Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience

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We all recognize wisdom, but defining it is more elusive. In this fascinating journey from philosophy to science, Stephen S. Hall gives us a penetrating history of wisdom, from its sudden emergence in the fifth century B.C. to its modern manifestations in education, politics, and the workplace. Hall’s bracing exploration of the science of wisdom allows us to see this ancient virtue with fresh eyes, yet also makes clear that despite modern science’s most powerful efforts, wisdom continues to elude easy ...

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We all recognize wisdom, but defining it is more elusive. In this fascinating journey from philosophy to science, Stephen S. Hall gives us a penetrating history of wisdom, from its sudden emergence in the fifth century B.C. to its modern manifestations in education, politics, and the workplace. Hall’s bracing exploration of the science of wisdom allows us to see this ancient virtue with fresh eyes, yet also makes clear that despite modern science’s most powerful efforts, wisdom continues to elude easy understanding.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A fascinating attempt to understand one of our most cherished—but least well-understood-aspirations.”
Seed Magazine

“With the flair of an experienced science journalist, Hall takes us on a rollicking interdisciplinary journey through the ages, blending modern science, history and philosophy. . . . Highly readable.”
Nature Neuroscience

“A comprehensive and thought-provoking book that examines the difficult topic of wisdom in a fair—even wise—manner.”
Science News
“Utterly engaging. . . . Hall’s work as a translator and intermediary between the humanities and the hard neurosciences is in itself a feat of extraordinary mental balance and understanding.”
The Post and Courier
“Stephen Hall is not just a terrific science writer, he’s a terrific writer, period.”
—Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Wisdom is a golden-ticket tour of the human mind, in all its dimensions, led by one of the most insightful and trustworthy science journalists we’ve ever had. This book is a feast, not a snack. Get ready to digest more smart brain science than you ever thought possible.”
—David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong
“Astonishingly wise, incredibly well written and most importantly wonderfully synthetic. One can disagree with some of the parts but few will disagree with the whole. Wisdom is still with us.”
—Michael Gazzaniga, author of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique
“Steve Hall has done it again. He masterfully explains how ‘wisdom’ comes out of the brain without oversimplifying this enormously complex topic.”
—Joseph LeDoux, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are
“With erudition and literary skill, Stephen Hall brings us a powerful and perceptive synthesis of the contributions made by philosophers, theologians, and 21st century scientists to humankind’s ages-old search for the sources of wisdom. As a work of insight and art, this is indeed a wise book.”
—Sherwin Nuland, author of How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter

Library Journal
What is wisdom? Is it the same across cultures and time? Is wisdom too complex a phenomenon for science to investigate? Who in the scientific community has tried? And what does science say about the traits we often associate with wisdom: compassion, humility, patience, and so on? Award-winning science writer Hall (Size Matters; Merchants of Immortality) investigates these questions and more. Somewhat wordy and digressive, with little in-depth analysis, his book is periodically thought-provoking and offers something interesting in each chapter. VERDICT This is worth considering, especially for the general reader interested in what contemporary neuroscience can tell us about wisdom as a psychological and developmental phenomenon and about its associated mental states and behavioral characteristics. Interested readers seeking a challenge may consider a more academic introduction to neuroscience and philosophy such as Philosophy and the Neurosciences: A Reader, edited by William Bechtel and others. [50,000-copy first printing.]—Jonathan Bodnar, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib. & Information Ctr., Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
A veteran science writer delivers a dense but illuminating combination of philosophical ideas and hard research. Laboratories study intellect, emotion and ethics, writes Hall (Size Matters: How Height Affects the Health, Happiness, and Success of Boys-and the Men They Become, 2006, etc.), but only recently have scientists turned their attention to wisdom, which may be defined as using all three to make a sensible decision. The author begins by sketching the teachings of history's first great wise men (Socrates, Buddha and Jesus) not forgetting Confucius's admonition that paths to wisdom include reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest) and experience (the bitterest). In the pre-CT scan era of the 1970s, a graduate student, Vivian Clayton, published pioneering research. Her first study, aimed at lawyers, attempted to determine if wisdom increases with age. The results were inconclusive; later studies suggested that it's important but not essential. This and her later papers produced a considerable buzz at psychological meetings, but she failed to receive research grants and left academia in 1982. By this time the ball was rolling, aided by swelling scientific fascination with the brain and dazzling high-tech instruments to examine it. It turns out that patterns of knowledge and judgment typical of wisdom appear in adolescence and don't measurably increase over time. Exposure to adversity such as war or personal loss helps, although it's not a good idea to have too much. Those searching for easy tips on achieving wisdom will not find them here, but diligent readers will be rewarded. A steady stream of insights into the psychology and neurological mechanisms of wise decision-makingand the researchers uncovering them. First printing of 50,000
The Barnes & Noble Review

From A. C. Grayling's "THE THINKING READ" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

Is there such a thing as wisdom -- a thing, stuff, an abstract entity -- or are there only wise individuals and wise actions and attitudes, these latter not exclusively the possession of the individuals in question given that even fools can sometimes be wise?

