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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

EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom and Meaning with Jeffrey Dean Webster

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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.


EBW Dispatches - Wisdom & Meaning (1)


Wisdom and Meaning with Jeffrey Dean Webster

Does searching for meaning in life actually make us happier or even wiser? Well it’s not quite as straightforward as you might expect, according to some recent research to emerge from a team in Vancouver, Canada. For a start, seeking meaning and finding it are not the same thing. And even more surprisingly, their research suggests that how we file away our experiences might determine whether we are destined for happiness or for wisdom. 


Jeffrey Dean Webster, PhD is a Professor of Psychology at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada. He is a founding member of the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review and a member of the Gerontological Society of America. He is also responsible for the development of the widely used SAWS (Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale). In May 2017, Webster and his colleagues published a paper called Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (2017).

Let’s take a closer look at the entangled world of wisdom, meaning and growth.


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In the paper Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (2017), Webster and his colleagues Nic Weststrate, Michel Ferrari, Melanie Munroe and Thomas Pierce detail their two new studies which investigate the mutual development of wisdom and meaning in young adults.

Both studies measured wisdom using Webster’s own Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale, which you can read more about here or in graphic form here.


Why ‘Emerging Adulthood?’


Why the particular focus on ’emerging adulthood?’ As the authors state in the paper, this period is of keen interest to wisdom researchers: ‘Major life transitions, which are predominant in emerging adulthood (e.g. changing schools, moving to different locations, changing their social network, parental divorce), frequently entail the questioning of prior values and beliefs and are often experienced as stressful. Such transitions, particularly in the area of work and love, but also in general, may instigate processes of meaning-making and the development of wisdom.’


Such transitions, particularly in the area of work and love, but also in general, may instigate processes of meaning-making and the development of wisdom.


Part One – Wisdom on the path to meaning


In the first study they were investigating the relationship between wisdom and the search for and presence of meaning in life. The study involved 298 young adults between the ages of 18 & 29 completing self-report questionnaires. The Search for and presence of meaning were assessed using Michael F. Steger’s Meaning in Life Questionnaire.

Study highlights suggest:

‘Search for Meaning’ is mildly associated with ‘Wisdom.’ 

‘Presence of Meaning’ is moderately associated with ‘Wisdom.’

This would suggest that wisdom is more strongly correlated with finding meaning than seeking meaning. It’s of course important at this point to state that these correlations don’t tell us if wisdom leads to meaning or if it’s meaning that leads to wisdom.

In fact, as Webster explained to evidencebasedwisdom, ‘Wisdom is more likely to involve a progressive, mutually interdependent process in which wisdom and meaning-making reciprocally reinforce one another over time. Wise persons are more likely to search for and eventually find meaning in life, and this in-depth exploration and evaluation likely strengthens many of the components of wisdom, which in turn, stimulates and enables subsequent wisdom development.’


Wisdom is more likely to involve a progressive, mutually interdependent process in which wisdom and meaning-making reciprocally reinforce one another over time. Wise persons are more likely to search for and eventually find meaning in life, and this in-depth exploration and evaluation likely strengthens many of the components of wisdom, which in turn, stimulates and enables subsequent wisdom development.


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Part Two – How the wise process stressful events


In the second study, the researchers were interested in the relationship between wisdom and ‘processing styles’, namely ‘Exploratory Processing’ and ‘Redemptive Processing.’ Essentially, they wanted to know the answer to the question: Which of these processing styles do wise people tend to use when responding to stressful events in their own lives?

271 young adults between the ages of 17 and 29 provided written accounts of stressful life events, which were then scored by raters for their ‘Exploratory’ or ‘Redemptive’ processing styles. The coding schemes used, whilst based on similar approaches employed in related work, were further developed specifically for this study to capture maximal variation across the participants.

But first, what exactly is the difference between ‘Exploratory processing’ and ‘Redemptive processing?’ As the authors describe in the paper:

‘Exploratory processing refers to the extent to which the narrator reflected upon, explored and constructed deeper meaning from the stressful life event…

Redemptive processing concerned the extent to which the reporter had positively reframed the emotional meaning of the event over the long-term.’

So, how do high-scoring wisdom performers process stressful events? Do they focus on deriving lessons and insights, or do they instead focus on reframing the negative event in a more positive light so that they can feel better about the event?

Study highlights suggest:

‘Wisdom’ is moderately associated with ‘Exploratory processing.’ This means the higher the wisdom score, the higher the score for ‘Exploratory processing’ when recounting a negative life event.

‘Wisdom’ is not associated with ‘Redemptive processing.’ This means people’s wisdom score gave no indication of their ‘Redemptive processing’ score when recounting a negative life event.

Whilst this would seem to suggest that Exploratory processing is clearly a more reliable path to wisdom, Webster was keen to point out that both processing styles have their part to play: ‘It is important to reiterate that redemptive processing may play a role in wisdom as well., as it may be ‘wise’ to seek closure and emotional satisfaction (Redemption) as a coping strategy. Dealing with stressful life events may require, at least initially, a means to bracket the emotional turmoil associated with these types of disruptive events. Redemptive processing can allow for this type of ‘happy ending.’ Subsequently, persons might revisit their autobiographical memories associated with the stressor and be able to process the information in a more elaborate, growth-oriented manner. We need longitudinal studies to investigate how redemptive and exploratory styles interact over time.’


It is important to reiterate that redemptive processing may play a role in wisdom as well., as it may be ‘wise’ to seek closure and emotional satisfaction (Redemption) as a coping strategy. Dealing with stressful life events may require, at least initially, a means to bracket the emotional turmoil associated with these types of disruptive events. Redemptive processing can allow for this type of ‘happy ending.’ Subsequently, persons might revisit their autobiographical memories associated with the stressor and be able to process the information in a more elaborate, growth-oriented manner.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch can be found here:

Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (Webster, Weststrate, Ferrari, Munroe, Pierce, 2017)


Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about the work:

Wisdom Research Forum: “The HERO(E) Model of Wisdom” by Jeffrey WEbster, PhD Video of Jeffrey Dean Websters’s talk at Chicago University’s Wisdom Research Forum 2015 discussing the HERO(E) model of wisdom.

