Cognition Beyond the Human: Cognitive Psychology and the New Animism

Bethanu Ojalehto mays, Rebecca Seligman, Douglas L. Medin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


We present a new account of the cognitive commitments at stake in animist epistemologies. We use field-based cognitive experiments to contribute to anthropological theories of the new animism, focusing on concepts of nonhuman agency afforded on one animist framework, that of the Ngöbe of Panama. Results from multiple studies using converging methods indicate that Ngöbe individuals have access to an ecocentric conceptual framework within which agency is inferred on the basis of interactions and relationships (what we term “folkcommunication”). This account represents an alternative to what has often been assumed (by both psychologists and anthropologists) to be a universal conceptual framework of anthropocentric folkpsychology where agency is inferred on the basis of mental states. Further experiments show that the Ngöbe framework supports sophisticated inferences about ecological behavior and that conceptual models exhibit important within-culture variability. Intervening in debates about the nature of animism, we contend that a satisfying theory must account for the productive dimension of animist frameworks and be equipped to discriminate between anthropomorphic and ecocentric conceptual reasoning. Folkcommunication does so by accounting for the cognitive foundations of animism in terms of an ecologically centered perspective—offering a fresh point of departure for understanding Indigenous animisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)50-73
Number of pages24
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • agency
  • animism
  • folkcommunication
  • indigenous
  • social-ecological cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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