WISDOM PROFILES: Dilip Jeste

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The Wisdom Profiles Series is a collection of original interviews conducted by evidencebasedwisdom with leading researchers in the field of Wisdom Research or related fields. All participants are working to increase our understanding of wisdom and its place in the modern world.


In the eighth interview in the series, Director of The Stein Institute for Research on Ageing, and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, Dilip Jeste talks to evidencebasedwisdom about the six components of wisdom, the family model of the wise brain, and the the future of wisdom-enhancing interventions.


WISDOM PROFILES SERIES - Dilip Jeste (2)


On the Neurobiology of Wisdom


Dr. Dilip V. Jeste is Director of The Stein Institute for Research on Ageing, and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, and a neuropsychiatrist with particular specialism in successful aging and schizophrenia. He is also a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. He has published a number of influential papers detailing the neural activity associated with wise behaviours (click here and here to read more) and you can watch his fascinating TED talk Seeking Wisdom in Graying Matter by clicking here.

In this conversation with evidencebasedwisdom, he discussed parallels between modern and ancient conceptions of wisdom, the grandma hypothesis of wisdom and the six components of wisdom highlighted by his research. He also outlined his family model of the wise brain, and delved into the future possibility of technological and biological wisdom-enhancing interventions.


On The Paradox of Aging


On The Growth of Wisdom Research


On The Six Components of Wisdom


Comparing Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Wisdom


On The Family Model of the Wise Brain


Wisdom in the Aging Brain and The Grandma Hypothesis


Wisdom, Medicine and The Future



On The Paradox of Aging


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How did you first become interested in the study of wisdom?

I’m a geriatric neuropsychiatrist. My personal area of research for many years has been schizophrenia in older people. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness – some people call it cancer of the mind. The notion is that schizophrenia only gets worse with time – people lose their mind over a period of years and then they become demented. That’s why it used to be called ‘dementia praecox.’ Actually when I started studying schizophrenia in older people, I was asked ‘Why are you studying it?’ because it must be so depressing. Yet what we found over the years was that, in people with schizophrenia, actually the symptoms improved, their well-being improved, they seemed to start functioning better, smoking became less common, and they became more adherent with medication. That was a surprise. When we first published these findings, people said ‘What you are seeing is probably not schizophrenia.’ That was not the case. We were following people with genuine schizophrenia.

Some time after that, the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ came out. It’s the real life story of a Nobel laureate (John Nash) who had schizophrenia from his twenties who started getting better in his fifties and sixties, and then went back to research, writing papers and teaching. What is happening that these people are getting better in later life?


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Another question was ‘Is this something unique to schizophrenia or is this something that happens in the general population?’ So we started a study called SAGE – Successful Aging Evaluation study . It includes 2000+ people, somewhat randomly selected, in the community, from age 21 to more than 100 years old. What we found was that with age, the physical health declines as expected. The cognitive function declines after 60 or so, but mental health seems to improve almost in a linear fashion from age 20 to 100. That really was a surprise. It looked like people in their 20s and 30s had the most depression, anxiety and stress, and as people got older, all of those things seemed to go down and people seemed to feel happier.


That really was a surprise. It looked like people in their 20s and 30s had the most depression, anxiety and stress, and as people got older, all of those things seemed to go down and people seemed to feel happier.


So I realised there were two paradoxes of human aging. One was that people seem to get happier with age. The other was an even broader issue – Why do people live long after they lose their fertility? That’s not consistent with the Darwinian hypothesis of survival of the fittest. Indeed in the wild, large animals don’t live long after they lose fertility, unless they are in the zoo or research labs and are protected. Yet humans continue to live for decades after age 45-50 when they lose their fertility at menopause in women or andropause in men. On top of that, they are becoming physically disabled with age. So, something must improve to compensate for those losses. What is that something? Is that wisdom?


So I realised there were two paradoxes of human aging. One was that people seem to get happier with age. The other was an even broader issue – Why do people live long after they lose their fertility?


