Stephen S. Hall wrote a wonderful tour of the halls of wisdom in his book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. As a fan of both philosophy and neuroscience, I found it quite readable. In it are hundreds of wonderful words of wisdom, hallmark ideas from Confucius on down to today, and interesting findings from psychologists who study the brain using the latest techniques such as PET scans. Blending ancient and old philosophy with modern science is a great angle, and in doing so we find pithy thoughts such as this one by venerated philosopher Immanuel Kant: “The narrow gate to wisdom lies in science.” As well, we can see from this insightful quote by Hall that modern psychological research is contributing to the age-old search for wisdom begun in earnest by Socrates and pursued to this day in philosophical circles:
“Over the past three decades, psychologists have documented what they have called an optimism bias. In tests of a broad range of activities, studies have repeatedly shown that people expect to live longer, be healthier, have greater success in the job market, and avoid the likelihood of divorce than the actual data would suggest.”
I have a persistent penchant for writing down and making available to the World Wide Web the wittiest and most profound words of wisdom around. I think you will get a great feel for Hall’s book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience if you read the following trenchant words of wisdom. It makes as good of a pastime reading them as anything I can think of. The wisdom tradition, if you will, is one of humanity’s highest aspirations, and it is exciting to see neuroscience and psychology get involved in the pursuit of understanding wisdom. Note that I also quote a few of the luminaries, scientists, and psychologists that Hall quotes in his book below (and label them by the person’s name, whereas the bulk of these 150+ incisive words of wisdom are quotes from Mr. Hall).
True wisdom is more complicated and elusive than any parable or morality tale can covey. And, like more material forms of wealth, the fact you now have it doesn’t mean you get to keep it.
As distinct as these schools of thought are, it is their deeper congruences that begin to coalesce around a time-tested, culturally heterogeneous, geographically far-flung, yet surprisingly universal concept of wisdom. East or west, they all embrace social justice and insist on a code of public morality. They embrace an altruism that benefits the many. They try to dissociate individual needs and desires from the common good, and strive to master the emotions that urge immediate sensory gratification. And in their choice to be teachers, Confucius and Socrates and the Buddha, each in his own way, asserted the central primacy of sharing their accumulated body of life knowledge. That impulse would culminate in the creation, back in Greece, of the first formal academy — a school in which, it might reasonably be said, everyone majored in wisdom. ~ Stephen S. Hall (other Hall quotes will not be labeled, just to avoid unnecessary repetition)
To some degree, the natural history of wisdom can be seen as a never-ending battle between the forces of theology and those of secularization, between a top-down, benevolent, dispensed, and divine form of wisdom and a bottom-up, organic, hard-earned human form of wisdom. Put simply, is wisdom a human quality, achieved by human intelligence and insight? Or is wisdom a heavenly gift, bestowed by the gods (or God), utterly inaccessible to mortals who do not subscribe to one or another of the world’s religions?
Taking their cue from Augustine, religious authorities drew an increasingly sharp (and intolerant) distinction between the material wisdom based on reason and knowledge on the one hand and, on the other, the spiritual wisdom and knowledge associated with faith and ecclesiastical authority, a segregation marked most famously, if not first, in the story of King Solomon.
Solomon’s iconic wisdom, after all, came to him in a dream, a divine gift from God; for Jews, wisdom arose out of a personal relationship with God. This important split between Science and Wisdom, between human-perceived material truths and human-received universal truths, dominated philosophy and religion for the better part of a thousand years, and it is a dichotomy that we’re still working through.
On the one hand, there is growing evidence — although many scientists seem oblivious to the idea — that religion promotes precisely the kinds of communal values and interactions that social neuroscience is most keen to study: compassion, altruism, other-centered thinking. As a facilitator and mediator of responsible community interaction, the culture of religion can easily be seen as a force in cultivating the social dimension of wisdom.
Paul Baltes, the German psychologist and arguably the foremost scientific scholar of wisdom, wondered aloud late in life whether religion, because of its insistence on a fixed set of values, was an “intellectual enemy” of wisdom. While acknowledging that organized religion makes wisdom a cultural and spiritual priority, he concluded that “religions constrain how far wisdom is developed. In fact, there may be a point beyond which religion becomes a hindrance to the generalizability of transcultural validity of wisdom.”
The book of Proverbs can be read as among the earliest of self-help manuals. Its mantric code of prescribed behaviors — the serial, repetitious injunctions against lust, infidelity, imprudent business affairs, and similar pragmatic advice — is packaged as a wisdom instructional; the rhetorical style of its narrative establishes one of the iconic modes of transmission for wisdom: father to son or, more generally, parent to child, elder to youth. Here, bald emotion — notably, the fear of transgressions that would invoke God’s wrath — guides wise behavior.
It took many centuries (and, probably, the death of many “wise” contrarians), but Renaissance thought restored the central secular importance of wisdom, as well as its fundamental subversiveness. In a wonderful little book entitled The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom, the scholar Eugene F. Rice, Jr., wrote, “Augustine tied sapientia and Christianity together with knots which held a thousand years. The Renaissance patiently loosed them, and restored wisdom to its old autonomy and its purely human dignities.”
