, "in the same way that there are English texts on 'mind' and body." But, while we think with our minds, "maum" is more about emotions, motivations, and goodness -- about wanting, in other words. In Japanese, meanwhile, the closest word to "mind" is "kokoro." It means something like "mind," but with an emphasis on interpersonality and empathy. One researcher they cite explains the difference by means of a television program which aired in Japan a few years ago: It proclaimed, that "the 21st century should be the age of kokoro. Let's make a point of meeting with other people." "If an English speaker declared the 21st century to be 'the age of the mind,'" Wilson and Golonka write, "then 'meeting with other people' probably would not be a priority - thinking and knowing would be."

There are different words for "mind" all over the world -- unsurprisingly, if you're a reader of Russian literature, the Russian word closest to "mind," "dusa," is "associated with feelings, morality, and spirituality." None of this should serve to undermine or "relativize" the science of psychology. But it does underline the degree to which every conception of the mind must set priorities, putting some experiences at the center, and others at the periphery. More, including good comments, at Psych Science Notes.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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