Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience

A compelling investigation into one of our most coveted and cherished ideals, and the efforts of modern science to penetrate the mysterious nature of this timeless virtue.

We all recognize wisdom, but defining it is more elusive. In this fascinating journey from philosophy to science, Stephen S. Hall gives us a dramatic history of wisdom, from its sudden emergence in four different locations (Greece, China, Israel, and India) in the fifth century B.C. to its modern manifestations in education, politics, and the workplace. We learn how wisdom became the provenance of philosophy and religion through its embodiment in individuals such as Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus; how it has consistently been a catalyst for social change; and how revelatory work in the last fifty years by psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists has begun to shed light on the biology of cognitive traits long associated with wisdom – and, in doing so, has begun to suggest how we might cultivate it.

Hall explores the neural mechanisms for wise decision making; the conflict between the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain; the development of compassion, humility, and empathy; the effect of adversity and the impact of early-life stress on the development of wisdom; and how we can learn to optimize our future choices and future selves.

Hall’s bracing exploration of the science of wisdom allows us to see this ancient virtue with fresh eyes, yet also makes clear that despite modern science’s most powerful efforts, wisdom continues to elude easy understanding.



Chloe actually gave this one to me as a birthday gift about seven years ago. Despite the fact that I’ve got about 200+ books on my “to read” list, I felt compelled to go back to this one and I found it thoroughly engrossing.

The first part of the book is brief and covers what wisdom is and the philosophical and psychological roots of wisdom; a briefing for the eight pillars of wisdom – emotional regulation, moral judgement, moral reasoning, compassion, humility, altruism, patience and dealing with uncertainty. Wisdom as a human virtue, is won by hard work – the hard work of experience, error, intuition, detachment and critical thinking.

The second part of the book is the bulk of it; starting out with the first pillar of wisdom.

Emotional Regulation. The idiom, with age comes wisdom , is pretty accurate in that we learn to regulate our emotions with time. In general, older people experience negative emotions less frequently than younger people, they exercise better control over their emotions, and they rely on a complex and nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to rebound quickly from adverse moments; they’ve mastered the art of coping. This is tightly connected to a person’s sense of time. Shortened time perspective that comes with aging causes older people to focus on what is more important. At a time of life known for cataracts and macular degeneration, they see the truly important things very clearly.

It’s not surprising that age would also play a factor considering the structure of the brain. Scenes of violence or suffering will cause a spike of arousal in the amygdala, however in younger people, the bad news lingers and the amygdala remains aroused. Older people seem better able to shrug it off, move on, and shift their focus to positive thinking. Instead of rumination, there is reflection.

The circuitry of the forward-looking optimism involves cross-talk in the brain between the amygdala, and a part known as the anterior cingulate cortex, located deep along an inner fold of the frontal cortex. It’s believed that, evolutionarily speaking, this structure evolved to encourage motivation and forward thinking.

Moral Judgement. Decision making and knowing what’s important; choices. Gratification is tightly linked to dopamine, the pleasure molecule. When we experience something gratifying the dopamine level spikes, however the more we familiarize ourselves with a particular pleasure, the reward becomes subtly displaced, the spike stabilizes, and we’re no longer surprised. The driving force behind behavior and choice is anticipation. The timing of when the dopamine neurons fire shifts from pure reward to prediction of reward – so if you’re always successful, the anticipatory jolt of dopamine trickles down to nothing. We become neurologically bored.

Research has found that when we fail, the dopamine basically freaks out when our predictions are wrong. The system is actually built to detect error, an unexpected outcome. That’s when the brain really takes notice. Reinforcement learning is a molecular way of saying experience. Success breeds habit and failure breeds learning. We are designed to learn from mistakes, errors, and unexpected outcomes.