The wise person of the Renaissance needed to do her or his philosophic due diligence, to scratch beneath the surface of things to truly understand them, whether it was human nature or an aspect of physical reality. If conventional wisdom (in any age) represents a kind of authority, this was the rebirth of wisdom as a subversive, antiauthoritarian force. This newfound (or, more properly, rediscovered) commitment to use questions as a digging tool encouraged a behavioral ethic of challenging thought, authority, and, of course, conventional wisdom.
Kant also anticipated the life-span psychologist Paul Baltes… in his belief that wisdom was an ideal, always to be aspired to but essentially unattainable. Humans, Kant believed, “did not possess wisdom but only felt love for it.”
The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel argued that philosophy essentially abandoned wisdom as a worthy goal in the eighteenth century. Prior to Descartes and Spinoza, philosophy unified the pursuit of science with the pursuit of wisdom. Spinoza, he said, represents “the final appearance of the idea that supreme knowledge can be identified with the joy of the sage who, having understood how reality works, thereby knows true happiness, the sovereign good… Over the last three centuries, philosophy has abandoned its function as a source of wisdom, and has restricted itself to knowledge.
Wisdom is an understanding of what is important, where this understanding informs a (wise) person’s thought or action. ~ Robert Nozick
In recent papers that have appeared in Science and Neuron, there has been a convergence of cutting-edge curiosity between those traditional “lovers of wisdom” and modern scientists about how the mind works. It is no stretch to say that many of the cognitive processes being scientifically pursued hew to this long philosophic history of thinking about wisdom.
As George Vaillant observed in his book Adaptation to Life, “Certainly, Shakespeare had said it all before, but most textbooks of human development associate changes in adult personality with external events.” Remarkably, Erik Erikson seems to be the first psychologist to have suggested that wisdom could be acquired through a stepwise, lifelong process of self-realization. Erikson viewed wisdom as a central feature in what he called the “eighth stage” of psychosocial development. Certain individuals, he believed, achieve enough emotional resilience (or “ego integrity”) over the course of a lifetime to overcome the despair that arises as the end of life approaches.
Strength here takes the form of that detached yet active concern with life bounded by death, which we call wisdom in its many connotations from ripened “wits” to accumulated knowledge, mature judgment, and inclusive understanding. Not that each man can evolve wisdom for himself. For most, a living “tradition” provides the essence of it. ~ Erik Erikson
In the early 1970s, when Vivian Clayton began to think about the topic, there was no “wisdom literature” in psychology. Birren sent her off to consult ancient accounts of wisdom, which introduced her to what is, in many ways, the most frustrating and yet fascinating aspect of the field: How in the world do you even define it? Clayton flung herself into precisely the same nonscientific literature that represents the repository of human thought about wisdom: Eastern religion, Greek philosophy, and, perhaps most interesting to her, the venerable “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament and relate parables of wisdom from the Hebrew tradition.
In Vivian Clayton’s view, wisdom was different from intellect and necessarily went beyond mere cognitive ability. While intelligence, she wrote, could be defined as the ability “to think logically, to conceptualize, and to abstract from reality,” wisdom extended knowledge to the understanding of human nature, of oneself as well as others, and yet operated on “the principles of contradiction, paradox, and change.” ~ Erik Erikson
Few of us acknowledge the limitations of Solomon’s wisdom, and what that tells us about the psychology of this elusive virtue. To begin with, Solomon’s wisdom was a gift, received from God in a dream. Moreover, his story reminds us that a wise action reflects only an imperfect correlation with the character of the individual. As we’ll explore in greater detail later, Solomon’s decisions and actions during his rise to power recall not wisdom, but calculation, ruthlessness, vengeance, and above all, vanity.
What is culturally and traditionally assumed to be a loss of innocence might also be a myth about the acquisition of wisdom — indeed, about the emotional and intellectual price of seeing things clearly and becoming wise. Instead of original sin, this version of “original wisdom” suggests not only a dispassionate gathering of knowledge (“eyes wide open”) but also the gift of discernment (“knowing good and evil”), two qualities that are essential “to make one wise.” This kind of wisdom, a persistent refrain in the Old Testament, is divine in origin but rooted in an understanding of human nature.
Implicit in this exercise of wisdom, just as it was during the golden age of Greek philosophy, was a broad, socially enforced, and morally rigorous sense of communal justice. Judges were typically depicted as the wisest people in ancient settings, and their sagacity rested not only in their ability to discern the truth… but to render fair yet meaningful judgment.
Vivian Clayton recognized that the “wise men” in ancient cultures were often judges, and she noticed that the most enlightened examples of justice from the ancient texts relied on a delicate balance of heart and mind, reason and compassion — the rational mind assesses a situation in arriving at judgment, but the emotional heart attends to feelings when it comes time for justice to be dispensed.
