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Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience

An Interview with Stephen Hall

Gary Null

This interview with Stephen Hall was conducted by Dr. Gary Null, noted talk radio host, in April 2010 as one of his Conversations with Remarkable Minds (M-F, noon EST at Stephen Hall Cover

Gary Null: I would like to welcome Stephen Hall, a leading author and investigative writer on science and society for over 30 years. He has received a Science & Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers, and between 1997 and 2000 he was the editor for the New York Times Magazine. He has written many books, including Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, the subject of our conversation today. Nice to have you with us.

Stephen Hall: My pleasure.

Gary: We have this notion today, that is supported by the media, that we should place our faith in the brightest and most experienced people who are running the show of finance and politics. These people are educated and knowledgeable, yes, but are they leaders with wisdom? I would like you to address this dichotomy between what defines wisdom, an attribute that seems to be all but lost in the public debate and education of children today and mere knowledge of facts, figures and manipulation thereof.

Stephen: Well, that is a really important distinction, and the psychologists who originally looked at wisdom 30 years ago, which is kind of what got me interested in the topic, made the point that intelligence is a distinctly different quality from wisdom. So education and articulate qualities may reflect intelligence but not necessarily wisdom. 

One of the distinctions that one group of psychologists specifically drew is that when you test people for intelligence, there are correct answers in the test, but in wisdom, there are no correct answers. I think that what they were trying to say is that so much of wisdom is contextual, depending on dealing with changing events, that there is not a prescription, blueprint or game plan for what constitutes wise behavior. 

So wisdom entails being able to adjust to changing circumstances, and being able to take a long view of things, to stand above the wisdom of the crowd as it were, and sort of keep the eye on the ball and a larger term goal that may involve some delayed gratification to get to. I think wisdom is finding the right balance of emotional and cerebral aspects of your brain, and knowing which parts to listen to in a particular situation.

Gary: I appreciate that insight. In the past, wisdom was regarded as one of the highest attributes a person could aspire to. So who are some of the past philosophers you feel best exemplify those qualities that we can attribute to a wise man or a woman?

Stephen: Well certainly every philosopher has had a whack at wisdom, and wisdom as a subject has belonged to philosophy for a long time. Aristotle talked about living the good and morally just life. Socrates spoke about divorcing oneself from the temporal and physical demands for satisfaction so one could contemplate these larger issues of knowledge and how it guides one’s behavior. Spinoza, Kant, you go right on down the list. 

One of the points I made in the book you mentioned is that I don’t think wisdom belongs to philosophy solely anymore. I think psychologists got involved in this in the middle of the last century, when Erik Erickson tackled wisdom as a life stage. He placed it in a later stage of life, then psychologists did more investigation about it, and now neuroscience has gotten involved. Not that they are investigating wisdom per se, but I looked at the qualities that the psychologists had identified as being associated with wisdom, and then looked at the neuroscience being done around those qualities. 

There is a huge amount of research going into things like compassion and how it guides decision making, emotion regulation, how we deal with unexpected or negative events, and how we reset ourselves emotionally to be able to more forward, be resilient, find solutions. Problem solving, altruism, humility, moral judgment—all these things are components of wisdom, both from the more recent psychological literature and also the very deep philosophical literature. And within neuroscience there are fairly substantial components of investigation going on in these areas as well.

Gary: I’ve always liked an anonymous ancient Greek phrase, “Life is a gift of nature, beautiful living is the gift of wisdom.” What is this relationship between being wise and living a beautiful life, and what does a beautiful and wise life look like? Are there some telling examples of living a beautiful, wise life in history that serve as clear exemplars for people to reflect upon?