Moral Reasoning. When we show disgust and repugnance, it’s reflected outwardly by a bad taste or smell, which is, interestingly, the same expressions we use when something doesn’t feel morally right. The detection of moral conflict, and the machinery of moral choice, is embedded in the anatomy of the human brain. Repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

There is more at stake here than cultural and religious ownership of right and wrong. The anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, and the prefrontal cortex all light up when we mull over conflicts or the right things to do. Our moral grammar is innate and hard-wired in our brains, deeply embedded in the emotional circuitry. Moral judgement derives from “ethical intuitionism” in the emotional brain and not nearly so much from rational “moral reasoning”.

Emotion, clearly an important component of wisdom, can both inform and deform moral judgement. Knowledge tells you how to do something. Wisdom tells you whether you should do it or not. We are not agents of moral judgement, merely passengers on a powerful animal as it crashes through thickets of moral dilemmas, and our reasoning is literally an afterthought.

Compassion. Compassion rounds and softens the hard-edged lessons of experience; compassion keeps the directional arrow of human agency pointed outward toward social interaction, as opposed to inward toward isolation and withdrawal; compassion warms human thought when intelligence becomes too impersonal and chilly; compassion motivates action in the direction of social good. Knowledge without compassion is inhuman; compassion without knowledge is ineffective.

Perspective taking (putting yourself in someone else’s shoes), is represented in an area called the temporal-parietal junction. The emotional response is primarily centered in the insula – a region deep in a fissure separating the frontal and temporal lobes.) The translation-into-action component is represented in areas of the brain that we know to be involved in the integration of motivation and action, particularly the basal ganglia.

Studies have shown that the premotor cortex fires not only when we manipulate an object, but when we observe someone else doing it. We can “sense” another creature’s intentions, “feel” another creature’s physical experience. Neuroscientists have found these “mirror neurons” marbled throughout the brain – the ventral premotor cortex, the left hemisphere, the posterior parietal lobe, the visual area, the superior temporal sulcus region.

Our brains have the physiological goods to pay emotional, sensory attention to the actions, experiences, and experienced feelings of others, and in some cases to experience those feelings as if they were our own. It is a system endowed with the hardware to use compassion to guide judgement, and if wisdom in part arises from a similar attentiveness to, and feeling for, others, then perhaps we have an innate capacity for compassion.

Humility. Humility, like wisdom, often begins with self-awareness, especially the awareness of one’s own limitations and straddles two foundational aspects of wisdom: the limits of knowledge and the acknowledgement that change and uncertainty is a natural state of affairs.

A considerable amount of research has gone into narcissism, humilities evil twin; inflated self-regard, feelings of superiority and entitlement, and a ravenous, almost insatiable hunger for attention and praise – values clearly antithetical to almost anyone’s notion of wisdom. Humility research has located itself in the field of positive psychology, which remains controversial and seems to provoke considerable skepticism in hard-core scientists.

The working parts of humility are self-deprecation of a non-pathological sort, humor, an antipathy to greed, and a cosmic perspective. Humility may be the ultimate social emollient. Truth can be cultivated as well as love, but to cultivate humility is tantamount to cultivating hypocrisy. You have to be, not try to be. Humility is a quality that demands careful determination and concentration, a delicate balance between personal agency, social deference, the inner strength of self-awareness, and a good-humored grace in acknowledging human limitations.

Altruism. Altruism is a distinctly social aspect of wisdom. It is personal morality writ large across a society, a selfless and at times self-sacrificing devotion to a greater good. It heeds the higher call of social justice. Altruism, in its simplest rendering, is the antithesis of selfishness.

Mutual cooperation produces a distinct blush of activity in the reward centers of the brain – dopamine, specifically in the striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex. Initial experiments on altruism led to bigger issues that form part of altruism, cooperation and wisdom: punishment. In order for altruism to work, it requires an element of constraint of cheaters and free riders. When our sense of injustice is provoked there’s a spike of activity in the dorsal striatum (where rewards are registered) and the insular cortex, two small knots of cortical tissue that seem to be involved in the perception of injustice and disgust. The anterior cingulate cortex also perks up.