“What emerged from that analysis,” Vivian Clayton says, “was that wisdom meant a lot of different things. But it was always associated with knowledge, frequently applied to human social situations, involved judgment and reflection, and was almost always embedded in a component of compassion.” The Hebrew term for wisdom, chokhmah, suggested that the concept resided in both the mind and the heart.
You are reading wonderful words of wisdom from Stephen S. Hall’s fantastic book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. You are welcome to search this site’s quotations database known as The Wisdom Archive to find more intriguing and thought-provoking words of wisdom from some of humanity’s greatest minds.
Our decision to sample lawyers came after an extensive historical analysis of ancient literature to see in what context the word “wisdom” was used and to which groups of individuals the word was most applied. What consistently emerged was the association of wisdom with a formal educational process that taught men to write and learn the does and laws of the nation. The men who received such an education were eventually, with age, allowed to sit in the royal court and be a judge. These judges were perceived as wise and were often sought out for advice. Wisdom, then was an acquired rather than a genetic characteristic. One had to partake of a formal or informal educational process (e.g. strict parental instruction) when young to be wise when old. It seemed that legal education today most closely approximated the process outlined above by emphasizing the skills needed for decision making, by teaching individuals how to ask the appropriate questions to arrive at the most effective solution, as well as by teaching codes and laws. ~ Vivian Clayton
Between 1976 (when she finished her dissertation) and 1982, Vivian Clayton published several groundbreaking papers that are now widely acknowledged as the first to have suggested that researchers could bring some semblance of empirical rigor to the study of wisdom. Based on this research, three general areas emerged as central to wisdom: the cognitive, affective, and reflective. Even then, old age appeared to be important to wisdom, but not essential; the more experience you have, she believed, the more chances you have to be wise.
The function of intelligence is characterized as focusing on questions of how to do and accomplish necessary life-supporting tasks; the function of wisdom is characterized as provoking the individual to consider the consequences of his actions both to self and their effects on others. Wisdom, therefore, evokes questions of should one pursue a particular course of action. ~ Vivian Clayton
In an earlier investigation of decision making in an aged population, [Vivian] Clayton wrote, psychological researchers had presented the metaphor of the fork in the road to an elderly woman and asked her if she should take the right or the left branch in the road. After considering the question, the woman finally replied, “I’d just stand at the juncture between the two forks and ask people returning what each path was like.”
Boiled down to its essence, the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm defined wisdom as “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.” Heavily influenced by life-span psychology, the Berlin version of wisdom required expert knowledge of both fact and human nature; an appreciation of one’s historical, cultural, and biological circumstances during the arc of a lifespan; an understanding of the “relativism” of values and priorities; and an acknowledgment of uncertainty, at the level of both thought and action.
“Wisdom-in-action,” as they put it, might manifest itself as good judgment, shrewd advice, psychological insight, emotion regulation, and empathetic understanding; it could be found in familial relations, in formal writing, and in the relationship between a student and mentor or a doctor and patient. Although we typically think of wisdom as a personal attribute, the Berlin group saw it as a quality not only of individuals but of groups, institutions, and societies at large; and not just a judgment or action but, also, the process that produced the judgment. By its very nature, however, wisdom was a frankly utopian concept and was virtually unattainable.
At their best, proverbs and aphorisms are like philosophical haikus, quick distillations of universal truths; all too often, however, they are the cocktail peanuts of conventional wisdom, easy to munch on but not very good for long-term sustenance. As [Paul] Baltes pointed out, many famous maxims flatly contradict one another. But even these contradictions tell us something important about wisdom…
Wisdom deals with difficult problems of the conduct and interpretation of life, includes knowledge about the limits of knowledge and uncertainty, reflects a truly superior level of knowledge and advice, is knowledge that is at the same time deep, broad, and balanced as well as flexibly applied to life situations, requires a perfect synergy between mind and character, is knowledge applied for the well-being of oneself and others, and finally, that, although very difficult to achieve, wisdom is easily recognized when present. ~ Paul Baltes
Everyone agreed that intelligence was not the best predictor of wisdom-related knowledge, but, rather, a combination of life history, knowledge, interpersonal emotional skills like empathy, and what [psychologist Paul] Baltes called “cognitive style.”
You can’t just ask people, “How wise are you on a scale of one to five?” Wise people are humble. ~ Monika Ardelt
Successfully coping with crises and hardships in life might not only be a hallmark of wise individuals but also one of the pathways to wisdom. ~ Monika Ardelt
The cognitive aspect, for example, included the ability to understand human nature, to perceive a situation clearly, and to make decisions despite ambiguity and uncertainty. The reflective part of wisdom dealt with a person’s ability to examine an event from multiple perspectives — to step outside oneself and understand another point of view (economists call this quality “other-regarding,” while Buddhists often refer to it as “other-centered,” but it is a key behavioral trait in several belief systems). And the emotional aspect of wisdom primarily involved an ability to remain positive and minimize negative feelings and emotions.
