Himba people and opacity of mind

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A note for Lesson no. 6, "Brains Make More Than One Kind of Mind," in Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context from page 99‌ is:

The Himba people of Namibia often figure each other out by observing each other’s behavior, not by inferring a mental life behind that behavior.

The Himba people of northwestern Namibia predict each other’s actions in specific situations by observing behavior (called action identification), rather than by inferring thoughts and feelings that supposedly cause those behaviors (called mental inference, or mentalizing).[1] The absence of mentalizing is called opacity of mind.[2] Cultures that practice opacity of mind do understand that people have inner experiences, but assume that those inner experiences are not relevant for predicting how someone will act.

My lab has visited with the Himba several times and has observed opacity of mind during our experiments. For example, when we presented Himba participants with photographs of faces posing smiles, frowns, scowls, and so on, they labeled smiling faces not as “happy” (ohange) but “laughing” (ondjora), and wide-eyed faces not as “fearful” (okutira) but “looking” (tarera). In other words, the Himba participants understand facial movements as behaviors rather than inferring mental feelings as a cause for those movements. [3] People in other cultures show opacity of mind, as well.[4][5]


  1. Vallacher, R. R., and Daniel M. Wegner. 1987. “What Do People Think They’re Doing? Action Identification and Human Behavior.” Psychological Review 94 (1): 3–15.
  2. Robbins, Joel, and Alan Rumsey. 2008. “Introduction: Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology and the Opacity of Other Minds.” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (2): 407–420.
  3. Gendron, Maria, Debi Roberson, Jacoba Marietta van der Vyver, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. 2014. “Perceptions of Emotion From Facial Expressions Are Not Culturally Universal: Evidence from a Remote Culture.” Emotion 14 (2): 251–262.
  4. Barrett, H. Clark, Alexander Bolyanatz, Alyssa N. Crittenden, Daniel M. T. Fessler, Simon Fitzpatrick, Michael Gurven, Joseph Henrich, Martin Kanovsky, Geoff Kushnick, Anne Pisor, Brooke A. Scelza, Stephen Stichl, Chris von Rueden, Wanying Zhao, and Stephen Laurence. 2016. “Small-Scale Societies Exhibit Fundamental Variation in the Role of Intentions in Moral Judgment.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (17): 4688–4693.
  5. Gendron, Maria, Katie Hoemann, Alyssa N. Crittenden, Shani Msafiri Mangola, Gregory A. Ruark, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. 2020. "Emotion Perception in Hadza Hunter-Gatherers." Scientific Reports 10 (1): 1–17.