I grew up in India. In the oriental cultures, older people are thought to be wiser, but I’d not given much thought to wisdom from a scientific perspective until we observed greater happiness in older age. Then I started thinking whether it is actually wisdom that increases with aging and that’s associated with greater happiness. So the next question was ‘What is wisdom?’

I find it very encouraging to hear that mental health problems decrease as we get older.

That’s what I tell people in their 20s: ‘You have everything to look forward to during the rest of your life.’

It’s funny that we commiserate with people that they’re getting older when they have a birthday, when what you’re saying is that we have it upside-down.

Exactly! We call it ‘fountain of youth’ – the 20s and 30s – and it is, from a physical point of view, but not from the mental point of view. In fact, older age is the fountain of wisdom.


On The Growth of Wisdom Research


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After being neglected for so long by the scientific community, why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive more attention? Might the aging global population be a factor?

That’s an excellent question. Wisdom has been a religious and philosophical concept for centuries, from the time of Aristotle and Socrates and so on, yet empirical research on wisdom started only in the 1970s, with Baltes at the Max Planck Institute, and Clayton in the US starting to work on wisdom. Since then, we’ve seen the Berlin Paradigm  and other work. Even then it was not in the popular media. That began around 2000. The number of papers on wisdom published in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s was quite small. There were only a handful of articles in the beginning and slowly they increased but starting around 2000, there has been a kind of explosion of papers. What is interesting is that wisdom is receiving coverage in the popular media too. That is what I think is causing the overall increase in empirical wisdom research.

I think you are right in saying it’s to do with the population aging. It’s also the baby boomers getting older. This is a ‘can-do’ generation. They always took pride in who they are and how they could change the world for the better. Aging is a hard thing to accept for anybody, because we don’t understand it – we have no control over it. In a way, wisdom of aging provides the positive perspective that you mention. There is no doubt that the population is aging, especially the baby boomers. I think that people are getting interested in whether wisdom is really something that increases with age.


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On The Six Components of Wisdom


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I understand that you carried out a review of the scientific wisdom literature in order to identify the most common components in the various definitions of wisdom. Can you tell us a little about the components of wisdom you identified?

I got interested in scientific literature on wisdom. Then, the first question was ‘How do you define wisdom?’ We started by reviewing the literature on wisdom. There were a number of papers in recent years but only some of them tried to define wisdom. So we took all the studies that had some definition of wisdom. Most of us agree that wisdom is a complex trait. It’s not just one thing – it’s not like ‘optimism,’ which is a single specific trait. Wisdom is far more complex, comprised of different components. So we made a table listing each study and what components it included, and then we took the most common components that a number of papers seemed to agree on. We found six such dimensions or components.


Most of us agree that wisdom is a complex trait. It’s not just one thing – it’s not like ‘optimism,’ which is a single specific trait. Wisdom is far more complex, comprised of different components.


One is ‘Social decision-making.’ This is the concept of the ‘village elder’, or ‘Solomonic wisdom.’ When people have a debate going on and they don’t know what to do, they would go to the wise person and the wise person would make the right choice. That’s social decision-making.


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The second one is ‘Emotional Regulation’ – control over one’s emotions. Think of it as the exact opposite of teenagers! Their emotions change from hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, whereas a wise person would have pretty stable emotions. Not absence of emotions, but having control over the magnitude and the variation in emotions.

Would that include boosting positive emotions, or would it just refer to modifying peaks and troughs? 

It is clearly modifying both. It’s about reducing the severity of both depression and excitement. At the same time, it’s somewhat on the positive side. That’s why wisdom is associated with well-being and happiness. Not an extreme, ecstatic kind of happiness, but more contentedness than sadness, so there is emotional regulation primarily and associated with it is positivity.


That’s why wisdom is associated with well-being and happiness. Not an extreme, ecstatic kind of happiness, but more contentedness than sadness, so there is emotional regulation primarily and associated with it is positivity.


The third one is ‘Prosocial Behaviours’ – things that we do for others rather than for ourselves – compassion, empathy, altruism. I think this is probably the single most important component of wisdom.

Then comes ‘Insight’ – knowing yourself. It includes self-reflection. You are trying to analyse yourself and understand yourself. Understanding yourself is much more difficult than people think it is.