Several qualities emerged again and again in older people like “James” who scored high on [Monika] Ardelt’s wisdom scale. They learned from experience — especially negative experiences. They were able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be solved. They took action in situations they could control, and accepted the inability to do so when matters were outside their control, and accepted the inability to do so when matters were outside their control. And they were almost embarrassingly positive…
The last remnant we had in our culture of choosing leaders for their wisdom was probably the way Native Americans treated their chieftains. ~ Vivian Clayton
You know, bees have been around for three hundred fifty million years, at least as living creatures. And when you work a hive, and you’re there with that hive alone, and you hear how contented the bees are, you just have the sense that they have the pulse of the universe encoded in their genes. And I really feel that the concept of wisdom is like that, too. Somehow, like the bees, we are programmed to understand when someone has been wise. But what wisdom is, and how one learns to be wise, is still somewhat of a mystery. ~ Vivian Clayton
There is a fair amount of disagreement about the definition of human wisdom, to say nothing about whether it increases with age or not. But there is a growing consensus that a lot of wisdom beings with the successful regulation of emotion. This “talent,” if you will, is embedded in clichés like “calm under fire” and “cool as a cucumber,” but for most of us, it seems like a superhuman task, an internalized Olympics between our ears, to maintain our poise when confronted with any of a thousand quotidian perturbations….
A careful titration of passion and detachment in the face of challenges has long been recognized as one of the enduring qualities associated with wise conduct and leadership. It requires balance (Heraclitus: “To be evenminded is the greatest virtue”) and self-awareness (“He that can compose himself,” said Poor Richard, “is wiser than he that composes books”) in the service of emotional resilience.
Despite the well-documented cognitive declines associated with advancing age, older people in general seem to have figured out how to manage their emotions in a profoundly important way. In general, they experience negative emotions less frequently than younger people, exercise better control over their emotions, and rely on a complex and nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to rebound quickly from adverse moments.
When your time perspective shortens, as it does when you come closer to the ends of things, you tend to focus on emotionally meaningful goals. When the time horizon is long, you focus on knowledge acquisition. ~ Laura L. Carstensen
The single quality that stands out throughout Job’s ordeal, the quality that not only allows him to endure God’s injustice but grants him the courage to speak truth to ultimate power, is emotional resilience. He bends, but never breaks; he admits to enormous sadness and bitterness but always returns to a set point of emotional equilibrium and courageous self-regard. “I hold fast my righteousness,” he says at one point, “and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.”
The role of emotion in wisdom probably seems obvious, but the fact that wisdom “belonged” to philosophy for at least twenty-four centuries meant that a huge edifice of pretty sophisticated argument shored up the notion that rational thought reigns supreme; with a few notable exceptions (especially the eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume), emotion has traditionally been viewed not as informative, but, rather, as either inconsequential, or, more often, a saboteur of pure reason.
Paul Baltes specifically called attention to a momentous conceptual shift in our worldview when we reach midlife, a kind of temporal continental divide. “As we approach old age,” he wrote, “distance from death emerges as a stronger component of our time perspective. As we deal with this change in our conception of ‘lifetime,’ as we count the years to live more than the years lived, the pressure to set priorities and to re-evaluate the meaning of our lives increases.”
This blog features hundreds of examples of words of wisdom from the fantastic book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. I invite you to search the free quote search engine called The Wisdom Archive on this site if you wish to discover countless more words of wisdom. I have been collecting them since age 18, and have assembled over 32,000 for your perusal. Enjoy!
Mortality is only one of the commonplaces of whose significance wisdom is a reminder. Other limitations are imposed by one’s physical capacity, health, temperament, emotional range, talents, society, culture, historical period, and so on. To be wise is to be alive to these limitations in the construction of one’s pattern and to be foolish is to be blind to them. ~ John Kekes
We think what happens is that when people are reminded of the fragility of life, people are better able to see what’s important and what’s not. And they see that very starkly, very clearly. Because it’s right now, what matters now. For most people, those are emotional [goals], emotionally meaningful goals. ~ Laura L. Carstensen
In some ways, [Laura] Carstensen’s research turns Shakespeare on his head. All those sonnets devoted to the idea of carpe diem, of living for the moment, as the birthright of headstrong youth? A wealth of research, including the most recent results from the beeper study, argues that with shrinking time horizons, older people are the real masters of carpe diem. They have learned how to extract the maximum emotional satisfaction from life while minimizing the amount of energy squandered on negative emotion.
[Laura] Carstensen is quick to add that she doesn’t regard her work as part of a recent research trend known as positive psychology, which associates positive attitudes and virtues with emotional well-being. [Paul] Baltes, she points out, always insisted that development entrails a shifting emotional ledger of gains and losses.
