In the 1970s, psychologists began the formal study of wisdom as a subject worthy of research. These social scientists identified a number of common psychological and behavioral characteristics associated with wisdom, including compassion, emotion regulation, a sense of social justice, moral reasoning, patience, and an ability to deal with uncertainty and change.
In Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Stephen S. Hall examines the way recent brain science is shedding light on these timeless human virtues. He refers to them as eight “neural pillars of wisdom.” Among the findings in each area are:
1. Emotion Regulation – Studies at Stanford University, including brain imaging experiments, have shown that older people process emotion differently than younger people on average. They are less likely to dwell on the negative, tend to value relationships more, and rebound from setbacks more quickly.
2. Compassion – Electrophysiological measurements of the brains of Buddhist monks in the midst of compassion meditation have identified a unique pattern of brain activation, known as a “gamma oscillation,” which may coordinate and synchronize mental activity in disparate parts of the brain during empathic understanding and acts of loving-kindness.
3. Moral Judgment – Cognitive neuroscientists, in a series of brain scanning experiments over the past decade, have identified a neural circuit involved in moral reasoning, and have shown that moral judgment can change depending on whether we are physically close to another person (“up close and personal” judgments) or are acting at a distance.
4. Humility – Business psychologists have shown that the combination of intense professional will and extreme personal humility are the essential traits in turning a good company into a great company; by contrast, CEOs who rank high in narcissism measures tend to be leaders—but bad ones. They put personal drama and egotism ahead of company performance.
5. Altruism – Scientists have used brain-scanning experiments to identify a tentative circuitry in the brain that monitors situations of social injustice, and seems to prompt a form of behavior known as altruistic punishment—decisions in which a person sacrifices personal gain to punish a rule-breaker.
6. Patience – A sense of imagination about the future, a capacity which resides in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, helps suppress the impulse for immediate gratification, according to brain scanning experiments, and helps people plan goals and remain optimistic about the future.
7. Sound Judgment – Building on a huge amount of neuroscience that has been investigating decision-making, scientists are now teasing apart the process of neural valuation—how the brain attaches value to various choices. This may turn out to be the neural answer to a question asked by philosophers for centuries about the central challenge of wisdom: how do we decide what is most important?
8. Dealing with Uncertainty – Scientists at Princeton University, UCLA and elsewhere have been investigating how the brain reacts when it encounters the unexpected. Animal experiments suggest that habit allows us to react more quickly when the world is unchanging, but that in an environment of great flux, habit slows down our neural ability to adapt to changing circumstances.