This question is a significant one, because it bears on the enterprise of "wisdom studies," a parallel endeavour to the "happiness studies" now big in the neuropsychologically-informed social sciences. (And there too the question has to be: is there such a thing as happiness, or only happy individuals and happy times and experiences, the latter not the exclusive property of the individuals in question, given that even the gloomiest of us can occasionally be happy?) If you aim to study wisdom, or happiness, presumably in the hope of finding out how we can all be wiser and happier, you had better be clear about the object of study; and, as Stephen S. Hall's Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience shows, that is hard to do.

Hall is a science journalist with an attractively fluent, ebullient style and great enthusiasm for what he writes about. His account of philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific enquiry into the subject of wisdom -- expanded from an article for the New York Times Magazine -- races accessibly along from classical antiquity to the latest techniques in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain. Armed with a dictionary of quotations and tape recordings from his interviews with researchers, he has tackled a highly interesting but difficult topic with gusto. The question about Hall's book is -- and this is not a criticism of Hall or his endeavour, but a comment on the complexity of the topic -- whether the distance he travels is commensurate with the length of the reader's journey.

First there is the problem of defining wisdom. This is where the opening question bites. If the word "wisdom" is one of those nouns that misleads us into looking for an abstract entity (like "redness" if such a thing is supposed to exist independently of individual red surfaces: the medieval Realists followed Plato in taking such a view, to the justified amusement of their opponents the Nominalists), then the whole enterprise has started on the wrong foot. Part One of Hall's book is entitled "Wisdom Defined (Sort Of)" and the parenthetical caveat is itself an example of wisdom. Hall's first and avowedly tentative attempt at a definition is as follows: "Many definitions of wisdom converge on recurrent and common elements: humility, patience, and a clear-eyed, dispassionate view of human nature and the human predicament, as well as emotional resilience, an ability to cope with adversity, and an almost existential acknowledgement of ambiguity and the limitations of knowledge." Note that this is not a definition of an abstract thing called wisdom but a sketch of the personality characteristics of what one might consider a typically wise individual. Given that context makes the same action wise in one setting and foolish in another, one needs to know more to distinguish patience from passivity, dispassion from fence-sitting, emotional resilience from insensitivity, and so for the rest. Generalities are fine: social scientific investigation needs to get to particulars. Hall's whole effort is directed to getting at those particulars.

It would seem natural to inspect the biographies and personalities of individuals conventionally held to be wise. Hall reports that a list of such was arrived at by the doubtfully reliable means of giving a questionnaire to members of the general public. The result, apart from a couple of weird surprises, was predictably conventional: Gandhi, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Socrates, Mother Theresa, Solomon, the Buddha, the Pope, Oprah Winfrey, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Ann Landers, Queen Elizabeth II. In my view a sturdy case can be made for just one of these as an exemplar of wisdom: Gautama Buddha. Some of the others were smart, which is a different thing, but they did a wise thing or two as a result of being so. (As for which, if any, of them were good: well, that is a question for a different time, and the answer is by no means straightforward.) As both this and the first attempt at a definition show, the business of getting started on examining wisdom is very fraught: as the countryman said on being asked the route to a distant town, "Well, I wouldn't begin from here."

One big problem that infects the social scientific, and especially neuroscientific, study of diffuse and vaguely specified phenomena such as wisdom and happiness is that much of what happens in such study results in expensive and polysyllabic confirmation of what common sense and received wisdom long ago knew. For example: the Stoics of antiquity were strongly in favour of something that was old hat even in their own day, namely, emphasizing the importance of managing one's emotions by thinking about why one feels them and what the consequences of their unconstrained expression might be. By being reflective and considered, said the Stoics, one can attain "ataraxia," which means "peace of mind" or emotional stability. Now read Hall: "even-keeled people -- Davidson specifically refers to them as 'emotionally resilient' -- apparently used their pre-frontal cortex, the front part of the brain, which governs reasoning and executive control, to damp down activity in the amygdala, those twin almond-shaped regions deep in the brain that process emotional content." A good deal else of what Hall reports from the coal-face of current research has this character -- for example, that being optimistic is good for health, that older people are wiser than younger people because their awareness of the approach of life's end detaches them from distractions and trivialities -- are all thunderingly obvious.