Wisdom and Mental Health Across the Lifespan (Webster, Westerhof & Bohlmeijer, 2012) – In this paper, Jeffrey Dean Webster and colleagues investigate the relationship between age and various components of wisdom, suggesting an advantage in wisdom for middle-aged adults.

Paths From Trauma to Intrapersonal Strength: Worldview, Posttraumatic Growth, and Wisdom (Webster & Deng, 2015) – In this paper, Webster and Deng investigate the relationship between changes in worldview, wisdom and posttraumatic growth.

The Many Faces of Wisdom: An Investigation of Cultural-Historical Wisdom Exemplars Reveals Practical, Philosophical, and Benevolent Prototypes – Weststrate, N. M., Ferrari, M., & Ardelt, M. (2016) – In this paper, Ferrari, Weststrate and Ardelt demonstrate that, when asked to nominate someone they consider to be wise, people tended to nominate ‘practical’ people more than people who had especially profound insight or were particularly compassionate people.

Meaning In Life Questionnaire (Steger at al, 2006) – Explore the MLQ further by visiting Michael F. Steger’s Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life, and you can watch his TED talk ‘What Makes Life Meaningful’ here.

EBW Animation Series: Measuring Wisdom – This animation looks at how scientists wrangle with the challenges inherent in ‘scoring’ for wisdom and features Webster’s Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale.


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

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

Charles

WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT ARMAGEDDON? How Humor Can Save Us From Ourselves

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Humor Post (3)


The new EBW article What’s So Funny About Armageddon? How Humor Can Save Us From Ourselves is published by Intentional Insights.

The article explores wisdom research which suggests that humor has a central role to play in responding wisely to challenging times.


The full article can be read by clicking here.


Intentional Insights is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that empowers people to refine and reach their goals by providing research-based content to help improve thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. 


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

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

New York City and The Love of Wisdom with Stephen Grimm

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Stephen Grimm is a Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York. As well as publishing extensively on topics dealing with the nature of understanding, he is also running the NYC Wisdom Seminar in June 2017. Currently on a year-long sabbatical as a visiting professor at Clare Hall in Cambridge, he recently spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about the recent resurgence in wisdom research after many years of neglect. He also outlined his own thoughts on wisdom and discussed his hopes for the NYC Wisdom Seminar.


Stephen Grimm Profile Picture


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

I’m an epistemologist. In Philosophy, that’s someone who studies intellectual goods like knowledge and understanding and wisdom, but really most epistemologists for the last few hundred years have focused on just one of these goods, the good of knowledge.

I was fascinated by the question of why wisdom fell off the radar, why people weren’t thinking about it. I was wondering what else could be said about the nature of wisdom today, as opposed to just thinking about what Plato thought about wisdom or what Aristotle thought about wisdom.

So I’ve tried to do work on thinking about the epistemic profile of wisdom – what is it intellectually that wise people know, or what kind of intellectual achievement have they attained?

Do you have a definition of wisdom that you find most helpful?

I think that the wise person is someone that knows how to live well. If we distinguish people that we think are wise from those that we think are not wise, that’s roughly how we break it down.

The way that I would try to flesh out that idea of knowing how to live well can be measured along three dimensions – the wise person knows what’s important for well-being, especially what’s more or less important for well-being, the relative weights of certain goods. Not just your personal well-being but the well-being of the community or group, and maybe not just the well-being the community or group now, but going forward.

Second, someone who knows where he or she stands relative to what’s good or important for well-being.


The wise person knows what’s important for well-being, especially what’s more or less important for well-being, the relative weights of certain goods.


You mention in the paper Wisdom (Grimm, 2015) how the ancient Greek maxim of ‘Know Thyself‘ relates to this aspect of your definition…

Yes. And sometimes when you think about people who are wise, they might not know a lot but they are aware of their own boundaries and limitations and they don’t try to stray beyond their boundaries and limitations. There’s a kind of wisdom in that, and that’s a wisdom of self-awareness or self-knowledge, or knowing where you stand relative to these things you care about.

Then the third element that I think is important is knowledge of some effective strategies for getting from point A to point B. If you think ‘B’, here are the elements of well-being, this is where the goal is, and ‘A’, this is where you are now, you’re lacking certain goods, then I think the wise person has some higher order thoughts about how to go from point A to point B.

The Torah defines the wise person as ‘he who learns from all people’. That would be a strategy for acquiring strategies – a meta-strategy. So I would go and engage in conversations with other people. I would not assume that I had the answer to all these deep questions. I would accept that there were important things to be learned from people.

There’s a phrase I heard growing up, ‘A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.’ Perhaps that’s a British phrase! It sounds like it’s getting at the same point as the Torah definition. Do you think that wisdom can be learnt or can it only be acquired through direct experience? Or do you have a different sense of how wisdom might be developed?

Well, ‘learns’ implies success, so there has to uptake on the part of the listener. A classroom teacher could be talking a lot without the students taking up the information in the right way. To learn from a wise person who’s had these experiences, you need to take up the information in the right way.

Wisdom is a complex property because it suggests there’s some kind of wisdom just in this uptake ability, this processing ability. Two people can go through the same experience, the same trauma or adversity and one could learn from it and one might not. So you might think that wisdom is complex because it’s the processing ability, but you also have to have the right inputs to be processed.

So now I’m going beyond what I was saying in the paper! Sometimes we might speak of a person who’s wise beyond his or her years because they have this processing ability, they learn from experience, even some very meagre experience, they could learn the right lesson, learn what’s more or less important, to order things in the right way. Some people who’ve had lots and lots of experience might not have this processing ability so the inputs might be there but there aren’t the outputs.


Two people can go through the same experience, the same trauma or adversity and one could learn from it and one might not. So you might think that wisdom is complex because it’s the processing ability, but you also have to have the right inputs to be processed.


So the opportunity to learn that lesson is there, but you have taken the wrong lesson from it?

