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I use anime as a sort of playing ground to help my vocabulary construction and recognition. However, I often find confusion as a result of English translations. May I have some help distinguishing the functions and contexts of these following kanji/words?

心 (can specifically mean "heart", but sometimes may connote "mind", "spirit", or "soul");

霊 (will this only ever mean "spirit", or does it have other connotations?);

魂 (seems to connote "soul", but also seems to imply one's state of mind);

精神 (this appears to paint the concept of "mind" with very broad strokes, ambiguous enough to imply any of the key words I have listed so far).

As far as English goes, I consider the heart to be the figurative center of one's emotions and passions, the mind to be the figurative center for thought and logic, the spirit to be what animates the body, and the soul to be the literal combination of one's body and spirit. But how might we classify the functions of these Japanese words?

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心, just like the word "heart" in English, has a variety of meanings. However, those meanings don't all overlap with "heart". I think your best choice is to pick up a dictionary that will list example sentences. There are quite a few idioms formed around 心: 心が動く, 心にかける, 心に留める, 心を合わせる and many more.

I would recommend that you memorize a lot of these so that when you hear them you don't need to think about them literally. Gradually, you'll develop an intuition about what 心 means in a particular context: particularly if you try to avoid the temptation of translating everything you hear into an English equivalent, but instead try to understand Japanese on its own terms.

Regarding the other words you listed:

  • 霊 can mean spirit or soul. But it can also have a bit of a spooky feel about it: it is after all the second character in the word 幽霊{ゆうれい}
  • 魂{たましい} does also mean "soul". Personally, I feel it has a more solid feel to it than 霊. 魂 feels somehow discrete and 霊 feels more diffuse. But really, even in English, people are invariably going to disagree about what the difference is between spirit and soul. You can do a google search on 魂と霊の違い. The first hit is a Christian perspective; the second hit looks to be a bit less religiously biased. But either way, it seems that even in Japanese the distinctions here are hard to pin down.
  • 精神 is rather different from the two above. It tends to be used more abstractly as in 時代の精神. But overall, I'd say that 精神 has more of a clearly psychological meaning than any of the others do; yes, psychology is 心理学{しんりがく}, but what I'm saying is that carries more of a contrast of mind vs body. However, 精神 is most definitely not going to mean "spirit" in the sense of a spook.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of potential overlap in these words.

Regarding the difference of "mind" and "heart" in English, I would agree with your last paragraph, "heart to be the figurative center of one's emotions and passions, the mind to be the figurative center for thought and logic." That distinction isn't that clear cut in Japanese; in fact, I believe it's more of a distinction made in Western European linguistic spheres; take Sanskrit, though an Indo-European language, it has as with Japanese some ambiguity to it. I wonder to what extent Enlightenment Age philosophers such as Kant impacted our thinking about this in the West to localize emotions to the heart and rationality/logic to the mind.

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    I generally avoid using 霊 unless in the case of 幽霊. Helps eliminate some confusion. Generally I'll use 心 for the "heart and mind" of a person, 頭 or 能力 for cognitive abilities, and 魂 for the soul and spirit, except in the case of an actual spirit like a poltergeist then I'd go with 幽霊
    – psosuna
    Jul 10 '17 at 20:57

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