Ten Fascinating Facts About Wisdom

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Here are ten fascinating facts you may not know about the virtue of wisdom from acclaimed science writer Stephen S. Hall, author of WISDOM: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. See how wise you are…

1.) The most famous trial in history was about wisdom.
The “trial of the century” in the 4th century B.C.E. in many ways revolved around wisdom. In attempting to defend himself against charges of corrupting youth, the philosopher Socrates repeatedly offered definitions of wisdom in order to demonstrate that his accusers were singularly unwise.

2.) King Solomon wasn’t so wise!
Everyone knows the Old Testament story of Solomon’s wisdom, in which he uses a shrewd strategy of threatening to chop an infant in half to determine the true mother of the child. But as the Bible makes clear, the “wisdom of Solomon” was short-lived. Solomon became so arrogant, egotistical, and self-aggrandizing that God ultimately rebuked him and stripped him of his fortune.

3.) Adversity early in life may enrich one’s wisdom.
Early-life adversity seems to be a factor in the later development of wisdom. Among the major figures in the history of wisdom, Confucius and the Buddha lost parents early in life; Aristotle and Moses had speech impediments, while Pericles had a physical deformity; and, according to scholars, a large proportion of the people who founded the world’s leading schools of philosophy and religion came from what we would today call “single-parent families.” Animal experiments suggest that moderate stress early in life leads to better emotional resilience later.

4.) Older people, on average, manage their emotions better.
Studies at Stanford University (using brain imaging) suggest that older people on average process negative emotions differently from younger people and don’t hang onto negative emotions as long. Studies at Georgia Tech have repeatedly shown that older people come up with better strategies for solving everyday emotional problems than younger people. In at least some cases, older is wiser.

5.) Mental practice improves neural performance in qualities associated with wisdom.
A number of recent neuroscience studies have shown that mental exertion, such as meditation, can change the way the brain confronts problems. Compassion meditation, for example, increases the ability of a person to understand the viewpoint of another person, which is considered a key feature of wise behavior.

6.) Job wasn’t patient!
The conventional wisdom is that Job was an exemplar of patience. However, some Biblical scholars see the trials of Job not as an example of patience, but rather of righteous impatience and emotional resilience. It is an ancient parable of emotion regulation—outraged and indignant, yes, but always resetting to emotional equilibrium.

7.) Paragons of wisdom are often social and political outcasts.
Many figures traditionally considered to be wise—Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, the Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, to mention several prominent examples—were either marginalized, considered eccentric or mad, or were persecuted by their contemporaries, suggesting that we don’t always recognize wisdom in our midst.

8.) Scientists can “jam” some neural correlates of wisdom.
In the last several years, scientists have reported the results of “brain-jamming” experiments, in which they selectively knock out part of the brain circuitry related to a sense of social justice. In these experiments, people who experience an unfair social situation are incapable of acting upon their indignation (as they would under normal circumstances) when a pulse of electromagnetic energy is focused on a specific part of their prefrontal cortex. This harmless and reversible interruption is illuminating the neural circuitry of altruism.

9.) Animals can be wise.
Social insects like bees may offer a model of wise social cooperation. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says “hive psychology” helps explain some of the best features of communal cooperation, altruism, and group success. Vivian Clayton, the godmother of modern wisdom studies, used to be a beekeeper and often uses bees to illustrate aspects of wisdom.

10.) Intelligence is not the same as wisdom.
As psychologist Robert Sternberg says, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin satisfied anyone’s definition of intelligence, but they also turned out to be monsters. What distinguishes wisdom from intelligence, Sternberg argues, is putting intelligence at the service of “a common good.” As he and several colleagues wrote recently, “What matters is not only how much knowledge you have, but how you use that knowledge.”