The repetition of such insights in long technical words and after massively expensive fMRI brain scanning is not, though, entirely without point. Leaving aside the necessary sceptical doubts about what fMRI actually shows -- correlations mainly, which is not the same thing as causal explanation; and most fMRI work is done on tiny samples of (usually) college students, the "lab rats" of this new discipline -- the fact is that confirmation of received wisdom is by itself a gain.

And sometimes research on commonplace assumptions can, as Hall reports, overturn the latter: solitaries in old people's homes were once assumed to be in some kind of trouble because they were not engaging fully with others; it turns out they can often be the more alert and intelligent ones, who are solitary by choice because they dislike the imposed conformity of life in an old age home. That is just one example: others, of perhaps greater significance still, concern our beliefs about free will and decision making; I will return to this point below.

First, though, one must point to another and quite general difficulty with contemporary research in the social and neurosciences, namely, a pervasive mistake about the nature of mind. Minds are not brains. Please note that I do not intend anything non-materialistic by this remark; minds are not some ethereal spiritual stuff a la Descartes. What I mean is that while each of us has his own brain, the mind that each of us has is the product of more than that brain; it is in important part the result of the social interaction with other brains. As essentially social animals, humans are nodes in complex networks from which their mental lives derive most of their content. A single mind is, accordingly, the result of interaction between many brains, and this is not something that shows up on a fMRI scan. The historical, social, educational, and philosophical dimensions of the constitution of individual character and sensibility are vastly more than the electrochemistry of brain matter by itself. Neuroscience is an exciting and fascinating endeavour which is teaching us a great deal about brains and the way some aspects of mind are instantiated in them, but by definition it cannot (and I don't for a moment suppose that it claims to) teach us even most of what we would like to know about minds and mental life.

I think the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom put his finger on the nub of the issue in the March 25th number of Nature where he comments on neuropsychological investigation into the related matter of morality. Neuroscience is pushing us in the direction of saying that our moral sentiments are hard-wired, rooted in basic reactions of disgust and pleasure. Bloom questions this by the simple expedient of reminding us that morality changes. He points out that "contemporary readers of Nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development." As Bloom notes, widening circles of contacts with other people and societies through a globalizing world plays a part in this, but it is not the whole story: for example, we give our money and blood to help strangers on the other side of the world. "What is missing, I believe," says Bloom, and I agree with him, "is an understanding of the role of deliberate persuasion."

Contemporary psychology, and especially neuropsychology, ignores this huge dimension of the debate not through inattention but because it falls well outside its scope. This is another facet of the point that mind is a social entity, of which it does not too far strain sense to say that any individual mind is the product of a community of brains.

This thought poses challenges for the enterprise Hall reports. As succeeding chapters of his book shows, neuroscientific evidence sometimes does the reverse of confirming old common sense. Instead, the research cumulatively suggests that free will, decision-making in uncertain circumstances, and our ability to override our impulse for immediate rewards in order to reap greater gains later are all different than we commonly assume. FMRI scans suggest that (for example) decisions and choices are made quite some time (seconds are eternities in neurology) before we are ourselves conscious of them. This research focuses on simple time-defined choices, and it records brain activity that seems to constitute the decision before the subject reports the decision himself. Leave aside the fact that there are questions about what this research really shows, and note that no fMRI scan is going to track correlations and time-delays in brain activity associated with thinking about a marriage proposal or which college to apply to, as Hall himself is careful to acknowledge. Put this together with the thought that mind is more than brain, and the scale of the task in understanding one desirable feature of mental life -- the making of wise choices, the possession of wise attitudes -- becomes yet more apparent.