Yes, but I do think a deeply wise person in all their glory and complexity has that processing ability and ample experience, so that they can cite different things about their life, different experiences that give them insight, not only into that ‘these good are more important than these others’, but also ‘these are the best strategies for achieving them’ and that might only be learned through hard trial and error.

It seems that a life lesson is going to be more penetrating and more powerful if it happens to you directly, making it more personal.

That sounds right. When we talk about someone who’s been through a trauma, we talk as if know something important that we don’t know. The way I’d be tempted to cash that out is that they might have gone through something like the loss of a child, or sibling or spouse, and they have a measure of how devastating that is that someone who hasn’t gone through it lacks.

There might be elders in our community and we could talk to them and ask ‘What is that like?’ Then in our own mind, we weight it more appropriately – ‘That time losing my job was devastating or it wasn’t as devastating as I thought it would be.’ And we could then gauge which of these things are more weighty than others.

You have said in your work that scholarly interest in wisdom may have ebbed and flowed throughout history since it requires a belief that objective knowledge about how to live well actually exists. Also, you say wisdom only really applies in contexts of uncertainty. Do you think that the growing complexity of modern times, and hence growing uncertainty, is also a factor behind the growth of interest in wisdom from the research community in recent years? What do think might be behind this growing interest in wisdom?

There are a few different reasons. I’m not a psychologist but it seems to be the case that with the advent of positive psychology, they’re not just looking for states of decline, failure and deficiency but positive states. Especially if you’re trying to look for positive states into old age, wisdom would be one of the signature things that we think older people can have. That’s my sense of why it’s enjoying a resurgence in Psychology. I do think it’s related too, to exploding interest in well-bring studies and happiness studies.

In Philosophy, it’s puzzling that wisdom was neglected for so long since Philosophy is ‘the love of wisdom’. It started to get renewed attention in Epistemology in particular because it was this fascinating epistemic accomplishment that seemed to be highly valuable and epistemologists were thinking about the nature of epistemic value and what we care about from an epistemic point of view and here was this thing that was neglected and deserved to be talked about. So those are some different reasons from different fields.


In Philosophy, it’s puzzling that wisdom was neglected for so long since Philosophy is ‘the love of wisdom’. It started to get renewed attention in Epistemology in particular because it was this fascinating epistemic accomplishment that seemed to be highly valuable and epistemologists were thinking about the nature of epistemic value and what we care about from an epistemic point of view and here was this thing that was neglected and deserved to be talked about.


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Fordham University is hosting a conference in June 2017 called the NYC Wisdom Seminar, bringing together psychologists, philosophers and theologians to explore the connections between wisdom and adversity. Can you tell us a little about what you are hoping will come out of this seminar? What are the distinctions in what these two different disciplines contribute to our understanding of wisdom and what in particular is gained by bringing them together?

I’ve had several engagements with psychologists. Some are very fruitful and some are less fruitful. I do think that, as philosophers, we have a lot to learn about the elements that contribute to well-being, and psychologists have done fascinating work about which elements are particularly significant to well-being or to happiness. I think we’d be foolish not to learn from those studies and think carefully about them.

Psychologists I think benefit from engaging with philosophers because they have a concept that they’re usually trying to measure, or as they might put it, a construct that they’re trying to measure, whether it’s happiness or well-being or wisdom. Of course to measure it you first need to figure out what it is your measuring. That’s what philosophers are good at. We’re good at clarifying definitions, about making distinctions between nearby concepts and the target concept.

Sometimes that frustrates psychologists because philosophers will spend decades trying to fine tune a definition whereas psychologists just need to measure it and to operationalise it – ‘You can work on your fussy definition, and we’ll get on with it. We need to measure this thing!’


Psychologists I think benefit from engaging with philosophers because they have a concept that they’re usually trying to measure, or as they might put it, a construct that they’re trying to measure, whether it’s happiness or well-being or wisdom. Of course to measure it you first need to figure out what it is your measuring. That’s what philosophers are good at. We’re good at clarifying definitions, about making distinctions between nearby concepts and the target concept.


So the philosopher’s role is key in that first stage, being really clear about what it is that you’re talking about?

Yes. At the seminar there’s going to be a series of talks, and then on the last day, we’re going to pair off psychologists, philosophers and theologians and they’re going to try and come up with prospective studies for how wisdom might be measured or how you might measure the effect of adverse experiences on gains in wisdom.

So the goal is to have a theoretically-minded person and an empirically-minded person coming up with a study that will be of interest to both philosophers and psychologists – not just one study but a dozen studies, and maybe three of four of these will be really fruitful.

What would you encourage people in the wisdom research community to focus their efforts on over the next few years?

One thing I’ve done in my classes in Fordham, and other people are taking up, is we’ve set assignments where we’ve asked students to practice certain disciplines or exercises or habits of mind. For example, Stoic ideas such as not being concerned about things outside of your control, or Buddhist ideas of mindfulness. Fordham’s a Jesuit school so we talk about Jesuit reflections and forms of prayer and spirituality and how those might contribute to well-being.

Michel Ferrari at The University of Toronto, who you’ve interviewed, did a week long exercise like this with some of his students. He wrote to me saying it was fascinating and extraordinarily fruitful – the insights that you might learn from these practices or habits of mind, and whether they could actually contribute to tranquillity or satisfaction or flourishing.

In a way that’s all very empirically minded stuff – ‘Try this out and tell us what happened. See what works, what didn’t work’ So that’s evidence with a lower-case ‘e’. It’s anecdotal, it’s very personal, but I still think it’s intriguing.

And do the students have good reactions to these experiences?

They almost invariably say, it wasn’t just the highlight of the course, but maybe of their college experience. They learn a lot. These are some of the strategies for achieving tranquillity or diminishing anger or increasing gratitude.

Am I right in thinking that this relates to part 3 of your wisdom framework, having knowledge of some strategies for moving towards well-being ?

Yes. As part of this course too, I do assignments with them, asking questions such as ‘What do you think are the most important things for living well? How do you think those priorities would change over 10 years?’