Stephen: Well one of the things the psychologists and I think the philosophers recognize at some level, is that wisdom is often an idealistic, or utopian goal. It’s something that humans rarely achieve, and yet it is a good thing to think about and aspire to. In the book I talk about a lot of people who, at least in moments, reflect this aspiration: Confucius, Socrates, the Buddha, and more contemporary figures like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln. These are people who, at least for part of their lives, were able to see a larger goal, or maybe it was a social injustice that they wanted to address, and were able to make whatever sacrifices and compromises necessary to get to that ultimate goal. Bearing in mind the greatest good for the greatest number of people, this leads to the notion of altruism. 

Potter Stuart, the Supreme Court Justice, famously said about pornography that he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it. We have debated the definition of wisdom for 2500 years, but we also recognize it when we see it, and I think a lot of us see it more in our personal lives than on the public stage. So I think the exemplars of wisdom for a lot of us occur in the family, a congregation, circles of friends, or some other social group. People who we feel are living a good life that has a moral core to it, like good decision-making, some self-sacrifice in the interest of the larger group, and maybe, again, keeping their mind on the longer distance in terms of what makes for a well-lived life. 

The contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick, who is at Harvard University, wrote an essay about 20 years ago in which he says, “ wisdom is knowing what is important,” which I think is a good starting point to organize our thoughts. And this is what I tried to do in the book; I kept interrogating myself and the people I was talking to about what constitutes wisdom—how do you decide what’s important, what influences your notion of this? Whenever we pause to ask that question, and I think the answer can change almost on a daily basis because the world outside is always changing too. How we answer that question can really guide our behavior and the decisions we make.

Gary: I appreciate that answer, thank you. When we scan literature from around the world, Native American, Buddhist, eastern traditions, the Greek mysteries, the Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and mystical traditions, we repeatedly find variations on the theme that we should seek wisdom both within ourselves and outside of ourselves. And the two are not disconnected. How do you understand this interior, introspective search as a characteristic of becoming a wise human being?

Stephen: I think this idea that I just referred to, this idea of interrogating oneself, is key. A thoughtful, mindful questioning of one’s decisions, one’s values, almost on a daily basis, is a really good way to reset the thermostat, or definition, of how we are thinking about wise behavior. It is the kind of pause, the kind of stopping to take our own temperature, and also the temperature of the world around us, that we just tend not to take a lot of time to do these days. 

The technological assault on our time, all the devices that make us immediately available, I appreciate the value in that, but I also think that it both distracts and perturbs the sense of calm. So we need those moments when we choose to just sit or stand or lay down, or whatever way we choose to be a little more meditative and just think about these issues. 

The whole reason I got into this field actually is that I was asked to do a story on wisdom research for the New York Times magazine about three years ago, and it was mostly based on the psychological research. Frankly, I began the process with a great deal of skepticism because I thought, “how the heck can you define wisdom?” How can you study it? But as I started reading some of the psychological literature I found that I was stopping and thinking about things in a way that I really didn’t before. I was asking myself the question, what would be the wise thing to do here? 

When I was confronted with the many issues that come up every day—it could be friction with a work colleague, or a family issue, or my own sense of self and what I want to do, and what is the right decision—I found that whenever I was running into one of these walls or bumping into one of these obstacles, something I called “armchair mindfulness” arose. Maybe I just sit here for a second, stop, and think about it; and the stopping is just as important as the thinking. I might be able to bring a little more cognitive firepower to assessing the problem and making decisions. I think we are always doing that, we are negotiating an outside world, and we are bringing our own experiences into it. 

The human brain evolved in part to be so powerful an organ because it is adaptable to change. A brain that was both unable to understand and adapt to changing circumstances would never survive. Our world is changing all the time, and I think part of wisdom is recognizing change, recognizing uncertainty, recognizing the limitations in what we know about these changing situations, and still being able to adapt to them. 

There is this constant dialogue between the inner self and the outer world, both in terms of how we deal with it and in terms of emotion regulation. If we are very perturbed or upset by change or unexpected events or circumstances, that upset clouds our ability to deal with that change. So emotion regulation is an important part of the decision-making process and a component of wisdom, at least within my thinking. And in the book I, kind of arbitrarily but I think reasonably and usefully, identify “eight neuro-pillars of wisdom,” eight areas of brain activities that I think contribute to qualities that are useful in attempting to be wise.