When the future is vast and open-ended, people need to adapt to that temporal context by preparing for that future, and that means you collect — you collect people, you collect experiences, you collect information, and you bank it, because at one point in time it may become relevant, even if it’s not relevant today. But it’s very much this preparatory state that people are in. You have to be able to digest it, to learn it, to remember it, to encode it, to build on it, even if that has costs to your emotional well-being. ~ Laura L. Carstensen
Young people tend to cling longer, neurologically speaking, to bad news; the amygdala remains aroused longer. Older people seem better able to shrug it off, move on, and shift their focus more to positive images. This selective focus on the positive is, in a sense, a choice guided by emotion, and it again echoes some very old thoughts on wisdom. In modern neuroscience parlance, wisdom may in part be a function of cognitive attention. The ability to maintain emotional balance, and to ignore extraneous or emotionally disturbing information, appears to be strongly correlated with the focus that often accompanies contemplation or reflection.
What they found was that a “moderate optimistic illusion” about future events — not blindly optimistic, and not unduly pessimistic, but a “just so” optimism — could serve as a healthy motivation (in terms of both physical and mental health) toward the attainment of future goals. In fact, they succeeded in detecting a residue of this optimism in the brains of their experimental subjects fMRI scans. The circuitry of this forward-looking optimism involved cross-talk in the brain between the amygdala, that powerful locus of emotion, and apart known as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is located deep along an inner fold of the frontal cortex.
The brain may be built with an ever so slight tilt: a bias toward optimism. This may make both behavioral and evolutionary sense, because a belief that a good outcome may result in the future from present-day action is a powerful motivation for people to take action in the first place. It is tempting — and I won’t decline the temptation — to see traditional elements of wisdom embedded in this brain circuitry.
The overall point is that the “moderate optimistic illusion” may have some evolutionary value to our species. As [Elizbeth] Phelps and her colleagues wrote in Nature, “Expecting positive events, and generating compelling mental images of such events, may serve an adaptive function by motivating behavior in the present towards a future goal.” Put another way, positive imagination gets us out of bed in the morning and pushes us toward the realization of our dreams.
According to the well-known “grandparent hypothesis,” older relatives do this by transmitting their world knowledge and using their higher-level cognitive skills to enhance the lives of their grandchildren. In other words, they care for their blood relations, and this emotionally honed attentiveness to the next generation — psychologists like Erikson call it “generativity” — seems to confer survival value.
Evolutionary selection should have favored skills that help older people help others. From this perspective, findings that old age is characterized both by large stores of knowledge about the world and everyday life, and social and emotional investment in younger kin, are hardly paradoxical. Postreproductive adults would be expected to increase their descendants’ chances of survival if they were emotionally balanced, knowledgeable about social relationships and the world in general, and invested in social cohesion. ~ Laura L. Carstensen and C.E. Lockenhoff
The lifelong accretion of expert knowledge, emotional control, social caring, and insight into human nature arguably increases our odds of survival… Emotion regulation may be the most powerful lens in human psychology; polished by time and curved by intimations of mortality, it allows us to see what is really important in our lives.
Judgment is a tool to use on all subjects, and comes in everywhere… It plays its part by choosing the way that seems best to it, and of a thousand paths it says that this one or that was the most wisely chosen. ~ Michel de Montaigne
In a larger sense, his [Paul Glimcher] research is teasing out the specific neural circuitry involved in the way we weigh information, the way we evaluate possible choices, and how we deliberate before making a decision. And lurking behind that is a meta-issue: What makes a judgment shrewd, good, even wise? And do our choices even reflect “choice” at all, or are they the inevitable conclusion of neural processes that amount to very precise, physiologically based algorithms about what is “important” lodged in neurons?
As we’re building a model that predicts human behavior at the neurobiological level, that piece — free will — just does not seem required. I mean, there seems to be no compelling evidence that we need that piece. ~ Paul Glimcher
This neurotransmitter is released, and gives us a quick spritz of assessment, in the very core of our mid-brain when we feel rewarded, whether by food, drink, money, sex, heroin, a pat on the head, or a kind word from strangers. The very phrase “reinforcement learning” unites vastly disparate parts of our biology — “reinforcement” occurs in the emotional core of the brain, the reward center, while “learning” resides in the cognitive, information-gathering part…
How does your brain respond to this development? Surprisingly — and this indeed created a huge surprise when German scientist Wolfram Schultz first reported it in 1996 — the neurons that release dopamine freak out when their predictions are wrong. The system is actually built to detect an error, an unexpected outcome. That’s when the brain really takes notice. In an odd way, your brain’s appetite for learning is especially stimulated by failure, because an error in prediction is what motivates you to find a new solution to the problem.
In this sense, reinforcement learning is just a molecular way of saying experience. A quick way to boil down the implications of this neural plumbing: Success breeds habit and failure breeds learning. We are designed to learn from mistakes, errors, unexpected outcomes. The brain feeds its quest for more and better knowledge by turning on an internal sprinkler and dousing itself in a neurochemical cocktail of motivation when it needs to learn something new.
There are several fascinating aspects of the dopamine system. One is that the brain is especially keen about noticing the unexpected; that’s what really jangles the dopamine system. And seizing on the unexpected as a motivation creates, again, an immensely powerful engine for learning. So through learning, the dopamine system — until further notice — essentially encodes value and passes those predictions of values to circuits that make decisions.