Other people do assignments like ‘If you had to write an obituary about yourself, what do you hope people would say?’ So it’s about encouraging students to take a step back from the pace of their life and reflect on what seem to be most important, and again try to get some handle on how to achieve those things.

There’s a Montaigne quote ‘All the wisdom and reasoning in the world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.’ My interpretation of that would be, if when you die you feel you have lived well, you’ll be less afraid of death. This would seem to be what the obituary idea you mention is getting at too. 

Yes. That goes back to Socrates too. One of his basic ideas was that the life of a philosopher is preparing you for death – to have a soul that’s in harmony, not disrupted by unruly passions, so you’ll be prepared, in some readings of Plato, for immortality where your soul is in good condition.


That goes back to Socrates too. One of his basic ideas was that the life of a philosopher is preparing you for death.


Which single practical change do you think would lead to the greatest increase in the levels of wisdom or wise reasoning in society? My sense is that more personal reflection might be helpful.

I think that’s probably right. Reflection – taking a step back, gaining some perspective on the situation. Just as a matter of fact, I think that’s one of the ways to interpret the mindfulness idea – that it’s taking a step back – and in fact, when you do that, you get kind of a cooler, less anxious perspective on your circumstances, whereas if you’re just enmeshed in your circumstances, that often leads to stress and anxiety and the feeling that the weight of the world is on your shoulders – that if you take a misstep, there are some irrecoverable losses. Often reflection allows you to put those things in perspective and realise that even the losses are manageable.


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Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about Stephen Grimm’s work:

Wisdom (Grimm, 2015) – In this paper, Grimm outlines the kind of knowledge that is required for wisdom.

Philosophy as a Way of Life Experiments (Fordham Students, 2016) – Watch a series of short videos made by Stephen Grimm’s students in which they share their experiences of living out different ways of life, including Stoic, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, or Jesuit.

NYC Wisdom Seminar – June 2017 – Read more about the programme and participants of the Fordham University Wisdom Seminar 2017


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

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

Charles

EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom & The Foreign-Language Effect with Sayuri Hayakawa

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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.


EBW Dispatches - Wisdom & The Foreign Language Effect


Wisdom & The Foreign-Language Effect

Can speaking in a foreign language actually change the choices we make? If so, we might reasonably expect the greater difficulty involved to result in poorer choices. Not necessarily so, according to a team of researchers at the University of Chicago. In fact, their research suggests quite the opposite – using a foreign language may actually lead to wiser reasoning.


Sayuri Hayakawa is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. For a number of years she has been part of a team investigating the relationship between language and decision-making. In 2016, she was lead author on a paper outlining some of the surprising hidden effects that using a foreign language can have on our assessment of risks and our moral choices. The paper considers firstly the impact of using a foreign language on our decision-making. The author then discuss potential explanations for these effects.

With millions of people worldwide now conducting their lives in their second language, the impact of the research has far-reaching implications.

Welcome to the wisdom of the Foreign-Language Effect.


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Part One – The Effects of Using a Foreign Language on Decision-Making

In the paper Using a Foreign Language Changes Our Choices (2016), Hayakawa and her colleagues Albert Costa, Alice Foucart and Boaz Keysar first reviewed the impact of using a foreign language on decision-making.

They outlined a number of ways in which using a foreign language can have an impact on decision-making, including the following highlights:


Risks are evaluated more consistently when processed in a foreign language.

Utilitarian behaviour is more likely to be endorsed when using a foreign language.


MORE CONSISTENT RISK EVALUATION

Consider how people typically respond to different kinds of risk when using their native tongue:

When faced with making a gain – People prefer a guaranteed win of £10 over an even bet of winning £20 or £0. They avoid the risky bet. They are risk averse.

When faced with making a loss  – People prefer an even bet of losing £20 or £0 rather than a guaranteed loss of £10. They take the risky bet. They are risk seeking.

Now consider framing effects. The same choice can be framed as a gain or a loss, but people’s risk aversion in the domain of gains and risk seeking in the domain of losses still persists.

For example, consider two identical scenarios which are simply labelled differently. People are risk averse when 200 out of 600 people will be saved (a gain) by a medicine but risk seeking when 400 out of 600 people will die (a loss). This is for people using their native language. (For full details click here).

Interestingly, as Hayakawa reports in the paper, this tendency is reduced when people use a foreign language, resulting in a more frame-independent treatment of risk. So, when using a foreign language, people are less likely to be duped by such a framing effect. For foreign language speakers, ‘saving 200 people’ and ‘losing 400 people’ is essentially the same.


Interestingly, as Hayakawa reports in the paper, this tendency is reduced when people use a foreign language, resulting in a more frame-independent treatment of risk.


MORE UTILITARIAN BEHAVIOUR

Utilitarian behaviour refers to actions that lead to the greater good for the greater number. The classic example is of a train headed down a track where it will kill 5 people. You are on a bridge overlooking the scene and can stop the train by pushing a large man off the bridge and on to the tracks below. Do you sacrifice one person to save the 5 others? The utilitarian choice is – Yes, you do.

And that’s exactly what people using a foreign language are more likely to do, when compared to those using their mother tongue. According to the latest research, when ‘moral rules’ (for example, ’cause no harm’) and utilitarian principles conflict, people using a foreign language are more likely to make the utilitarian choice than those using their native language.


According to the latest research, when ‘moral rules’ (for example, ’cause no harm’) and utilitarian principles conflict, people using a foreign language are more likely to make the utilitarian choice than those using their native language.


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Part Two – Potential Processes Responsible for The Foreign-Language Effect

Having outlined some of the effects that using a foreign language can have on decision-making, Hayakawa and her colleagues then propose a number of possible explanations for this effect:


Using a foreign language ENGAGES EMOTIONS LESS than a native tongue does.

Using a foreign language increases PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTANCE.

Using a foreign language increases disfluency, which leads to a more DELIBERATIVE MODE OF THINKING.


REDUCED EMOTION 

The leading explanation suggests that the Foreign-Language Effect is due to reduced emotionality. We learn our native tongue in an emotionally rich context, whilst we learn a second language in a more methodical, distant manner. This would suggest that thinking in a foreign language may be less affected by emotion.

