The Wisdom Project: Can science really tell us anything worth knowing about wisdom?

by Betsy Johnson-Miller, Bearings

Can science really tell us anything worth knowing about wisdom?

Dr. Howard Nusbaum thinks so. “Wisdom is not a magical thing,” says Nusbaum, principal investigator at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research Project. “It’s about solving certain problems and thinking about situations in a specific kind of way.”

Funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Wisdom Research Project takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying wisdom. Researchers use everything from brain scans to personal narratives to help them test their hypotheses about wisdom and problem solving, as well as about the processes and mechanisms that play a role in wisdom, memory, attention, learning, and emotion.

One of their areas of study is the relationship between wisdom and meditation. Nusbaum explains that meditation involves certain practices, such as taking control of our own minds. “Many people seem to believe that consciousness just flows along and they have no ability to change the direction of that flow,” he says. In meditation, however, one seeks to control the flow. That control can help us choose how we “direct attention to our thoughts and to the world.” In addition, meditation involves a level of self-calming and may help us to develop “epistemic humility,” the understanding that “while we may know a lot, we do not know everything, and there is always more to be understood and learned in the world.” Since it can be hard to reflect deeply on a situation if one is anxious or driven by physiological states, “meditation may be an aid in developing the ability to reflect more deeply, to persevere in working at intellectual struggle, and to control impulsive responses that could overshadow a wise consideration of a situation.” A paper recently accepted for publication demonstrates that there is a significant relationship between wisdom and the long-term practice of meditation.

Linda Stone, a member of the Wisdom Research Network, argues that traits like perseverance and curiosity are critical to gaining wisdom, since they help us to persist when tackling life’s difficulties instead of giving up. Other researchers have found a connection between important psychological processes and sleep. Not only does sleep help us to generalize “from experiences, allowing us to use knowledge from one experience to help with a novel situation,” it also “promotes insight into certain kinds of problems,” Nusbaum says.

While we often associate wisdom with the mind, there appears to be an important relationship between wisdom and the body. For example, Patrick Williams and his University of Chicago colleagues have found that “years of ballet practice are related to increased wisdom,” Nusbaum says. He has been told by some psychiatrists that “you cannot be anxious if you do not tense your muscles.” If we can get our bodies to relax, we reduce our anxiety. Nusbaum is quick to point out that though relaxing and reducing anxiety are not the same as wisdom, these things may “open the door for wisdom to operate.” When we are anxious or driven by our physiological states, we “cannot reflect deeply on a situation.”

Nusbaum believes that an important question we should be asking is, “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?” He says that “from Aristotle’s perspective, there is a close coupling” between the two, but not in the ways we might think. “Flourishing does not necessarily mean health, prosperity, and pleasure. Rather, it seems to refer to a broader sense of social connection.” Wise decisions, then, require a deep social concern rather than a simple focus on the material.

While this is a far cry from the simple notion that wisdom comes with age, these findings should give us hope. According to Nusbaum, we would all do well to remember that “wisdom is not an all or nothing thing. Each of us, with the right experiences, may become a little wiser.”

Photo by Jim Robinson

Read the article: Johnson-Miller, B. (2016) The wisdom project: Can science really tell us anything worth knowing about wisdom? Bearings, 16-17.



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