On Wisdom, Language, and Attention: An interview with Howard Nusbaum

By Charles Cassidy, Evidence-Based Wisdom (EBW)

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.

Scroll down to read the following topics: wisdom & the virtues; wisdom & expertise; wisdom & learning mathematics; wisdom & ballet; wisdom & attention; and wisdom, nudging, & the Supreme Court

On Wisdom and The Virtues

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

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: Is virtue the same as “the common good”?

Nusbaum: 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.

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

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: That’s hard to do!

Nusbaum: 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.’

On Wisdom and Expertise

EBW: 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…

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: 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.

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: 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

EBW: 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.

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: 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.

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: 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?

Nusbaum: 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

EBW: 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?

Nusbaum: 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.

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.

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.

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

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: 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?

Nusbaum: 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

EBW: 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?

Nusbaum: 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. 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.

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.

EBW: Because they think of themselves as scientists…

Nusbaum: 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.

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

Nusbaum: 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.

On Wisdom, Nudging, and The Supreme Court

EBW: After being neglected for so long by the scientific community, why do you think that wisdom has recently started to receive more attention?

Nusbaum: 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. 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.

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.

EBW: 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.

Nusbaum: 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.

EBW: 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!

Nusbaum: 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.

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

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

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.

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

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


About the author: As director of the Evidence-Based Wisdom project, Charles Cassidy’s work focuses on translating academic research regarding the science of wisdom into understandable and helpful resources for the wider public. The projects hosts written interviews with leading wisdom scholars, infographs of models of wisdom, and an animated series to help audiences understand definitions of wisdom and wisdom measures.

Read the interview: Cassidy,C. (2017, March 22). EBW Wisdom Profiles Series [web series]. Evidence-Based Wisdom. Retrieved from https://evidencebasedwisdom.com/wisdom-profiles-howard-nusbaum/

  • jlmatelski said:

    comment by Ron Krumpos: Dr. Nusbaum mentions ‘attention’ frequently when discussing wisdom. We could be aware someone has entered the room, still must be attentive to recognize who that person is. Attentiveness is integrating that awareness into our active consciousness in daily living. By literal definition, ‘attentive' means both “paying attention; observant” and “mindful of the well-being of others; considerate.”

    In the latter usage, attentiveness means to be mindful to the needs of others. Whether it be politically, financially, socially, or even psychologically, other people are more important to all of this life than our individual, ego self. Truly wise people have a transpersonal outlook on life. They are able to look beyond their own immediate sentiments, thoughts and sensing.

    April 13, 2017 3:16 PM
  • jlmatelski said:

    Thanks Ron! That's a great segue to Sternberg's Balance theory! For those interested: wisdomcenter.uchicago.edu/.../1504.aspx

    April 13, 2017 3:30 PM
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