In a sense, [Paul] Glimcher is already at least half right about free will; our judgments are inevitable, indeed almost automatic, by the time our subjective calculation of value reaches the neural decision point, at which time the “most rewarding” option is automatically selected. But how do we decide what is “most rewarding”?
While it might seem odd that a blunt motivational apparatus like the dopamine system might underlie the most abstract and ethereal of human virtues like wisdom or courage, traits that by their exalted nature would seem to deserve the neural equivalent of copper plumbing, the likely reality is that evolution’s priority in building a good brain did not have to do with wisdom per se, only with how wise behavior might enhance survival.
In economic questions, there is often an obviously “right” answer (at least from the point of view of optimal economic behavior); in questions that challenge our wisdom, there is hardly ever a right answer in the same sense. What makes wise decisions so hard is that they must be taken in the murk of uncertainty and ambiguity, thereby clouding our ability to make clear evaluations; indeed, the real value of our choices sometimes doesn’t become clear for years.
Some dearly held notions of what constitutes wisdom are directly threatened by this new research — not just free will but also conscious choice, the role of intuition, and the value of a deep, penetrating focus when contemplating a problem. A large body of work suggests that our brains reach decisions well before we’re aware that a decision has been made, which raises the awkward notion that free will, such as it is, may be largely unconscious.
There are studies suggesting that conscious deliberation is good when the decision should be made on a few aspects, but is bad when you have to integrate information across a large number of details, whereas intuition offers you a more holistic version of processing. ~ John D. Haynes
And yet, paradoxically, there is such a thing as too much focus; neuroscientists know it as the “attentional blink.” This neural tic works like this: If you are intensely focused on paying attention to a particular detail or picking a specific detail out of a random pattern of information, you neurologically cling so fiercely to the initial perception of it that you tend to miss seeing another example of it if it follows soon after. Many experiments have documented this momentary lapse of focus.
Some of the recent neuroeconomic findings, preliminary though they may be, explicitly challenge “conventional wisdom” about what makes for keen discernment, sound judgment, and good decision making. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the growing body of evidence about how the brain works, and what that means to our understanding of human traits like patience, altruism, moral judgment, attentional focus, emotional calm, other-centeredness…
As even economists have conceded, the kind of person who maximizes those rewards with the brisk efficiency of a calculator — the famous Homo economicus— is happy, yet also by definition selfish. So what happens when our selfish campaign for happiness clashes, as it so often does, with the goals of others? That is where wisdom, although still rooted in biology, enters the realm of social neuroscience.
The fact that Eve took the first bite might suggest that women, from time immemorial, have always been a step ahead of men in using the intuitive power of their “opened” eyes to discern the murky currents of human nature. And if expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the price to pay for keener insight into the vagaries of human behavior, it might not have been a bad deal for humanity in the long run.
What if moral judgment, so central a notion to all schools of philosophy and the centerpiece of every major religion, is not the conscious, deliberate, reasoned discernment of right or wrong we’ve all been led to believe, but is, rather, a subterranean biological reckoning, fed by an underwater spring of hidden emotion, mischievously tickled and swayed by extraneous feelings like disgust, virtually beyond the touch of what we customarily think of as conscience? What if Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were nothing but a bunch of two-bit, fork-tongued, post hoc rationalizers?
Before there was neuroscience, before there were moral philosophers like Kant and Hume, before there was even a New Testament and an old Yahwistic tradition, the importance of goodness — of doing right instead of wrong — had already assumed central importance in the most influential thought systems in history. Confucianism asserts the primacy of gen, or goodness, in governing thought and action; “Not to act when justice commands is cowardice,” Confucius said. “Set your heart on doing good,” the Buddha urged.”
Judging right from wrong, and making decisions that wisely discern between the two, can also be glimpsed in the activity of the brain. In a sense, the path blazed in shame by Adam and Eve as they skulked out of the Garde of Eden has led, in a meandering fashion, to discrete neural areas in the brain like the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, and the prefrontal cortex. These structures, remarkably, light up when we mull conflicts over what is the right, or moral, thing to do.
Our moral instincts are immune to the explicitly articulated commandments handed down by religions and governments. Sometimes our moral intuitions will converge with those that culture spells out, and sometimes they diverge. In other words, if humans obey the command ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ it is more because of biological intuition than Biblical injunction. ~ Marc Hauser
The question here is: How do we recognize right and wrong? How do we know the difference between moral and immoral behavior? And how can we reconcile this most fundamental form of human discernment, which speaks to who we are as individuals, who we become as groups, and what we value as societies, with the notion that it is fundamentally unconscious and deeply biological?
I hope you are enjoying reading Stephen S. Hall’s (and assorted scientists’, philosophers’, and others’) words of wisdom I found in the enervating book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. I invite you to search the quote search engine known as The Wisdom Archive here on Values of the Wise, where you will no doubt discover many additional words of wisdom from a diverse array of individuals.
Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. ~ David Hume
Philosophers have traditionally rendered this conflict as a debate of heart versus mind, emotion versus reason. But we have reached a point where, at least in terms of the anatomy of emotion, the twain have begun to meet: isis merging with should and ought, knowledge with emotion, moral intuition with moral judgment.
