Book review. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience

Meredith Doig / 02 March 2015

wisdomMany years ago, I acquired a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. It sat on my bookshelves for a couple of years before I could bring myself to read it, such was my aversion to the title. However when I did, I found it was actually quite insightful. For example, the introduction traces the history of how descriptions of human nature have changed over time, pointing out that before the 20th century it was common to refer to someone’s ‘character’ but since the rise of psychology as a professional discipline, it has become more common to refer to ‘personality’. And whereas character has connotations of virtue, personality tends to be a values-free zone. An interesting distinction.

Highly Effective Habit number 2 in this book is “Begin with the End in Mind” and it urged readers to develop a personal mission statement. Now I don’t know about you but if a book urges me to stop reading and do something, I usually ignore the plea and keep reading. But the canny Dr Covey anticipated me, and reading on, I found his challenge to take the time to put into words what was important to me in life was ultimately compelling and so... I did end up writing a personal mission statement.

What I wrote might be the topic for another day but suffice it to say my personal mission statement has eight lines, the last of which is “To become wise”. Which raises the question, of course, of what is wisdom.

Stephen Hall is a science journalist who writes books, magazine articles and essays, primarily for The New York Times Magazine. As an author, he has that happy knack of being able to write about complex scientific research in plain English. In Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Hall traces the history of the concept of wisdom from its philosophical roots to its modern neurological frontiers in an accessible, engaging manner.

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience is a book of some 280 pages with nearly 40 pages of Notes. Each chapter begins the usual quotes from well-known and not so well-known philosophers, poets, and religious figures about some aspect of wisdom. The first section concentrates on history, literature and philosophy; the last section is more contemporary, with an analysis of wisdom in leadership and management, education and politics.

The central section of the book is a description of what he suggests are the “Eight Neural Pillars of Wisdom” -- aspects of human functioning and behaviour that for centuries have been associated with those history has called ‘wise’. These are:

1.  Emotional Regulation: the art of coping.

2.  Knowing What’s Important: the neural mechanism of establishing value and making a judgement.

3.  Moral Reasoning: the biology of judging right from wrong.

4.  Compassion: the biology of loving-kindness and empathy.

5.  Humility: the gift of perspective.

6.  Altruism: social justice, fairness, and the wisdom of punishment.

7.  Patience: temptation, delayed gratification and the biology of learning to wait for larger rewards.

8.  Dealing with Uncertainty: change, ‘meta-wisdom’ and the vulcanization of the human brain.

Each of these ‘neural pillars’ forms a chapter that focuses on contemporary research by selected leading academics into each trait's neuroscientific basis, explaining in lay terms the mechanisms that underlie each set of behaviours that over centuries have been associated with ‘being wise’.

For example, the chapter on Patience begins with the story of Odysseus and the Sirens, a classic illustration of the age-old tussle between short term indulgence and delayed gratification. Hall then describes his interviews with George Ainslie, who he describes in his graphic journalist mode as speaking "in a rapid, gravelly voice, edgy with authority." Ainslie is a behavioural economist who is challenging orthodox ideas of human motivation in decision-making. In a remarkable feat of imagination, Hall manages to connect Ainslie’s ‘hyperbolic discount curve’ to Socrates, Saint Augustine and Shakespeare.

One of the problems with tackling a subject like wisdom is that there is no consensus on just what it is. Like good art, people tend to say they don’t know much about it but they can recognise it when they see it. But Hall sketches out some general principles: wisdom requires experience-based knowledge of the world; mental focus and the ability to discern what’s important in acquired knowledge; the capacity to mediate between narrow self-interest and broader social welfare, immediate rewards and future gains, emotions and reason.[quote align="center" color="#999999"]wisdom requires experience-based knowledge of the world; mental focus and the ability to discern what’s important in acquired knowledge; the capacity to mediate between narrow self-interest and broader social welfare, immediate rewards and future gains, emotions and reason[/quote]

This latter distinction – between emotions and the intellect – is one that has fascinated me for years. It is my view that American culture repeatedly tries to elevate the status of the emotions (the “heart”) and diminish the value of the intellect (the “head”), in contradistinction to the ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who admired above all else the human capacity to reason. Thus Hollywood films, for example, emphasise emotional crises and their dramatic resolution (with those emotions expressed by shouting and physical confrontations) rather than a more cerebral exploration of human dilemmas, expressed in complex word play and subtle imaging.

Hall continues this tendency, most clearly in Chapter 3 entitled Heart and Mind in which he describes the work of Vivian Clayton, an early researcher on the subject of wisdom. “In Clayton’s view, wisdom was different from intellect and necessarily went beyond mere cognitive ability…It incorporates emotional intelligence” (p 43).[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The romantic aspiration, to elevate the status of the emotions and diminish the role of intellectual functioning, is contradicted by scientists [/quote]

This romantic aspiration, to elevate the status of the emotions and diminish the role of intellectual functioning, is, however, contradicted by the scientists Hall later interviews. Neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn from the Department of Psychology at Harvard says: “We now know that emotion plays a major role in how we reason, and wisdom may have a lot to do with knowing when emotion is helpful and when it is not” (p 17) and Jonathan Cohen, Director of the Center for Brain, Mind and Behaviour at Princeton University, says: “Neuroeconomic studies have shown that activity in the prefrontal cortex is associated with decisions that override pride or impatience. Moreover, the new part of the brain seems to be involved in the kind of systematic social activity and training designed to overcome the short-term urges of the emotional brain. The kind of thing we might think of as civilisation.” (p 200)

Throughout the book, Hall consistently comes across scientists explaining the constant interchange between the intellectual parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) and the emotional parts of the brain (limbic system) and if nothing else, this book demonstrates that progress in civilisation consists not in equalising these two functions but in recognising that we must strive to use the human capacity for reflection and reasoning to override many of our instinctual emotional urges.

All the more reason.

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