When people engage in altruistic punishment, the same part of the brain that becomes aroused by cooperation (the reward center of the dorsal striatum) turns on as we’re being punitive; we get a neural kick from both cooperation and punishment. The cognitive part of the brain is necessary to override selfishness, economic self-interest, and greed.

Patience. Temptation, delayed gratification and the biology of learning to wait for larger rewards. The free-for-all that occurs inside our brains as we weigh immediate and delayed rewards is a process known as “intertemporal bargaining.” Willpower is a skill of knowing and acting that amounts to a form of wisdom. The main purpose of wisdom is to govern the will. This conflict that predicts both human impulsivity and the cognitive tricks that promote human patience can be plotted on a graph known as the “hyperbolic discount curve.” We are neurologically doomed by this hyperbolic warp in our perception to see the smaller reward as bigger than it really is as we get closer to it.

The conflicts in self-control is a distinction between wanting and judging. Wanting is associated with the immediate, possibly dopamine-driven emotional system of neural valuation, and judging is associated with the cognitive, prefrontal, future-seeing part of the brain. Willpower becomes a potentially powerful player in this neural drama; the emotional, impassioned part of the brain, known as the limbic system, goes into high gear when people make decisions about immediately available rewards – the “instant gratification” part of the brain – while the cortical parts weighed in on the side of delayed gratification.

Dealing with Uncertainty. The human mind deals with multiples tasks and decisions by mobilizing multiple systems of thought. One is automatic, and conforms to the world – experience – or “model-based learning”. We compare a possible future action or choice with similar situations we’ve confronted in the past. The other is “model-free learning” in which we are confronted with something novel or unexpected, something that doesn’t align with prior experiences. Uncertainty, change, and the unexpected – all demand a different kind of appraisal, a different process of evaluation. Knowledge offers comfort; wisdom feels comfortable with uncertainty.

Neuroscientists refer to the process of going back and forth between hypothesis and reality, finding the program that matches the circumstances as framing, or perspective taking. The way we frame a problem predicts the success with which we work our way toward a solution.

The “old brain” is a tight, fist-sized core of neural structures centered in the subcortical forebrain, with some extensions into the mid-brain (limbic system). This is the classic “emotional brain,” driven by basic appetites and physiological needs, orchestrated by a neurotransmitter (dopamine) that registers reward and reinforces optimal behavioral choices. The new part of the brain – the neocortex – is literally an evolutionary afterthought in humans, a blanket of neuron-rich tissue, draped over the old brain. It’s responsible for all our higher cognitive functions: planning, abstract thinking, decision making, and considering the future consequences of actions.

The emotional brain is rapid, stereotypical, and inflexible. The newer part of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, is usually slower and more limited, but, paradoxically, more nimble when faced with the unexpected. The world has changed dramatically, socially and environmentally, over recent evolutionary time, while the emotional brain has not. This disparity accounts for all the so-called irrational behaviors – bad choices about delayed rewards, addictive decisions that reflect impulsivity, etc.

Our default neural setting is tradition and habit; our most adaptive responses probably lie in breaks from tradition and habit. Getting to that adaptive response requires new information, cultural clues, psychological flexibility and deliberation. We must be open to change. We need to be willing to break habits – either habits of action or barely conscious habits of emotional thought. Uncertainty, if nothing else, can cure us of habit. Any decision we make is only as good as what we ultimately value, what we understand to be most important.

There is nothing certain but uncertainty, and nothing more miserable and arrogant than man.

The third and last part of the book wraps up with adversity and stress early in life as a component that cultivates critical thinking and wisdom; the aging brain, wisdom in education, the workplace, at home, and in politics; and the future of wisdom.

That to Philosophize Is to Learn to Die



Cicero says that to philosophize is nothing else but to prepare for death. This is because study and contemplation draw our soul out of us to some extent and keep it busy outside the body; which is a sort of apprenticeship and semblance of death. Or else it is because all the wisdom and reasoning in the world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.
– Montaigne


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