The EBW Dispatches Series reports the latest developments from the frontline of wisdom research. Key findings are highlighted and illuminated – with a little help from the researchers themselves. The relevant papers can be found at the end of the dispatch.
Wisdom, Body & Soul with Patrick Williams
What can we actually do to become wiser? Whilst gaining a broad range of life experience and then learning from those experiences may well lead to the development of wisdom, are there any specific practices that can help us along the way? Recent research by a team at the University of Chicago explored the impact that a number of physical and mental practices might have on wisdom. The results are both surprising and exciting.
In 2016, Patrick Williams was working as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychology at The University of Chicago. Whilst collaborating with a research team in the University’s Center for Practical Wisdom, he was the lead author on an intriguing paper with some bold new claims about wisdom.
Could wisdom really be found in such strange places?
Wisdom, Meditation and Ballet
Is experience with certain physical and mental practices associated with wisdom?
In the paper The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom (2016), Williams and his colleagues Heather Harden Mangelsdorf, Carly Kontra, Howard Nusbaum and Berthold Hoeckner explored how experience with certain physical and mental practices is associated with wisdom.
They were essentially investigating the question ‘Are people that have many years of experience doing these practices wiser than those that don’t?’ The practices investigated were:
The study involved 298 people participating in an online survey, in which they were first asked about how many years of experience they had. They were also asked to complete the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale as well as a number of other psychological questionnaires.
Study highlights suggested that:
People who practiced meditation were on average the wisest.
People who practiced ballet on average were the least wise.
For both meditation and ballet, more experience was associated with greater wisdom.
No equivalent association was found for the Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais method.
‘Cross-sectional’ means that the study looked at lots of people with different amounts of experience all at once, rather than following a single group of people as they acquired experience.
‘Correlational’ means the study identifies a relationship, but doesn’t indicate the direction of the relationship – Do meditation and ballet make you wise, or does being wise make you stick with meditation and ballet? No-one can say at this point.
Click here to read Principal Investigator Howard Nusbaum talk more about this.
What specific aspect of meditation might make you wiser?
When Williams and colleagues looked more closely at the relationship between meditation and wisdom, another interesting discovery was made. Whilst you might expect meditation to both reduce personal anxiety and boost feelings of empathy, this is not what was found.
Whilst greater experience with meditation was associated with reduced personal anxiety, there was no evidence of a relationship between meditation and empathy. Further analysis suggested that lower personal anxiety was associated with higher wisdom.
All in all, this suggests that if meditation does lead to wisdom, it may do so not by boosting empathy but by reducing personal anxiety. As Williams explained, ‘This is one possible interpretation which is supported by research into meditation and anxiety.’
All in all, this suggests that if meditation does lead to wisdom, it may do so not by boosting empathy but by reducing personal anxiety.
How might experience with ballet make you wiser?
The finding that ballet is associated with wisdom was particularly surprising to the research team. In fact, ballet was only included in the original set of four practices for comparison purposes and was not expected to be associated with wisdom. The data initially lead to some interesting discussions amongst the team. Williams recounted some of these ideas to evidencebasedwisdom, recalling ‘We hypothesized after-the-fact that the association between wisdom and ballet practice may be due to increased sensitivity in ballet dancers to the somatic markers that guide decision making. Because dancers have a heightened sense of their bodies, this could increase the mind/body connection, which could lead to greater wisdom.’
We hypothesized after-the-fact that the association between wisdom and ballet practice may be due to increased sensitivity in ballet dancers to the somatic markers that guide decision making. Because dancers have a heightened sense of their bodies, this could increase the mind/body connection, which could lead to greater wisdom.
However, the authors of the study make it very clear that more research is needed to get a clearer understanding of the nature of this intriguing relationship. Follow-up studies are currently underway with a number of ballet schools in Chicago to replicate the initial study and to learn more about the mechanisms at play.
Nonetheless, the paper provides the first evidence of a relationship between both meditation and ballet training with wisdom. As stated in the paper’s closing comments ‘Although we cannot determine causality from our data, the negative relationship between trait anxiety and wisdom suggests the possibility that meditation and ballet training may contribute to wisdom by training a person to avoid, manage, or overcome personal anxiety or anxieties inherent in each practice and in life in general.’
Although we cannot determine causality from our data, the negative relationship between trait anxiety and wisdom suggests the possibility that meditation and ballet training may contribute to wisdom by training a person to avoid, manage, or overcome personal anxiety or anxieties inherent in each practice and in life in general.
So, what can we actually do to develop wisdom?
Meditation and ballet may be a wise place to start.
The paper discussed in this dispatch is available below, so click to read the original research:
Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about the work:
Patrick Williams – Keep up with the work of the paper’s lead author Patrick Williams by visiting his webpage.
EBW Wisdom Profile: Howard Nusbaum – In this profile, principal investigator and Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom Howard Nusbaum discusses the findings of the paper in more detail.
The Center for Practical Wisdom – Read more about the Chicago team behind this paper and learn about further wisdom research currently underway.
UChicago News Article ‘Meditation and ballet associated with wisdom, study says – Read more about the paper in this University news article.
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