Hall's final chapter is an extended recognition of this point, and ends by making gestures towards the irreducible "mystery" of wisdom. But the complexity of the task does not entail that it is permanently unresolvable; rather, it forces us to think afresh about what questions we are asking and what phenomena we are investigating. If I were to say (as I am inclined to) that the wisdom of an individual consists in maturity, intelligence ("there is no method but to be intelligent," said T. S. Eliot; Hall reports studies distinguishing intelligence from wisdom), and self-possession (understood as resistance to blandishments from without and overweening appetites within), this would seem to indicate that wisdom relates to character and behaviour in a social setting, and that we are therefore more likely to learn about it from literature, history, and philosophy than from other sources. This is not to downplay the importance of the new neurologically-informed social sciences, which are fascinating and promising in equal measure; but it is to insist that all our studies need to connect with all our other studies, and that some of them might merit still taking the lead even though others now have superb new machines to aid them. I suspect that Hall shares this view; which is the most interesting implication of his book.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307389688
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 772,905
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

For twenty-five years, Stephen S. Hall has written about the intersection of science and society in books, magazine articles, and essays, primarily in The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of five previous critically acclaimed books, including Invisible Frontiers and Merchants of Immortality. He has received numerous awards, including in 2004 the Science in Society Journalism Award for book writing from the National Association of Science Writers and, in 1998, the William B. Coley Award from the Cancer Research Institute. In addition to science, Hall has written extensively about travel, baseball, and Italy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two children.

Visit the author's website at: www.stephenshall.com.

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Read an Excerpt


Wisdom Defined
(Sort Of)

You, my friend . . . are you not ashamed . . . to care so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?

—Socrates, defending himself at his trial



The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away . . .
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

—Psalm 90

That man is best who sees the truth himself,
Good too is he who listens to wise counsel.
But who is neither wise himself nor willing
To ponder wisdom is not worth a straw.


ON A BEAUTIFUL FALL MORNING nearly a decade ago, like hundreds of mornings before and since, I dropped off one of my children at school. Micaela, then five years old, had just started first grade, and the playground chatter among both the children and their parents reflected that mix of nervous unfamiliarity and comforting reconnection that marks the beginning of the school year. I lingered in the schoolyard until Micaela lined up with her teacher and classmates. She wore a pretty purple dress that my mother had just sent her, white socks, and pink-and-white-checkered sneakers. A hair band exposed her hopeful, eager, beautiful face. I sneaked in a last hug, as impulsive dads are wont to do, before she disappeared into the building. The time was about 8:40 a.m.

As I left the schoolyard and began to head toward the subway and home to Brooklyn, I heard a thunderous, unfamiliar roar overhead. As the noise grew louder and closer, I froze in an instinctive crouch, much like the rats we always read about in scientific experiments on fear, wondering where the sound was coming from, knowing only that it was ominously out of the ordinary. Moments later, a huge shadow with metal wings passed directly over my head, like some prehistoric bird of prey. I instantly recognized it as a large twin-engine commercial airliner, but nothing in my experience prepared me for what happened next. I watched for the endless one . . . two . . . three . . . four seconds it took for this shiny man-made bird to fly directly into the tall building that I faced several blocks away. In real time, I watched a 395,000-pound airplane simply disappear. Almost immediately black smoke began to curl out of the cruel, grinning incision its wings had sliced in the façade of the skyscraper.

In moments when life’s regular playbook flies out the window, when the ground shifts beneath our feet in a literal or figurative earthquake, we feel a surge of adrenalized fear at the shock of the unexpected. But right behind that feeling comes the struggle to make sense of the seemingly senseless, to try to understand what has just happened and what it means so that we will know how to think about a future that suddenly seems uncertain and unpredictable. In truth, the future is always unpredictable, which is why these moments of shock remind us, with unusual urgency, that we have a constant (if often unconscious) need for wisdom, too.

Although we now all know exactly what happened that terrible morning, the ground truth in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, was much fuzzier at 8:45 a.m. One of the hallmarks of wisdom, what distinguishes it so sharply from “mere” intelligence, is the ability to exercise good judgment in the face of imperfect knowledge. In short, do the right thing—ethically, socially, familiarly, personally. Sometimes, as on this day, we have to deliberate these decisions in the midst of an absolutely roaring neural stew of conscious and unconscious urgings. In one sense, I knew exactly what had happened long before the first news bulletin hit the airwaves. In a larger sense, someone watching television in Timbuktu soon knew vastly more about the big picture than I did. This may be an exaggerated example, but it is in precisely the murk of this kind of confusion that we often have to make decisions. So what did I do?