However, Hayakawa is keen to point out that in terms of decisions, ‘less emotional’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’. As she explained to evidencebasedwisdom, ‘When we say “decision bias” or “emotional choice”, it’s usually with negative connotations. The truth is, however, that heuristics, biases, and emotional gut reactions are extremely useful tools for helping us make choices when we have limited information and don’t have the time or resources to think through every step of a decision. In these types of situations, using a foreign language may mute these important intuitions, leading to less optimal choices. … It may be the case that such intuitions shine through more clearly when using a native tongue and could lead to a better choice.’


When we say “decision bias” or “emotional choice”, it’s usually with negative connotations. The truth is, however, that heuristics, biases, and emotional gut reactions are extremely useful tools for helping us make choices when we have limited information and don’t have the time or resources to think through every step of a decision. In these types of situations, using a foreign language may mute these important intuitions, leading to less optimal choices. … It may be the case that such intuitions shine through more clearly when using a native tongue and could lead to a better choice.


INCREASED PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTANCE 

The authors also suggest that use of a foreign language might enable one to stay at some distance from the problem and more easily achieve a ‘bird’s eye view.’ When discussing the possible implications of the research for real-world decision-making, Hayakawa pointed out, ‘There is already research demonstrating that increased psychological distance can lead to greater humility, creativity, and improved negotiation outcomes. To the extent that our findings generalize beyond the lab to real-world situations, using a foreign language could result in similar outcomes.’


There is already research demonstrating that increased psychological distance can lead to greater humility, creativity, and improved negotiation outcomes. To the extent that our findings generalize beyond the lab to real-world situations, using a foreign language could result in similar outcomes.


DELIBERATIVE MODE OF THINKING ADOPTED

Rather than the extra demand on the brain impeding our decision-making, the paper’s authors suggest the opposite may in fact be true – that the increased difficulty of speaking in a foreign language may sound alarm bells that greater consideration and more careful thinking is required, resulting in the adoption of a more considered mode of thinking.

This aligns with reasoning outlined in Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘, which suggested that ‘trick’ Maths problems were answered correctly more frequently when the problems were presented in a more illegible format.


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So it seems that the Foreign-Language Effect can indeed lead to wiser decisions in certain situations. Hayakawa suggested that whilst following our intuition can sometimes be a quick route to a good decision, there are other times when such short cuts are just not up to the job.

As she explained, ‘The problem is that we often over-apply these heuristics to situations where they are no longer useful or relevant. It’s in these situations where the psychological and emotional distance of using a foreign language could help us make a better, more reasoned choice.


The problem is that we often over-apply these heuristics to situations where they are no longer useful or relevant. It’s in these situations where the psychological and emotional distance of using a foreign language could help us make a better, more reasoned choice.


So how might we actually apply this research in our own lives? Should we all be brushing up on our school French and Spanish?

Whilst keen to point out that this research is still in its early days, Hayakawa did stress the importance of paying attention to the effect that language can have on our thinking: ‘While it’s still too early to begin offering tips for daily life, it’s important to keep in mind that the language we use may be affecting us in subtle ways, and could potentially be used to help nudge us into different mindsets.’


While it’s still too early to begin offering tips for daily life, it’s important to keep in mind that the language we use may be affecting us in subtle ways, and could potentially be used to help nudge us into different mindsets.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch can be found here:

Using a Foreign Language Changes Our Choices (Hayakawa, Costa, Foucart, Keysar, 2016)


Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about the work:

The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking In a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases (Keysar, Hayakawa, An, 2012) – In this paper, Deputy Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom and Director of The Multilingualism and Decision-Making Lab Boaz Keysar investigates the impact of using a foreign language on the processing of risk.

Your Morals Depend on Language (Costa, Foucart, Hayakawa, Aparici, Apesteguia, Heafner, Keysar, 2014) – In the paper, Albert Costa of the Center for Brain and Cognition at Universitat Pompeu Fabra investigates the relationship between foreign language use and increased utilitarian decision-making.

Wisdom in a Foreign Langauge – Sayuri Hayakawa Video Presentation at Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum July 2016 – In this video presentation, Sayuri Hayakawa outlines the team’s research, including recent experimental data.

How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions – Scientific American Magazine article, 2012 – Learn more about the team’s research into the impact of the Foreign-Language Effect on risk perception


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

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

Charles

EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom, Body & Soul with Patrick Williams

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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.


EBW Dispatches - Wisdom, Body & Soul


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?


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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:

Meditation

Alexander Technique

Feldenkrais Method

Classical Ballet.

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. 


The first point the authors are keen to make clear is that the study is cross-sectional and, of course, just correlational.

‘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?


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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.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch is available below, so click to read the original research:

The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom (Williams, Mangelsdorf, Kontra, Nusbaum, Hoeckner, 2016)


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.


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

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

Charles


WISDOM PROFILES: Howard Nusbaum

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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 seventh interview in the series, Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom and Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago Howard Nusbaum talks to evidencebasedwisdom about wise decision-making, the relationship between ballet and wisdom, the importance of attention, and the surprising role of the supreme court in the new field of wisdom research.


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Image credit: The JJ Effect


On Wisdom, Language and Attention


Howard Nusbaum is Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom. He is also the Director of The Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation. Whilst Co-director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, he also co-directed the Defining Wisdom Project (2007-2011) and was Principal Investigator for the Wisdom Research Project (2012-2015). His research interests include wisdom, attention, learning and language.

On a recent trip to Oxford, UK for The Jubilee Centre‘s ‘Character, Wisdom and Virtue’ conference, he spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about the origins of University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research programme. He also talked about wise decision-making, the relationship between ballet and wisdom, the importance of attention, and the surprising role of the supreme court in the new field of wisdom research.


 On Wisdom and The Virtues


On Wisdom and Expertise


On Wisdom and Learning Mathematics


On Wisdom and Ballet


On Wisdom and Attention


On Wisdom, Nudging and The Supreme Court


On Wisdom and The Virtues


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In your research, do you have a definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful?