It’s impossible, almost! 

It’s much easier to understand somebody else than understanding ourselves, yet a wise person is somebody who knows herself or himself well. Not completely, but well – and keeps on trying to do that – self-reflecting. Understanding one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses.


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The fifth is ‘Acceptance of uncertainty’, which also means ‘acceptance of diversity of views.’ I may have strong feelings about something, but I understand why somebody else might have different feelings about it.

That’s very difficult to do – Everyone obviously thinks that the position they have is right, otherwise they wouldn’t have it!

Right. It doesn’t mean that you give up on your values. I may have strong opinions about the death penalty, or stem cell research, or abortion or what have you. I can have my values, but I can also understand why someone else may feel or think differently. Other people are not necessarily dumb or evil if they think differently. It also means not being 100% certain about what I think is right.

… which means you’ll be more prepared to change your mind if new information presents itself.

Exactly! That’s something we don’t see too often in politics these days. Instead we see total certainty and confidence in one’s own views.

The last component in that list was still being ‘Decisive’, in that you accept uncertainty, you accept diversity of views, and yet you cannot sit on the fence all the time. You cannot be ambivalent all the time. You have to make a decision. You have to be decisive and act upon it. A wise person is not somebody who will spend all the time thinking about the pros and cons of everything. That needs to happen initially, but it needs to then end at some point, and a decision has to be made. Even after making the decision, you might continue debating internally, but you have to act.

Good parents and leaders are supposed to be wise. For a parent, for example, when a teenager comes and says ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not going to go to school. I’m just going to stay here with my friends who smoke and use drugs’, you can say ‘I understand why you say that, but you cannot do so!’ So you have to be decisive. Similarly for a country leader or president, if there is a war breaking out, you have to make a decision. In the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt was debating whether the US should enter the war. There was a lot of debate, but he ended up being decisive. Decisive doesn’t necessarily mean going to war. It may mean going for peace, whatever it is, but there needs to be a decision.

So being aware of, but not paralysed by, uncertainty.

Exactly. So those are the six most common components. We subsequently published another literature review in 2013 looking at additional new literature. We found that those six were still the most common components, but there were three others that some people have proposed as components of wisdom. Those three are ‘Spirituality’, ‘Sense of Humor’ and ‘Openness to new experience.’

These three are not as widely accepted as the first six.


Comparing Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Wisdom


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You also reviewed the ancient Indian text the Bhagavad Gita for references to wisdom. Can you tell us about any parallels between these two distinct wisdom frameworks?

The reason for reviewing the Gita was that one of the criticisms of the concept of wisdom is that it is a cultural concept – that it varies from time to time, from one culture to another. So I wanted to look at a document that could be as different from modern thinking on wisdom, as possible. Growing up in India I was familiar with the Gita – it’s kind of the Indian Bible. The Gita is supposed to be a treatise on the wisdom of life, from a religious/philosophical perspective, but I wanted to look at it from a scientific perspective.


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So we did a mixed methods qualitative and quantitative study in which we looked at every place where the word wisdom or its opposite ‘foolishness’ was found, and we recorded in what context these words were used. For example, the Gita says something like ‘A wise person is one who has control over emotions and doesn’t get too excited or too depressed or too angry.’ That suggested that emotional regulation was a component of wisdom according to the Gita. Doing that, we looked for various components of wisdom and determined which were the most commonly used ones. It was really a surprise to us that five of the six components were exactly the same as the six I described to you earlier.


Five of the six components were exactly the same

as the six I described to you earlier.


That’s extraordinary!

It was a total shock. I would have expected them to be quite different. There were slight differences. ‘Diversity of views’ was not stressed in The Gita. On the other hand, the Gita talks about ‘Spirituality and Love of God’. It’s a religious document after all. Also, the Gita talks about ‘Lack of focus on materialism’ as an important component of wisdom, but that’s not included in the modern western concept. So clearly there are a few differences, but those differences are minor. They really pale into insignificance compared with the commonalities, which really were a big surprise.