I view science as offering a “behind the scenes” look at human morality. Just as a well-researched biography can, depending on what it reveals, boost or deflate one’s esteem for its subject, the scientific investigation of human morality can help us to understand the human moral nature, and in so doing change our opinion of it. ~ Joshua Greene
[Joshua] Greene also argues that there is an evolutionarily regressive component to our moral choices like tossing the fat man off the footbridge, he believes, reflects emotional responses inherited from our primate and prehistoric ancestors, where every social dilemma was “up close and personal.” These emotional decisions probably gave humans, in that earlier social and environmental context, a survival advantage.
Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California, who has historically used the dark gift of human brain damage to shed brilliant light on behavior, has found that people who have suffered injuries to a different part of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, tend to display abnormal moral judgment; in fact, they tend to be pathologically utilitarian, making “impersonal” moral judgments in situations that normally provoke emotional conflict and elicit emotional processing.
In the last couple of years, new papers have distinguished different circuits for different aspects of moral judgment. The trend is going in the direction of different moral judgments being processed in different parts of the brain. It’s important for wisdom if you tie this to the ancient Greek tradition of claiming the unity of all virtues, and that you can’t have one without having all of them. But it looks like people can have parts of moral wisdom without having other parts of moral wisdom. ~ Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Bioethicist Thomas H. Murray, president of the Hastings Center, points out that placing greater value on one life close at hand than on five in the bush can indeed be considered utterly rational if it reflects our experience of having “special” emotional relationships with people — a relative, a child, a dear friend, some exceptional form of social affiliation.
This barometric reading of moral judgment, with its fluctuations of socially sensitive pressure, seems consistent with wisdom to me. Indeed, the oscillation between the two moral impulses, depending as they would on real-world social contingencies and context, would require precisely the kind of judgmental tussle that a serious moral problem would demand, as well as the contextual flexibility to which the wise mind is always attuned.
“People who claim emotion deforms judgment?” Jonathan Haidt says, “Well, look at reasoning. We’reterribleat it.” But [Joshua] Greene sees more potential for balance between the two. At some level, the rational part of our brains must be getting through, too, because we are capable of moral judgment, and of utilitarian thinking, and of an altruism that rises above pure emotional self-interest.
So when it comes to moral judgment, maybe wisdom’s role here is as a kind of “elephant whisperer,” rationing bits of reason in a way that soothes and nudges and perhaps even steers our inner pachyderm, allowing our best moral instincts to emerge.
When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people. ~ Abraham Heschel
It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion is all of our practice. ~ Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)
Many traditional working definitions of wisdom, whether of philosophical or psychological inflection, reserve a special role for compassion. By compassion is meant not only the willingness to share another person’s pain and suffering; in a larger sense, it refers to a transcendent ability to step outside the moat of one’s own self-interest to understand the point of view of another…
…Understand the way another person’s feelings inform his or her intentions and actions. Being attuned to the sufferings or struggles of another person… ramifies into a broad array of human temperaments and behaviors: empathy, sympathy, charity, generosity, cooperation, and, in the broadest psychological sense, other-centeredness (as opposed to self-centeredness.)
Compassion rounds and softens the hard-edged lessons of experience; compassion keeps the directional arrow of human agency pointed outward toward social interaction, as opposed to inward toward isolation and withdrawal; compassion warms human thought when intelligence becomes too impersonal and chilly; compassion motivates action in the direction of social good.
Compassion has been an essential component in contemporary psychological conceptions of wisdom, especially in the Clayton-Birren and Ardelt wings of wisdom research. It is inextricably bound to philosophical notions of leading a good life — not just a life good for oneself, but also a life virtuous in its larger social interactions.
As we study the expression of another human face, which can range from contortions of delight to a rictus of fear, we literally “feel for someone else” with the motor part of our brains, and, by extension, in the muscled parts of our body necessary for those actions and movements. This notion of “embodiedness” — that our emotional perception of and response to the outside world are not merely cognitive and brain-based but also movement-oriented and body-based — has become hotly pursued by a number of leading neuroscientists.
The evidence to date increasingly suggests that our brains have the physiological goods to pay emotional, sensory attention to the actions, experiences (and experienced feelings of others), and in some cases to experience those feelings as if they were our own. That is a system endowed with the marvelous hardware to use compassion to guide judgment, and if wisdom in part arises from a similar attentiveness to, and feeling for, others, then perhaps we have an innate capacity for compassion.
Study participants were asked to imagine the suffering of another individual and then to think about relieving that suffering… for “a loved one,” a friend, a stranger, and even a “difficult person”). A mere fortnight of compassion training produced, surprisingly, discernible changes in brain activity, particularly in the structure known as the insula, which has cropped up again and again in this first wave of social neuroscience experiments as an important emotional barometer, tracking empathy, injustice, compassion, and other aspects of “social weather.”