In my lab, as opposed to the whole centre, I work on a simplified model of ‘prudential judgement in service of human flourishing’, taking that from Aristotle, although I have been reminded by my colleague Candace Vogler about Aquinas, and how wisdom can be thought of as orchestrating the moral virtues, so that it illuminates the Aristotelian perspective that human flourishing is not just what makes us happy. Human flourishing has to do with human pursuit of the moral virtues. So, the way I think about it is ‘virtuous decision-making’, if you will, in the moral virtue sense.


In my lab, as opposed to the whole centre, I work on a simplified model of ‘prudential judgement in service of human flourishing’


Is virtue the same as “the common good”?

There was a lot of talk about that at the conference. I think that’s a reasonable statement. As a psychologist, I think of it more as ‘prosocially-oriented dispositions’. Valerie Tiberius has a great book ‘The Reflective Life’. As a philosopher, she’s written a kind of theory of wisdom that reads a lot like a psychological theory. Essentially, in her book, she discusses how the virtues set value commitments. If you value the virtues of generosity or courage, those virtues provide you with guideposts by which you can judge a prospective decision or action. You may ask yourself, ‘Is this courageous? Is this generous?’ If those are my values and goals, then I want to use those as guides in my decision-making.

From Valerie’s theoretic perspective, we should also examine the values of others and take their perspective when evaluating choices and situations.

And that’s where the other-centred perspective comes in?

Exactly. So what that does is opens the door to think about other kinds of virtues. For instance, the intellectual virtues, like epistemic humility or reflection, are critical to perspective-taking. I can’t really take your perspective in the sense of inhabiting your value commitments unless I can put mine aside and believe yours.

That’s hard to do!

It’s hard to do, but nobody said wisdom’s easy! And I think that’s what the crux of the problem of wisdom is, in large part. All too often we talk about the wise person as that person who can easily do that difficult thing. This is why in the Center for Practical Wisdom we have shifted. We take a narrower definition in the sense of ‘to move in the direction of human flourishing.’


We take a narrower definition in the sense of

‘to move in the direction of human flourishing.’


On Wisdom and Expertise


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When we talk about an individual gaining ‘experience’, surely there must be some physiological change where that experience is stored in the body. The idea of experience must map onto a physical change…

There’s a lot of research on expertise. What you see is that when expertise is developed in various domains of endeavor, there’s a reduction in cortical activity. It’s as if your brain does not work as hard when you’re an expert in something than if you’re a novice.

What might be important about that, and I stress the might because I don’t think we really know (although some people would say that we do) is that, if there’s more metabolic activity in your brain, there is a possible competition for resources.

In other words, that metabolic activity is using up “energy” from something and somewhere, and so we want to understand whether that’s a drain on your ability to make use of other kinds of rational, analytic processes that aren’t part of those demands. So, if you want to be able to flexibly select what you’re doing, expertise provides more capacity to do that.

The novice may just have more overall brain activity engaged as well as affective responses – that may just make a kind of neural “fog of war” for them to try to understand things.


The novice may just have more overall brain activity engaged as well as affective responses – that may just make a kind of neural “fog of war” for them to try to understand things.


That makes it very difficult for them to step back from the situation. There’s no capacity left! Like when you’re first learning to drive, there’s a lot to think about. A couple of years later, you can drive and carry on an in-depth conversation at the same time.

When you look at work about expertise in golf for example – what you find is that golf experts can’t tell you what they did on any particular putt, and a novice can tell you every little thing – ‘Well I was breathing fast here, and my foot was like this..’. The Golf expert is like ‘Here’s how you do a putt, but I don’t remember this detail,’ but they can break out of that when they’re confronted with a more challenging situation. They have more discretionary control in some sense.

That’s what Margaret Plews-Ogan has said, that experienced doctors are mostly functioning in an automatic mode. When something doesn’t fit the normal pattern, it pops up as a flag, and they switch to a broader, more probabilistic, deliberate way of thinking. It sounds like the Daniel Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ model.


On Wisdom and Learning Mathematics


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Daniel Kahneman‘s research suggests people are more successful at solving ‘trick’ Maths questions when the question is scribbled and hard to read. That surprised me, as intuition would suggest that the clearer you present a question, the better chance people would have at solving it. The suggestion was that the unclear presentation forced people to switch into the ‘System 2’ slower, more deliberate thinking mode.

If what you’re doing is running down the lane of habit and habit isn’t going to work in this way, but you signalled that this fits habit, then you’re in trouble.

It turns out that when you look at the mistakes that kids make in learning Math, how they categorise a problem at the outset is predictive of success. Bob Siegler’s  research on the development of Math skills shows that kids, when they’re presented with a problem, they put it in a category, and say ‘This problem is one of those – this other problem is one of these’ and they know how to deal with those and they know how to deal with these and so that’s how they come up with solutions.


It turns out that when you look at the mistakes that kids make in learning Math, how they categorise a problem at the outset is predictive of success.


I have noticed this myself when teaching Maths. When a child presents an alternative method for tackling a problem, it places a great demand on the teacher who has to then check the logic of it to see if it stacks up. If teachers don’t or can’t do that, then the children can quickly lose faith in the internal logic of the subject.

This is one of the things that Jim Stigler grappled with for a long time. It’s exactly that issue – that a lot of teachers that teach Math don’t understand Math. They know how to teach what they know how to teach, but they don’t understand the Math concepts. When they go from teaching how to calculate the area of a square to a rectangle to a triangle, they’re on solid ground. But when they go to the circle, they just give a formula. They don’t understand how to conceive the relationship among those, and then communicate it. What that does is it simply enforces the memorization of formulas instead of understanding the concepts.


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Do you think it makes sense to place the most experienced Maths teachers in the younger-age group classrooms, so students are presented these big ideas for the first time by teachers who have the deepest understanding of the concepts?

Not necessarily. It is important to match teaching ability, understanding of concepts in the teacher, and the lessons for students appropriately. It is important that teachers really understand the concepts they are trying to teach, and have the perspective on education to develop an appropriate lesson plan, and the skills to be able to communicate the concepts on the one hand, and provide guidance and feedback to students on the other. Wisdom is needed in that teachers need to know what they themselves know, what students know and need to know, and how to reflect on helping students build up their understanding as befits the students’ needs.