I went to a nearby shop and bought a cup of coffee.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that this was a decision of sorts—perhaps a foolish one, and certainly not an obvious one. But to the extent that I mustered even a dram of wisdom that day, it was in how I viewed the situation and what I thought was most important. Oddly, I felt little or no physical threat, despite such close proximity to the unfolding disaster; in some respects, the event played much scarier on TV than in person. My immediate focus, even then, was on the long-term psychological impact that such a calamity might have on a young child, and what (if anything) a parent might do to minimize it. I hadn’t quite understood yet that that would be my mission for the day, but by standing in the street and sipping a cup of coffee, in that mysterious shorthand of human choice, I had chosen to stay close to my daughter, to stay calm, and, failing that, to fake parental calm realistically enough to convince her that this was a situation we could deal with.

But she didn’t need to see the whole movie. I did not think it was a good idea for a young child to witness, as I did, human bodies falling like paperweight angels from the upper floors of the nearby tower. Even more, I did not think it was a good idea for a young child to absorb, even for a moment, the panic and despair written on the faces of all the adults who were beginning to comprehend that the world as they had known it, even a few minutes earlier, had suddenly changed, slipping irrevocably out of their (however illusionary) controlling grasp.

If you’re thinking that I’m offering a smug little narrative about wise parenting, not to worry. Wisdom doesn’t come easily to us mortals, and I’ve been reminded many times since that it probably didn’t come to me that day, either. Many of the choices I made that morning were second-guessed by my wife, by my friends, and even by my daughter. More to the point, my small-minded plan to buffer Micaela’s emotional experience was rudely interrupted by the collapse of 500,000 tons of metal, concrete, and glass. Just as teachers began to evacuate children from the school, the second tower came down, unleashing the kind of apocalyptic roar no child should ever have to hear, and a huge pyroclastic cloud of debris came boiling up Greenwich Street toward us. You couldn’t tell if the cloud was going to reach us or not, but it wasn’t a moment for contemplation. I picked up Micaela and we joined a horde of people running up the street. As I carried her in my arms, swimming upriver in a school of panicked fish, she was forced to look backward, downtown, right into the onrushing menace of our suddenly dark times. Even to this day, however, the thing Micaela remembers most about the evacuation is the moment her classmate Liam accidentally walked into a street sign when he wasn’t looking.

It will be a long time, if ever, before I know if I acted wisely on 9/11. Indeed, it didn’t even occur to me until I was writing this passage that the most important decision I made that day did not even rise to the level of conscious choice. I “decided,” without any conspicuous deliberation, that I had to be a parent first, not a journalist, on that particular morning. At one level, it was an obvious choice; at another, it went against self-interest, career, my professional identity, taking advantage of being an eyewitness to the biggest story of my lifetime. What was I thinking?

That, in a sense, is what I want this book to be about: How do we make complex, complicated decisions and life choices, and what makes some of these choices so clearly wise that we all intuitively recognize them as a moment, however brief, of human wisdom? What goes on in our heads when we’re struggling to be patient and prudent, and are there ways to enhance those qualities? When we’re being foolish, on the other hand, do our brains make us do it? And how does the passage of time, and our approaching mortality, change our thought processes and perhaps make us more amenable to wisdom?

In moments of exceptional challenge and uncertainty, we tend to ask, How did this happen? What could we have done to prevent this dire turn of events? This is another way of saying, I realize now, that we are always searching for wisdom, but all too often we are looking for it in the rearview mirror, sifting the past for clues to how we might have thought about the future in a different way.

We crave wisdom—worship it in others, wish it upon our children, and seek it ourselves—precisely because it will help us lead a meaningful life as we count our days, because we hope it will guide our actions as we step cautiously into that always uncertain future. At times of challenge and uncertainty, nothing seems more important than wisdom—economic wisdom, moral wisdom, political wisdom, even that private, behind-closed-doors wisdom that allows us to convey the gravity of changed circumstances to our children without making them afraid of change itself.

Nothing seems more important, yet nothing seems more beyond our grasp, until we begin to think about wisdom before we think we need it.

I am not an expert on wisdom (in the most important sense, none of us is). I’m just a journalist who for many years has written about science, which in some circles even further disqualifies me from having anything of value to say about wisdom. But all of us find ourselves in situations that demand it, and we don’t need a 9/11 or a cataclysmic economic collapse to bring our desire for wisdom front and center. A car accident, the loss of a job, sudden illness, a floundering relationship, deep disagreements with parents or children—any old run-of-the-mill crisis will do.

