No Neuroscience of Wisdom: Time to wise up?

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A severe owl. [Source: https://pixabay.com/en/owl-bird-eyes-eagle-owl-birds-50267/, Public Domain]
Are you a wise person?

In a rather informal survey using a smartphone app, I asked 159 people that exact question and surprisingly 37% of them would indeed call themselves wise. Now here comes the truly shocking news. I also asked another question:

Did you know that there is quantitative research on the topic of wisdom?

… and 85% answered with “No”. That’s a situation that I just cannot accept. It’s terribly unwise to not know about empirical research on wisdom! Especially because wisdom may be a crucial factor in successful aging1, education2, or psychotherapy3. The following paragraphs allow you to get more knowledgeable and find out why there still is no neuroscience of wisdom.

What is wisdom research?

Whereas the concept of wisdom itself is ancient, empirical research on wisdom has been out there since at least the 1970s and by now, we have several established measures of wisdom. Some of these measures are classical self-reports. These are usually questionnaires including multiple items that have to be rated on scales – see two examples from the Adult-Self-Transcendence Inventory (ASTI)4.

fig2

There are also performance-based measures such as the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm5 or the Bremen Wisdom Paradigm6. Here you are typically faced with an ethical dilemma or a life-review problem such as the following:

In reflecting over their life, people sometimes realize that they have not achieved what they had once wanted to achieve. What could a person consider and do in such a situation?

How would you answer such a question? In any way, your response would be transcribed and later on rated on several wisdom dimensions by independent judges. Finally, these ratings would make up your wisdom score.

If you have doubts about this kind of measurement, you are not alone. Judith Glück and her colleagues7 took it on themselves to scrutinize the most established instruments of measuring wisdom for their reliability and validity. Their results were rather unsettling: While none of the four different measures surveyed was better than any other, none of these measures was entirely convincing by itself.

However, we need to remember that no instrument is perfect – and arguably even a crude approach might be better than none. After all, wisdom is the pinnacle of human cognition and might be the most complex topic for empirical research.

Neuroscience and wisdom

How might we research the neurobiological foundations of such a topic that is highly susceptible to social and cultural influences? The researchers Jeste and Harris lament that the neuroscience community all too often treats wisdom as “a convenient label for desirable traits”8. It’s up to you as a reader to agree or to disagree with this, but it’s a fact that few pieces on a neuroscience of wisdom have been published.

Based on a relatively thorough search on “Wisdom”, and “Neuroscience” using Google Scholar and the Web of Science, I could identify the following pieces:

  • 1 book9
  • 1 book chapter10
  • 3 journal articles8,11,12
  • 2 other blog posts13,14

Well, that’s something?! … No, it’s not. It’s no coincidence, that these pieces have titles such as:

  • “Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience”
  • Toward a Neuroscience of Wisdom”
  • “Wisdom: a Neuroscience Perspective
  • or even “Neurobiology of Wisdom????” (okay, I added some question marks here)

The pieces written so far all refer to and comment on one single journal article by Meeks & Jeste11, that makes an initial attempt at figuring out what a neuroscience of wisdom could mean.

Meeks & Jeste start their search for the neural substrates of wisdom by summarizing subcomponents of wisdom that are present in most scientific definitions of wisdom. According to them, these subcomponents are:

  1. prosocial attitudes/behaviors
  2. social decision-making/pragmatic knowledge of life
  3. emotional homeostasis
  4. reflection/self-understanding
  5. value relativism/tolerance
  6. acknowledgement of and dealing effectively with uncertainty

 

They continue with a literature search focusing on brain localization studies that identified regions sensitive to the aforementioned subcomponents. As a result, Meeks & Jeste found that, in very general terms, the neurobiological meaning of wisdom is captured in “a balance between phylogenetically older brain regions (e.g., limbic cortex) and the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex” (p. 9).

Mmmh okay.

What can we do with such a coarse result? To be fair, the authors extensively point out the limitations of their approach and provide a long list of future questions to tackle. Their research was definitely meant as an inspiration for fellow researchers to move towards a neuroscience of wisdom. However, since its publication in 2009, not much has happened. The present state led me to label this blog post “no neuroscience of wisdom”. Feel free to disagree and let me know about it.

Conclusion

If I were to close this blog post with a cheesy quote, I would probably use this one, which Walsh and Reams15 also used to describe wisdom: “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that counts can be counted” (p.2). However, I find that to be a pessimistic view and would rather end differently:

Speaking about neuroscience and wisdom, it might be beneficial to direct resources to doing research on more basic and fundamental mechanisms and phenomena, before tackling a huge construct such as wisdom.

Not all that counts is countable … yet.

References

  1. Trowbridge, R. H. Wisdom and lifelong learning in the twenty‐first century. London Rev. Educ. 5, 159–172 (2007).
  2. Sternberg, R. J. WICS: A new model for school psychology. Sch. Psychol. Int. 31, 599–616 (2010).
  3. Germer, C. K. & Siegel, R. D. Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy:Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice. (Guilford Press, 2012).
  4. Levenson, M. R., Jennings, P. A., Aldwin, C. M. & Shiraishi, R. W. Self-Transcendence : Conceptualization and Measurement. Int. J. Aging Hum. Dev. 60, 127–143 (2005).
  5. Baltes, P. B. & Staudinger, U. M. Wisdom. A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. Am. Psychol. 55, 122–136 (2000).
  6. Mickler, C. & Staudinger, U. M. Personal wisdom: validation and age-related differences of a performance measure. Psychol. Aging 23, 787–799 (2008).
  7. Glück, J. et al. How to measure wisdom: Content, reliability, and validity of five measures. Front. Psychol. 4, 1–13 (2013).
  8. Jeste, D. V & Harris, J. C. Wisdom–a neuroscience perspective. JAMA 304, 1602–1603 (2010).
  9. Hall, S. S. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
  10. Williams, P. B. & Nusbaum, H. C. in Neuroimaging Personal. Soc. Cogn. Character (Absher, J. R. & Cloutier, J.) 383–393 (Academic Press, 2016).
  11. Meeks, T. W. & Jeste, D. V. Neurobiology of Wisdom?: A Literature Overview. Arch Gen Psychiatry 66, 355–365 (2009).
  12. Lewis, P. Wisdom as Seen Through Scientific Lenses : A Selective Survey of Research in Psychology and the Neurosciences. Tradit. Discov. Polanyi Soc. Period. 36, 67–71 (2009).
  13. Anathaswamy, A. The Wisdom of the Aging Brain. (2016).
  14. Theory of Wisdom. (2014).
  15. Walsh, R. & Reams, J. Studies of Wisdom : A Special Issue of Integral Review. 11, (2015).
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