So what’s exciting about that, as you suggest in your talk Wisdom and Successful Aging is, if there are such similarities across different cultures and different times, this would suggest that there is some sort of biological or neurological basis of wise behaviour. Is that what you are suggesting?

Yes. Exactly. It suggests that the basic concept of wisdom hasn’t changed across centuries – the Gita was written around 500 years BC, and it comes from a very different culture. So if you are thinking today the same way people thought in a different part of the world, centuries ago, it probably is something that is part of being human. It is something that is ingrained in our brain and genes. That suggests it’s biologically based.


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So if you are thinking today the same way people thought in a different part of the world, centuries ago, it probably is something that is part of being human. It is something that is ingrained in our brain and genes. That suggests it’s biologically based.


On The Family Model of the Wise Brain


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In the same talk you discuss which brain regions are involved in supporting wise behaviour. Can you tell us a little about your family model of the wise brain?

Different regions of the brain have different functions. These regions are numbered by Brodmann. The cortical areas are numbered from 1 to 52. There’s a motor area of the brain, there’s a sensory area of the brain, an area for verbal language and so on. But how do you decide where ‘Wisdom’ is located? So we looked at different components of wisdom and checked out the neurobiological research on each of the components mentioned above. What was surprising was that, in spite of there being 6 components, and there being so many regions of the brain, it was actually only a few areas of the brain that were involved in all the wise behaviours. Those areas were the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.


What was surprising was that, in spite of there being 6 components, and there being so many regions of the brain, it was actually only a few areas of the brain that were involved in all the wise behaviours. Those areas were the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.


The prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the brain in evolution – it’s what makes us human. The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain – perhaps every living animal with a brain has an amygdala. Within the prefrontal cortex, there are three regions that are important – dorsolateral, ventromedial and there’s something that connects them – the anterior cingulate.

If you look at the function of these areas – this is really an oversimplification, but just to give an idea – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is like a proverbial father. In a family, when the parents are raising a kid, the two parents try to balance each other. This could sound sexist but this is just to give some kind of prototypical idea. The father is usually thought to be the disciplinarian. He tells you what not to do. He gets mad if you don’t go to school. He says you must do this. If you don’t get good grades, then the father get’s upset. He says ‘Why am I spending money on your education?’ This is the part of the cortex that tells us not to do things that are socially unacceptable or undesirable.


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The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is like the proverbial mother – kind, compassionate. She understands you – she supports you. If you don’t feel like going to school, she’ll say ‘Okay, I understand how you feel. Let’s see what we can do.’

And sometimes there are conflicts between the two. The father says ‘You must go to school’ and the mother says ‘Well, he’s not feeling well.’ There’s a conflict, so what do you do? You go to your uncle or aunt, the anterior cingulate, who helps you detect and possibly resolve the conflict between the two, because that person is somewhat distant. The uncles and aunts have good relations with you, they care for you, and they are involved in detecting and, if possible, resolving dilemmas when there are factors on both sides that are competing for your attention.

Still you need a friend on whose shoulders you can cry. That’s the proverbial friend. That’s the amygdala. The amygdala is the centre of emotions. Again, I want to stress this is oversimplification of the complex neurobiological functions of different areas of the brain and their interconnections.

It’s fascinating that, according to this model, wise behaviour involves the oldest part of the brain and the newest part of the brain.

If you think about it, wisdom is balance. It is balance between the proverbial father-like thinking and the proverbial mother-like thinking, and also between cognition and emotion, between the oldest and the newest parts of the brain.


If you think about it, wisdom is balance. It is balance between the proverbial father-like thinking and the proverbial mother-like thinking, and also between cognition and emotion, between the oldest and the newest parts of the brain.


One can’t be too unselfish either. If I give away everything I have, I won’t survive! So it’s also a question of balance between selfish and unselfish behaviours.

So the anterior cingulate cortex seems to be central as it’s, in effect, negotiating between these two other areas?

Well, usually the dorsolateral and ventromedial parts function efficiently and don’t always need a mediator, but when necessary, anterior cingulate can be the conflict detector and sometimes, resolver. There is also another level of balance between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.