Gary: Wisdom doesn’t seem to be in popular vocabulary any longer, and particularly among the young generation it is virtually absent in the media. Why is it that the idea of wisdom in the larger consciousness of the nation seems to be falling into the dustbin of history?

Stephen: You have touched on several interesting issues. I think knowledge acquisition is more important for younger people than it is for older people, and there are even evolutionary reasons for that to be true. So, to the extent that wisdom is even a thought that crosses the consciousness of younger people, it probably seems like a luxury that they don’t really have to think about. But some of the psychological research that I talk about in the book identifies seeds of wisdom as actually somewhat planted very early in life, probably at least around adolescence, possibly earlier, often associated with some sort of adversity and one’s knowledge and ability to overcome it. If you think of wisdom as in part a knowledge base, certainly a lot of knowledge can be obtained these days through the Internet, but a lot of it also comes through personal relationships between mentor and student, and I think some of that still persists. 

One of the really interesting experimental findings is that the human brain processes information or responds to things differently when you are interacting with a person as opposed to if you are interacting with a computer screen. So to the extent that everybody, and probably moreso young people, is interacting with computer screens a lot more rather than with human beings over the course of an average day, at a certain level they are depriving their brain of the tuning up that happens in this human interaction that is really important. There’s a whole field called social neuroscience now that is exploring this.

Gary: One trait I have found in those who I consider to be wise is the idea that the more we learn, the less we realize we know. This brings a particular kind of humility, and also compassion toward those who believe that they are know-it-alls and live in a world of black and white. It seems to reflect an old Sufi Persian saying, “Innocence without wisdom is ignorance, wisdom without innocence is arrogance.” And the phrase seems to hark into a playful attitude, as when Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All life is an experiment.” Would you address these seeming paradoxes between knowing and unknowing and define this aspect of wisdom?

Stephen: This is a theme that runs deeply through the whole literature, this idea of limitation and of uncertainty as we appreciate that the world is constantly changing and throwing unexpected curve balls at us all the time. This idea of humility is really important. This notion that we should accept the limitations of our knowledge in any given situation, that it could be incorrect or that it is simply limited in that we are not going to be able to know certain things and thus are going to be making decisions somewhat in the murk of uncertainty. 

I think of humility as being a very useful quality in terms of the after effect of that, which is, if you understand that there are limitations, perhaps that is an incentive to go out and find different forms of information or perhaps open yourself up to different avenues of knowledge that you might not have been open to previously. So that humility is a predecessor to information gathering in a different way than we normally go about it. 

Certainly if you think you have all the answers, you don’t feel the need to go out and get more information, or perhaps approach a problem in a different way, because you already know how to deal with it. There are some really interesting experiments, mostly in animals and not humans, that show the more an animal is ingrained by habit in solving a particular task, the more difficult it is to get them to respond quickly to a changing situation. They are not very adaptable when they face change if they are really habit driven, and this is true of all sorts of human habits including getting new knowledge or acknowledging limitation and seeking other ways to solve problems. 

Humility is also a paradoxical quality, and I talk about Gandhi quite a bit in the chapter about humility because everyone thinks of him as a humble person, which he was. And yet there was, at the core of this humility, a really ferocious sense of self, and the drive and motivation to redress the social injustice in India. I think humility is often thought of as a passive quality and I want to suggest that it is actually a very active quality that both changes your social interactions with people and also your acquisition of information and knowledge needed to live with wisdom.

Dr. Gary Null is the host of the nation’s longest running public radio program on nutrition and natural health, founder of the Progressive Radio Network, a New York Times best selling author, and a multi-award-winning director of controversial documentaries, including Gulf War Syndrome: Killing Our Own, The Drugging of Our Children, and Autism: Made in the USA.

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16 December 2010

Tagged Under
moral code, wisdom, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience,
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