We all aspire to have wisdom. Not necessarily because it will guarantee us happier, more fulfilling, better lives (although those have been worthy goals almost from the moment philosophers began to contemplate it), but because wisdom as a process can serve as a guide to helping us make the best-possible decisions at junctures of great importance in our lives. With an added, implicit (or sometimes explicit) tincture of mortality, it can get us to slow down long enough to think about actions and consequences. It can help us frame problems in a different way, allowing us to see unexpected solutions. It can help us maximize the good we do not only in the intimate community of family and friends but also in the larger communities that define our social identity as neighbors, residents, citizens, congregants, and custodians of the planet.

Many of these decisions are years in the planning and preparation, like selecting a mate or choosing a career. Some of them arrive with the roar of a hijacked plane or the suddenness of a phone call from the doctor. At the same time, we can’t separate those crossroads moments from the “vehicle,” the lifetime of experiences, that brought us to the intersection in the first place. Was this vehicle well maintained? Was it tested in all sorts of emotional weather, on every kind of situational terrain? Wisdom resides not just in the decision per se but also, as Confucius perhaps best of all philosophers shrewdly understood, in the Way of life—what he called gen—that precedes the decision.

Decision making lies at the heart of wisdom, but it’s not the whole story. Making those decisions, in turn, draws on a subtle weave of intellectual, emotional, and social gifts—gathering information, discerning the reality behind artifice (especially when it comes to human nature), evaluating and editing that accumulated knowledge, listening to one’s heart and one’s head about what is morally right and socially just, thinking not only of oneself but others, thinking not only in the here and now but about the future. Even in times of crisis, however, wisdom sometimes demands the paradoxical decision to resist doing something just for the sake of doing it—that flailing impulse “to do something, anything” that social scientists sometimes call the “action bias.” “Some of the wisest and most devout men,” the French essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne observed, “have lived avoiding all noticeable actions.”

If wisdom weren’t important, no one would even bother arguing about its definition. But that’s the point: It is important, and every one of us, because we do lead lives and want those lives to be as good as they can be, is, to a certain extent, an expert in wisdom, even if (as is certainly the case with almost all of us) it is an expertise grounded in want, not possession. All of us have an intuitive sense of what wisdom means and what constitutes wise behavior. In a rough, nonacademic sense (to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous opinion about pornography), we know it when we see it, even if we can’t define it.

That may suffice as a satisfyingly casual approach to personal philosophy, but such definitional squishiness usually makes for bad science, and this is, in many ways, a book about science’s improbable exploration (if not annexation) of one of philosophy’s most prized duchies. No one in a modern laboratory would argue that wisdom is a tractable subject for research; many scientists reasonably view it as something like intellectual libel to suggest that experiments in their labs have anything whatsoever to do with such a fuzzy topic. Even social scientists have trodden lightly; Paul B. Baltes, who probably studied wisdom with more depth and empirical rigor than any other psychologist in the modern era, spoke of a “fuzzy zone” of wisdom, where human expertise never quite rises to an idealized level of knowledge about the human condition.

But the struggle to define wisdom is embedded in the texture of its philosophical, psychological, and cultural history. And every time we think about it, every time we make the mighty effort to pause and contemplate a potential role for wisdom in whatever we are about to do or say, we join that noble struggle and move a step closer to achieving it. In trying to define wisdom, we are not merely engaging in a dry academic exercise. We are, in a fundamental and indeed essential sense, engaging in a conversation with ourselves about how to lead the best-possible life. We are engaging in a conversation with ourselves about who we want to be by the time we complete that journey and, in the words of Psalm 90, “fly away.”

Wisdom begins with awareness, of the self and the world outside the self; it deepens with our awareness of the inherent tension between the inner “I” and the outer world.

I began to realize this when I was asked to write an article for The New York Times Magazine about wisdom research—or, as the cover line asked, “Can Science Tell Us Who Grows Wiser?” As I quickly discovered, there’s no shortage of definitions of wisdom, and no dearth of disagreement about them; in an academic anthology entitled Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, published in 1990, there are thirteen separate chapters written by prominent psychologists, and each one offers a different definition of wisdom. As Robert J. Sternberg succinctly put it, “To understand wisdom fully and correctly probably requires more wisdom than any of us have.”

