How do concepts of mental life vary across cultures? By asking simple questions about humans, animals and other entities – for example, ‘Do beetles get hungry? Remember things? Feel love?’ – we reconstructed concepts of mental life from the bottom up among adults (N = 711) and children (ages 6–12 years, N = 693) in the USA, Ghana, Thailand, China and Vanuatu. This revealed a cross-cultural and developmental continuity: in all sites, among both adults and children, cognitive abilities travelled separately from bodily sensations, suggesting that a mind–body distinction is common across diverse cultures and present by middle childhood. Yet there were substantial cultural and developmental differences in the status of social–emotional abilities – as part of the body, part of the mind or a third category unto themselves. Such differences may have far-reaching social consequences, whereas the similarities identify aspects of human understanding that may be universal.