Wisdom in the Aging Brain and The Grandma Hypothesis


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We typically think of our brains shrinking as we get older, but also we think of older people on average being wiser than younger people. Is there evidence to suggest that the aging brain might actually enable wiser behaviour in older people?

One thing to clarify at the outset is that aging itself doesn’t produce wisdom, in the sense that, there are older people who are not wise and there are younger people who are wise. So, the hope that everyone will become wiser by aging is not realistic! However, I think that really it is the experience associated with age and what you do with it at the psychological level – that is what helps. It is how you use the experience associated with age. After stress for example, some people will develop PTSD. Other people will actually grow from the stress – post-traumatic growth. Aging won’t prevent development of wisdom but it can actually facilitate wisdom, if there is appropriate physical, social and cognitive activity.


It is how you use the experience associated with age. After stress for example, some people will develop PTSD. Other people will actually grow from the stress – post-traumatic growth. Aging won’t prevent development of wisdom but it can actually facilitate wisdom, if there is appropriate physical, social and cognitive activity.


In general, brains can continue to evolve in people who are active physically, cognitively and socially – this is called ‘Neuroplasticity of Aging’. The brain continues to evolve and new synapses, blood vessels and, in some regions, even new neurons can grow if there is appropriate activity.


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More specifically about wisdom – I told you about the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. So how can wisdom grow when the brain is also losing some things with age, when there is degeneration? I should again say that this is speculation and simplification at this stage of our knowledge – we don’t know for sure. However, one thing that occurs with aging is that brain activity shifts from the back of the brain to the front of the brain. This is called PASA – Posterior-Anterior Shift in Aging. There is a second phenomenon called HAROLD, which stands for Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction in Older Adults. In a younger person, the right-brain and left-brain control different activities. As we get older that asymmetry decreases until you require both hemispheres of the brain and more areas of the brain to do the things that you could do with less of the brain when you were younger. The analogy I give is ‘When I was younger I could push a heavy cart with one hand. Now that I am older and have arthritis, I need both hands to push the cart, but I can still push it if I use both hands.’

Is the suggestion that, since you’re employing brain regions which are specialised for different functions that you’re bringing a broader range of skills to bear in ‘pushing the cart?’

You compensate for your losses by employing more regions of the brain. That’s how the prefrontal cortex function may improve in older people. With the amygdala, it’s really interesting. I talked about emotional regulation and positivity. What happens to the amygdala with age is that it responds less to stressful or negative emotional stimuli, than it does in a younger person.

And that’s exactly the component you were talking about earlier when you mentioned ‘emotional regulation?’

Exactly. So there are things that happen with nature that actually enable the brain to increase wisdom, if we allow it to, by engaging in physical, cognitive and social activity.


So there are things that happen with nature that actually enable the brain to increase wisdom, if we allow it to, by engaging in physical, cognitive and social activity.


In your TED talk Seeking Wisdom in Graying Matter you introduced the Grandma Hypothesis of Wisdom. This theory suggests that humans beyond the age of fertility can still support the propagation of their genes by helping in the upbringing of their grandchildren. Does this suggest that the increase in compassion etc. associated with wisdom may serve an evolutionary function – i.e. individuals that have developed compassion over their lifetimes are more likely assist in rearing grandchildren and hence gain an advantage over those that don’t?


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Yes, the idea is that after we lose our fertility, with menopause or andropause, we don’t contribute to the species survival. We don’t procreate. However, studies show that when grandparents are involved in raising their grandchildren, those grandchildren live longer, they are happier and they produce more children than the previous generation. So, through the compassion which increases with aging, you are contributing to the species survival by helping the younger generation live longer, be happier and be more fertile. This is hard science, not just feel-good TV science! It’s been shown in dolphins, whales, birds and humans, and these papers have been published in major journals like Nature.


Wisdom, Medicine and The Future


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As a doctor, do you have any thoughts about how doctors might be able to apply this research in their own work lives? What might be required to support the development of wise doctors and even more widespread wisdom in the medical sector? 