On Wisdom and Ballet


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In February 2016, you published the paper ‘The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom’  which showed that greater experience in ballet and meditation correlates with greater wisdom. What do you think might be the mechanism by which ballet and meditation are related to wisdom? Is it a matter of practiced self-regulation and self-control?

The nature of the study doesn’t allow us to say any more than the following: We can say that either very wise people stick with ballet, or we can say sticking with ballet makes you wise. It’s just correlational and it’s cross-sectional.

We do have evidence that when people have just started in ballet dancing, they are lower on measures of wisdom than other groups such as meditators. That suggests the choice of learning ballet does not attract wise people generally. However to stick with ballet over years requires self-control, and understanding of others. We just cannot say whether the practice of ballet works to develop those abilities, or whether the rigors of ballet practice select out the wisest of the group who started.

One of the things we’re trying to do is to replicate that now – we’re working with a couple of ballet schools in Chicago. The first question is, ‘Does the study replicate?’ The finding with ballet dancers is a bit counterintuitive, and we want to make sure that the results can be replicated in another sample.

It might be that ballet requires a couple of things. There’s no evidence for what I’m going to say but it seems plausible that you have to be pretty well self-regulated to keep at ballet because it does hurt, it is painful, and it’s hard. You have to learn how to pay attention very well to the things that people do with their bodies other than you and then repeat them yourself. That’s a skill in and of itself. If you watch a dancer who is demonstrating a move and then you try to do it, unless you yourself are a dancer, you’re pretty much out of luck. It’s really hard! Even though it looks simple, even though the demonstration may slow it down.


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What’s interesting to me is the notion that attention to people moving is especially honed in ballet dancers. If you are practiced at paying attention to people, it may have other implications such as listening more carefully to what other people say, and thinking about what they say from their perspective. There are components of wisdom, like self-regulation, the willingness to work hard and persevere, the willingness to attend to people in ways that other people don’t attend to them, and the ability to focus attention.


What’s interesting to me is the notion that attention to people moving is especially honed in ballet dancers. If you are practiced at paying attention to people, it may have other implications such as listening more carefully to what other people say, and thinking about what they say from their perspective.


So the way ballet dancers practice is to sort of mentally simulate the moves. So they are also engaged in a kind of mental simulation process about other people which is a form of perspective taking.

So they imagine themselves doing the moves and that strengthens the relevant neural connections?

If you look at sports coaches for example, they tell people to do this. You go home and even though you’re not on the field, you run through the moves mentally and you run through them in sequence. You practice them over and over again. So it turns out that when you practice those movements, it actually does activate parts of the motor system. It’s not perfect but it has benefits for performance.

I think that the practice strengthens the use of working memory, and that’s something that may translate into other abilities.

There is this idea of Antonio Damasio’s Somatic Marker hypothesis, which suggests that feelings in the body are associated with emotions, and that these markers influence decision-making. Is it possible that the correlation between ballet and wisdom is something to do with an increased sensitivity to signals from the body that leads to better decision-making?

So it turns out that if you test ballet dancers and you say ‘Put your two fingers in alignment, when you can’t see one hand and you can see the other (above and below a table-top for example),’ ballet dancers are far better at it than non-ballet dancers, but they’re not very good at telling you about their heart rate.

So their interoceptive awareness, that is awareness of the internal bodily states is not as good as their kinaesthetic awareness of the position of their limbs. However, I’m not entirely convinced that that’s necessarily what’s going on. It could be, but we don’t have any evidence to suggest that at this point.


On Wisdom and Attention


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You have worked for many years in the field of attention, and you have also written recently about its relationship with wisdom. Can you tell us a little more about the relationship between attention and wise decision-making?

I think attention is critical to the way we structure our understanding of the world around us. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the room but we make selections – some are directed and some are just habitual, some are based on expectation, some are based on desire – and the information that we make use of comes out of the direct control of attention.

If you are thinking about something actively – say you’re going to give a lesson and you’re rehearsing the general plan for the lesson in your mind – we think about that as sort of mental rehearsing, but in fact it uses the same mechanism as attention. It’s a kind of control process that we execute serially over a series of pieces of information.

When we engage with the world, we do the same thing externally. Information that we take in and the information that we use depends on the attention system. Why is that important? It turns out that the information we take in determines the kind of decisions we can make.


It turns out that the information we take in

determines the kind of decisions we can make.


This could be an example of attention, it could be an example of something else, but I think it’s probably attention. Doctors are trained to think of themselves as scientists, even though they’re not scientists, so they approach medicine as if it were a scientific process. That’s how they’re trained. That’s how they’re admitted to medical school.


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When they take a patient history, and the patient says ‘Well, you know, I’ve been having heartburn and shortness of breath’ and whatever – when it comes like that – symptom, symptom, symptom, symptom – the doctor has no problem. ‘Here’s a piece of information, here’s another piece of information and so on.’ They line that up. But other patients come in, and instead they tell a little story. The doctor has to figure out how the story which does not contain a list of symptoms provides information about the medical problem. ‘So, what is this patient telling me? Here’s a clue, and here’s a clue.’ So they’re sorting the story for evidence and they don’t pay attention to the narrative, but the narrative may have the information in a form that is not a series of clues.

Because they think of themselves as scientists

Right. So they’re looking for scientific evidence. Well in many cases, a person might come in and start talking about her sister, ‘Well my sister’s been complaining about this, this, and this. Doctor I’m really here about this, but my sister’s got this problem.’ So, for the doctor, everything about the sister is a kind of irrelevant noise.

But I listened to a talk by someone at the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and it turns out that a lot of personal history is given by people as a personal narrative, and describes ‘referred pain’ and ‘referred symptoms’. So she might be talking about her sister, but she’s actually echoing things about herself as the patient.


This means important medical information is displaced in this narrative space and the doctor’s missing it.


This means important medical information is displaced in this narrative space and the doctor’s missing it.