But thinking about wisdom nudges us closer to the thing itself. Every time I encountered a new definition of wisdom, or some argument from the psychological literature, I found myself considering my own life: my decisions, my values, my shortcomings, my choices in confronting difficult practical and moral dilemmas. If some psychologist had identified emotional evenhandedness as a component of wisdom, I would pause to consider my own emotional behavior. What set me off emotionally, and what kinds of decisions did I make—things said, actions taken, tone of voice and physical vocabulary—when I had to deal, for example, with a frustrating situation with professional colleagues or with my children’s inconvenient moments of emotional demand? When compassion emerged as a central component, I was forced to consider the limitations and inconsistencies of my own behavior. When I read the work of Baltes, who believed that dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty was a central aspect of modern wisdom, I realized that moments of ambiguity and uncertainty are often the most stressful and challenging of our lives. (This form of self-consciousness reminded me of the way I used to obsess about diseases when I wrote about medical conditions, but this was more like a philosophical form of hypochondria, much less scary and much more illuminating.) With each new question, I realized that I had unwittingly embarked on an impromptu program of mental exercise, an informal calisthenics of self-awareness.

As I burrowed deeper into the literature of wisdom, I found myself silently mouthing the same question over and over to myself whenever I confronted a problem or dilemma: What would be the wisest thing to do here? I won’t say I acted wisely—as Baltes and many others have pointed out, wisdom is more an ideal aspiration than a state of mind or a pattern of behavior that we customarily inhabit. But simply framing a decision in those terms was intellectually and emotionally bracing. I came away from this experience discovering (in the process of researching and writing a brief magazine article) that as soon as you are confronted with a definition of wisdom, however provisional or tentative, however debatable or howlingly inadequate, you are forced to view that definition through the prism of your own history and experience. Which is another way of saying that we all have a working definition of wisdom floating around in our heads, but we are rarely forced to consider it, or consult it, or challenge it, or amend it, much less apply any standard of wisdom to gauge our own behavior and decisions on a daily basis.

Simply put, thinking about wisdom forces you to think about the way you lead your life, just as reading about wisdom, I believe, forces you to wrestle with its meaning and implications. You might come to think of this exercise, as I have, as an enlightened form of self- consciousness, almost an armchair form of mindfulness or meditation that cannot help but inform our actions. And that’s another key point: to separate wisdom from action is a form of malpractice in the conduct of one’s life. “We ought to seek out virtue not merely to contemplate it,” Plutarch wrote, “but to derive benefit from doing so.”

Soon, whenever I found myself in a challenging situation—refereeing a sibling spat, confronting interpersonal friction with a loved one or friend, being called upon to deal with something that triggered titanic forces of procrastination, or even weighing a trivial dilemma of daily compassion, such as deciding whether to give a poor person some spare change—I felt myself slowing down long enough to ask myself that question: What would be the wisest thing to do? I realize this was very small potatoes compared to Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta or Martin Luther King, Jr., marching on Selma, and I won’t say I did this all the time—a conscientiously wise person might easily experience an existential form of rigor mortis, paralyzed by serial episodes of deliberation.

But I found it a refreshing exercise. It forced me to clarify choices. It slowed down the clock of urgency against which we all seem to be racing as we struggle with decisions. It allowed me to step outside of myself and momentarily stifle the urges of my innate selfishness—second to none, I submit, yet probably pretty much equivalent to everybody else’s—long enough to see a bigger picture. It had an archaic but familiar quality of self-monitoring. It felt, for lack of a better word, responsible—not in the sense that others hold us responsible, but, rather, in terms of raising the bar of expectations we hold for ourselves.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

What Is Wisdom?

The Wisest Man in the World: The Philosophical Roots of Wisdom

Heart and Mind: The Psychological Roots of Wisdom
Emotional Regulation: The Art of Coping

Knowing What’s Important: The Neural Mechanism of Establishing Value and Making a Judgment

Moral Reasoning: The Biology of Judging Right from Wrong

Compassion: The Biology of Loving-Kindness and Empathy

Humility: The Gift of Perspective

Altruism: Social Justice, Fairness, and the Wisdom of Punishment

Patience: Temptation, Delayed Gratification, and the Biology of Learning to Wait for Larger Rewards

Dealing with Uncertainty: Change, “Meta-Wisdom,” and the Vulcanization of the Human Brain
Youth, Adversity, and Resilience: The Seeds of Wisdom

Older and Wiser: The Wisdom of Aging

Classroom, Boardroom, Bedroom, Back Room: Everyday Wisdom in Our Everyday World

Dare to Be Wise: Does Wisdom Have a Future?
Acknowledgments: Confucius Says . . .
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