Studies have shown that at medical schools, as students go through the programme, at the end of medical school, their compassion and empathy goes down. Part of that maybe useful because if you’re so compassionate and so emotionally affected that when you see blood, you faint, you’re not going to be a good surgeon and that’s not what the patient needs. At the same time, you are not a machine. You can’t be cold or impersonal, and you have to have compassion. Unfortunately what is happening with medicine in general, at least in the US, is that it is becoming much more mechanised, with people spending much of the time with patients, working on a computer in order to complete the medical records. It becomes a transaction rather than compassionate care. It’s nobody’s fault, in a way, but also it’s everybody’s fault.


Unfortunately what is happening with medicine in general, at least in the US, is that it is becoming much more mechanised, with people spending much of the time with patients, working on a computer in order to complete the medical records. It becomes a transaction rather than compassionate care. It’s nobody’s fault, in a way, but also it’s everybody’s fault.


I’ve been talking about something called Positive Psychiatry. I published a book on that a couple of years ago and as president of the American Psychiatric Association developed a presidential theme of Positive Psychiatry.  It’s not just psychiatry, really it’s positive medicine, positive healthcare, where we need to focus on well-being, happiness and not just thinking of symptoms. What needs to happen is to make the physician more compassionate, more understanding and not just treat patients as cases who have diseases. We don’t treat diseases – we treat patients. We don’t treat symptoms – we treat people. Even in psychiatry, if somebody has severe depression on a depression rating scale with a score of say 20, we are thrilled if we can bring that score down to 10, or better, 5. Yet, we should not only seek to bring it down to zero, but actually we should aim to increase the happiness level to 20. We don’t think about that.


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So what is really needed is more compassion. When people talk about personalised medicine, they talk about it from the genetic or genomic perspective, but real personalised medicine is where you treat each individual in his or her own right and see how they can have 100% well-being and happiness.


So what is really needed is more compassion. When people talk about personalised medicine, they talk about it from the genetic or genomic perspective, but real personalised medicine is where you treat each individual in his or her own right and see how they can have 100% well-being and happiness.


How would you actually practically nurture compassion in doctors? Is this something that could or should be integrated in to medical school?

I think they should start promoting compassion, way before medical school. This is something that is a necessary part of teaching in elementary school, middle school, high school and so on. Right now we focus on making people smarter and more intelligent. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we should go beyond that and try to make them wiser.

Similarly we focus on hard skills like knowledge of anatomy, pharmacology, and medicine. We also need to focus on soft skills. How do you interact with people? How do you understand other people’s emotions? How do you regulate your own? How do you make wise decisions? We should actually judge people not on the basis of their IQ or their skills only but also on these sorts of things. The world’s most competent surgeon who has no compassion is not what you want. So you want someone who’s competent obviously, but also compassionate and wise.

I think what is needed is focus across all of our education that goes beyond hard skills and beyond making people smarter to soft skills and making people wiser.


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I think what is needed is focus across all of our education that goes beyond hard skills and beyond making people smarter to soft skills and making people wiser.


That’s really interesting. I saw you mentioned artificial wisdom in your TED talkI was just thinking that if hard skills are something that artificial intelligence might more easily be able to take off our hands than soft skills, which seem more human, I wonder if the next period, prior to artificial wisdom, might involve handing the hard skills to artificial intelligence and then doctors focusing more on those more human skills.

Probably that will happen. There is IBM’s machine Watson. Now this is helping people provide information so that they can make the right decisions. For example, an MRI shows a brain tumour, and there are certain kinds that are malignant, others which are more benign. If you put all the information into the computer, the computer will give you answers with associated certainties – ‘There’s a 75% chance that it’s this kind vs 25% chance that it’s that kind’ and then the human makes the decision about the diagnosis. So you’re exactly right. The machine can process the hard data and we can focus on soft skills.

But going even beyond that, I think machines can learn some soft skills. It’s already happening to some extent – machines’ recognition of facial emotions is no longer a fantasy. They can detect even from speech if somebody is being sarcastic, or making a joke. I don’t think machines can be 100% wise, but they can be much wiser than they are today. Now the focus in computer science is mostly on intelligence, data and smartness, but I think they can do better.