So if they thought of themselves more as counsellors or listeners, they might take more of that information in?

Right, if they’re having a conversation with their spouse and their partner says ‘Why are you talking about your sister? We’re talking about you.’ – then they might reply ‘Well you know, we’re a lot alike.’ I think the issue is that doctors don’t attend to the personal history as if it were a personal narrative. They attend to it as if they’re picking the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is defined by symptoms that they can recognise in terms of their scientific view of medical knowledge.


They attend to it as if they’re picking the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is defined by symptoms that they can recognise in terms of their scientific view of medical knowledge.


On Wisdom, Nudging and The Supreme Court


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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?

In the early stages of the Defining Wisdom Project back in 2007, we spent a lot of time putting out information on our website. We built a community of people interested in wisdom and wisdom research. For every person who reads something on the website, they may tell somebody else about wisdom. I believe that has propagation effects.

I also believe there was a trend building. Before we started the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’ I think there was interest growing in wisdom. With the Obama administration, one of the things that we saw in the U.S. was a debate that took place about the role of empathy in the Supreme Court. There has always been a kind of tension in the Supreme Court between different views on interpretation of the Constitution – legal scholars and jurists who say the constitution is a living document that changes with society and others who say ‘No, No. It’s fixed in the form of whatever the founders intended.’

One of the things that President Obama introduced into the discussion as a constitutional scholar (he taught constitutional law at Chicago), was the notion that we should pick a justice on the basis of her empathy. A number of people said, ‘That’s ridiculous. A judge should be objective!’ Obama made an argument that essentially said ‘We’re fooling ourselves when we think that justices really put aside their life experience and knowledge and just see the words of the Constitution as words.’ Justices bring their life experiences to bear on interpretation and judgment.

There is a claim made that the Supreme Court justices become more liberal over time, or at least there is a trend for that to happen. Those that were appointed by fairly conservative presidents as conservative justices sometimes move more to the center and other more centrist judges have moved more left. One can infer that occurs because of the kind of experiences they’ve had in making judgements, because the constitution didn’t change over their tenure.


During the Obama presidency we saw ‘Nudge policy’ emerge in the White House. Cass Sunstein, former advisor to the White House, was a kind of wisdom fellow traveler in many respects.


During the Obama presidency we saw ‘Nudge policy’ emerge in the White House. Cass Sunstein, former advisor to the White House, was a kind of wisdom fellow traveler in many respects. Nudge policies might be thought of as encouraging a kind of institutional wisdom. From this perspective one can think, ‘People want to do something. How can policies help them achieve their goals?’ Sendhil Mullainathan  a behavioural economist at Harvard was one of the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’ grant recipients. He argued strongly for the notion of Institutional Wisdom. Institutions, even if not the members of the institution were wise, even if none of them were, could still put policies in place so that the constituents to whom those policies applied might act more wisely.


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I think that things like ‘Nudge’, things like the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’, things like the president actually having a kind of openness to the role of science in government, exemplifies wisdom in many respects – and all those things coalesced at a certain time to help bring more interest in wisdom to the forefront.


I think that things like ‘Nudge’, things like the ‘Defining Wisdom Project’, things like the president actually having a kind of openness to the role of science in government exemplifies wisdom many respects – and all those things coalesced at a certain time to help bring more interest in wisdom to the forefront.


That’s really interesting because there is a lot in the news now about how people are going to miss Obama’s maturity and adult behaviour, and what really looks very much like wisdom.

I don’t think until recently I would have termed it ‘wisdom’ per se, and yet his political demeanour is consistent with that of wisdom. He worked for compromise in spite of what some politicians say. He operated in a cooperative way, receiving the president-elect and so forth. There are a lot of things that he did, and yet he was not afraid to take action in service of policies that he thought were for the good of the country. That looks like wisdom to me.

Wisdom doesn’t mean you’re popular and wisdom doesn’t mean that people like you, but it may mean that the choices that you make help the greatest number of people in the greatest way.

There are lots of examples of wisdom exemplars from history who are in fact not treated very well by the communities they find themselves in!

One would hate to use that as the diagnostic criterion of wisdom, but I think that it’s entirely consistent with what we’re seeing.

What are your hopes for the Center for Practical Wisdom over the next few years?

Our goals have always been to support wisdom research, given the means that we have to do so, which means we’ve supported projects in Israel, and in Spain, and in other places, as well as collaborating with researchers in other countries.

I want to continue that because I think we can support research on a small scale where other institutions wouldn’t provide support. I also think that it’s important for us to continue to bring together people working on wisdom on a regular basis, to communicate about their work and then to publicise that work as much as possible.

On the one hand, we have a mission to explain why wisdom is important, why it should be studied, and that it should be taught or conveyed or learned. On the other hand, wisdom research is necessary and needs support, and we will continue to do wisdom research at the University of Chicago, because it undergirds that kind of message.


In essence the message is, ‘We need to understand more about wisdom, so that we can help people become wiser and find ways of changing educational institutions.’


In essence the message in, ‘We need to understand more about wisdom, so that we can help people become wiser and find ways of changing educational institutions.’


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

University of Chicago Center in Beijing: “Wisdom Research at The University of Chicago” Howard C. Nusbaum – Video of Howard Nusbaum presenting an overview of Chicago’s Wisdom Research in December 2012 in China.

The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom (Williams, Mangelsdorf, Kontra, Nusbaum, Hoeckner, 2016) – In this paper, Nusbaum and colleagues explore how experience with various mental and physical practices is associated with wisdom.

Big Questions Online Series: What Psychological & Social Factors contribute to the Development of Wisdom? – Howard Nusbaum (2014) – In this article Nusbaum considers the role of emotion in wisdom and indeed if there are different types of wisdom.

7 Days of Genius Series: Wisdom Depends on the Skill of Attention – Howard Nusbaum (2015) – In this article, Nusbaum suggests wisdom is a skill that can be learned and that it depends on your ability to manage your attention.

The Huffington Post: What Makes Us Wise (2011) – In this article, Nusbaum discusses work taking place in Chicago at the conclusion of the Defining Wisdom project.


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Charles