Are there ways to train our minds to be more compassionate and, by extension, wiser? If that sounds impossibly grandiose, especially in translation, consider the perspective of Matthieu Ricard. In his hermitage outside Katmandu, where his perch for meditation faces an awesome panorama of Himalayan peaks, he has spent tens of thousands of hours training himself to be compassionate and mentally focused.
It seems odd that we have this incredible brain and yet spend so little time cultivating it. ~ Matthieu Ricard
The more the mango tree flourishes, the more it droops. ~ Indian proverb
If someone tells you that somebody else is saying awful things about you, don’t defend yourself against the accusations, but reply, “He must not know about the other faults that I have, if these are the only ones he mentioned.” ~ Epictetus
“If my character made a gentleman out of me, so much the better,” Gandhi concluded. “Otherwise I should forego the ambition.” By trying on a personality that didn’t truly fit, he rediscovered the person he truly was; his brief career as a clotheshorse reintroduced him to his core values. And it reminds us that humility, like wisdom, often begins with self-awareness, especially the awareness of one’s own limitations.
The Gandhian paradigm captures the inner strength of humility, which makes it such an unusual and often invisible component of wisdom. He used humility as a ferocious focusing device, stripping away every pleasure that might distract — he called this the “annihilation of one’s self,” a powerful echo of the Buddha — from what was important. Humility allowed him to marry his deep moral sense to action, and to convince himself (and others) that the power of his conviction could not be deterred.
…the roots of humility. The word derives from the Latin humilis, which is usually translated simply as “humble.” But I’m drawn to the metaphorical richness of one of its alternative and less common meaning, “humus,” which bespeaks a rich, organic, nose-to-the-ground, bottom-up, of-the-earth pragmatism that aptly captures its origins, its sense of scale, and its point of view.
Kant celebrated it, according to the scholar Jeanine Greenberg, as “the moral agent’s proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but capable and dignified rational agent.” Humility, to Kant, was one of the essential virtues. Modern philosophers seem less sure.
We should hope that a wise person would have epistemic self-confidence, appreciate that she is wise, and share what she knows with the rest of us who could benefit from her wisdom. Thus, the belief that one is not wise is not necessary for wisdom. ~ Sharon Ryan
If we consider obedience in a secular or, even more narrowly, behavioral sense, it may help explain why humility persists as a virtue. It is one of those traits that acts as a social lubricant, greasing the wheels of group interaction, minimizing interpersonal friction, enhancing the odds for cooperation.
Humility is a quality that demands careful titration, a delicate (and often shifting) balance between personal agency, social deference, the inner strength of self-awareness, and a good-humored grace in acknowledging human limitations.
Some people might regard this episode as humiliating to a great leader like Pericles; it strikes me, to the contrary, as a measure of his greatness. Humility here, as in the example of Gandhi, required uncommon emotional strength, intellectual conviction, and serene self-confidence. As the French philosopher Francois de La Rochefoucauld observed, “Few people are wise enough to prefer useful criticism to treacherous praise.”
In his 2001 book Good to Great, and in an article in the Harvard Business Review based on the same research, [Jim] Collins’ findings in a sense ratified the same paradox apparent in Gandhi. Exceptional business leaders, according to the five-year study, blend “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” Business executives who “possess this paradoxical combination of traits are catalysts for the statistically rare event of transforming a good company into a great one.”
A considerable amount of psychological research over the last thirty years has produced a picture of the narcissist as a person with inflated self-regard, feelings of superiority and entitlement, and a ravenous, almost insatiable hunger for attention and praise — values clearly antithetical to almost anyone’s notion of wisdom. “We know that narcissism correlates with lower ethics in business and with white-collar crime,” said W. Keith Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Georgia who studies narcissism.
June Price Tangney, who contributed a chapter on humility to the Handbook of Positive Psychology, has sketched out the key features of humility, which resonate with many psychological traits associated with wisdom: an ability to acknowledge limitations and mistakes, an openness to new ideas and new contradictory knowledge, a knack for avoiding self-aggrandizement, an ability to keep one’s achievements in perspective, and the kind of self-aware self-perception that perceives both strengths and weaknesses.
A humble self-view need not be negative or self-deprecating, and it does not require a sense of inferiority to others. A humble person might see the self as a relatively small part in a larger scheme of things, perhaps in comparison to God or to the universe. ~ Julie J. Exline
To the extent that it helps people to transcend self-interest, humility should also pave the way for virtues such as forgiveness, repentance, and compassionate love. ~ Julie J. Exline
We graduate to a humbled understanding that so much information — about the nature of people and the nature of their interactions, about the foundation of decisions and the prediction of future actions and events — remains so inaccessible and therefore so profoundly unknowable that it is only fitting to respond with humility in the face of such immense uncertainty.
Viewed this way, humility straddles two foundational aspects of wisdom: the limits of knowledge and the acknowledgment that change and uncertainty is a natural state of affairs. You can practically hear Montaigne chuckling as he wrote, “So vain and frivolous a thing is human prudence; and athwart all our plans, counsels, and precautions, Fortune still maintains her grasp on the results.”
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