Now the focus in computer science is mostly on intelligence, data and smartness, but I think they can do better.


What do you think is the most pressing priority or most fruitful line of inquiry for the wisdom research community over the next few years? 

We have a long way to go before we understand wisdom well, but clearly this is an area of great importance. More work is needed in understanding wisdom, including the neuroscience part of wisdom, but also we need to think about ‘how do you make a person wiser,’ and eventually, ‘how do you make a society wiser?’

That can happen at some level through behavioural interventions or psychosocial interventions, using various principles of cognitive behavioural therapy to increase people’s wisdom. Technology would be helpful too. And Biology. As we learn more about where in the brain wisdom is located, which neurotransmitters are involved, which receptors are involved, I can see biological interventions. For example, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or Deep Brain Stimulation. So I see a time when we will have neurofeedback which will tell me that my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is overactive and my ventromedial is under-active, so I need to do something to stimulate my ventromedial, and so on – that could happen in the very near future.

Another possibility is that we will discover chemicals that could impact wisdom – I don’t think that there would be any single molecule that could effect all of the components at one time – but, individually yes. In a way we already do that – take, for example ‘emotional regulation.’ The opposite of emotional regulation is ‘impulsivity.’ Excessive impulsivity is associated with ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. So we treat ADHD in children with medications. In Autism, one of the symptoms is ‘lack of understanding of other people’s emotions and thinking.’ Children with Autism are very nice children, but they don’t understand what someone else might be thinking or feeling. An antisocial personality is different. These people understand exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling but they use it for illegitimate purposes. So if we were to have some chemicals that were to increase our cognitive understanding of another person’s behaviour, or our emotional understanding of another person’s behaviour, then we could treat certain components of autism or antisocial personality.

There is a type of dementia called frontotemporal dementia and if you look at the symptoms of its behavioral variant, it’s the exact antithesis of wisdom. So if we had a biological treatment to increase wisdom, I think we could help people with frontotemporal dementia. As a physician, I think that’s important. We should have ways of treating people who are suffering because of a lack or loss of one or more of these components of wisdom, so we can help them.


As a physician, I think that’s important. We should have ways of treating people who are suffering because of a lack or loss of one or more of these components of wisdom, so we can help them.


From a medical perspective, whether we should increase the wisdom of the general population I don’t know. That’s an ethical question. But clearly there is a need for us to understand how we can increase wisdom in different ways.

That’s what we’re focusing on right now. How can we measure wisdom in a better way? How can we understand it, and how can we begin to increase it in different ways?


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Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Dilip Jeste’s work?

TED Talk – Seeking Wisdom In Graying Matter – In this 2015 talk at TEDMED, Jeste outlines the potential for increasing wisdom in the aging brain.

Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview – Meeks & Jeste (2009) – In this paper, Meeks and Jeste identify specific regions of the brain that are active during behaviours considered to be sub-components of wisdom.

Defining and Assessing Wisdom: A Review of the Literature – Bangen, Meeks & Jeste (2013) – In this paper, the researchers build on their earlier work, adding three further components of wisdom.

Wisdom and Successful Aging Talk – In this 2010 talk at The Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging, Jeste outlines the six component model of wisdom, parallels with the Bhagavad Gita, and the neurobiology of wisdom and successful aging.

Comparison of the Conceptualization of Wisdom in Ancient Indian Literature with Modern Views – Jeste & Vahia (2008) – This paper details Jeste and Vahia’s findings regarding similarities and differences between modern and ancient conceptions of wisdom.

EBW Graphics Series – Jeste’s work is detailed in the graphics The 6 Components of Wisdom and Jeste’s Family Model of the Wise Brain.

EBW Animation Series – Defining Wisdom – Jeste’s 6 component model of wisdom is detailed in this EBW animation Defining Wisdom.

We all have some wisdom. But what is it? – San Diego Union-Tribune article – In this article, Jeste discusses the neurobiology of wisdom and differences between eastern and western conceptions of wisdom.


If you have any thoughts about the interview, please get in touch.

You can contact me at charles@evidencebasedwisdom.com, via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.

Charles

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