Words to the wise: Experts define wisdom

May 7, 2010

Compassion. Self-understanding. Morality. Emotional stability.

These words would seem to describe at least some of the universal traits attributed to , each of them broadly recognized and valued. In fact, there is no enduring, consistent definition of what it means exactly to be wise. It is a virtue widely treasured but essentially unexplained, a timeless subject only now attracting rigorous, scientific scrutiny.

In 2009, Dilip V. Jeste, MD, and Thomas W. Meeks, MD, both professors in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and researchers at the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging, published a paper proposing that sagacity might have a neurobiological basis.

In other words, that wisdom is wired.

In the June issue of The Gerontologist and currently online, Jeste and Meeks go further, attempting to identify the central, unifying elements that define wisdom. With colleagues from four other universities, Jeste and Meeks asked a group of international experts to characterize the traits of wisdom, and spirituality - and measure how each trait is either similar to or different from the others.

"There are several major definitions of wisdom, but no single definition that is all-inclusive and embraces every important aspect of wisdom," said Jeste, who is the Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging, professor of psychiatry and and chief of geriatric psychiatry at UC San Diego. "Intelligence and spirituality share features with wisdom, but they are not the same thing. One can be intelligent, yet lack practical knowledge. Spirituality is often associated with age, like wisdom, but most researchers tend to define wisdom in secular terms, not spiritual."

The research consisted of a two-part survey and a questionnaire comprised of 53 statements related to the concepts of wisdom, intelligence and spirituality. Fifty-seven experts were identified and contacted by email; 30 responded.

Phase 1 of the survey revealed significant group differences among the concepts on 49 of 53 statements. Wisdom differed from intelligence on 46 of 49 items, and from spirituality on 31 items.

In Phase 2, the definition of wisdom was further refined by focusing upon 12 items from the Phase 1 results. Most of the experts, Jeste and Meeks said, agreed that wisdom could be characterized thus:

  • It is uniquely human.
  • It is a form of advanced cognitive and emotional development that is experience-driven.
  • It is a personal quality, albeit rare.
  • It can be learned, increases with age and can be measured.
  • It is probably not enhanced by taking medication.
The survey was conducted using the Delphi method, developed by the RAND Corporation in the 1950s and based on the principle that forecasts from a structured group of experts are more accurate than those from unstructured groups or individuals. The paper's authors identified 60 recognized experts on wisdom in the world, focusing upon those outside their own institutions. The nominees were required to have at least two peer-reviewed publications on wisdom or spirituality, though the number of total publications was not the sole criterion for selection.

The survey asked participating experts to rate the relevance and importance of six statements (i.e. "The concept can be applied to human beings."), based upon their knowledge of empirical evidence, to the concepts of intelligence, wisdom and spirituality. The rating scale ranged from 1 (definitely not) to 9 (definitely so). The experts were then asked to rate the importance of 47 components, such as altruism, practical life skills, sense of humor, realism, willingness to forgive others and self-esteem, to the concepts of wisdom, intelligence and spirituality.

"One survey, of course, cannot fully and completely define wisdom," said Jeste. "The value here is that there was considerable agreement among experts that wisdom is indeed a distinct entity with a number of characteristic qualities. The data from our research should help in designing future empirical studies on wisdom."

Explore further: Is there a seat of wisdom in the brain?

Related Stories

Is there a seat of wisdom in the brain?

April 6, 2009

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have compiled the first-ever review of the neurobiology of wisdom - once the sole province of religion and philosophy. The study by Dilip V. Jeste, ...

Preparing for successful aging

December 30, 2009

It's never too early or too late to start working toward the goal of improving brain health. So perhaps the New Year is the perfect time to consider how one achieves a long and satisfying life. A book recently publishing ...

In social dealings, being older is being wiser

April 5, 2010

(AP) -- It turns out grandma was right: Listen to your elders. New research indicates they are indeed wise - in knowing how to deal with conflicts and accepting life's uncertainties and change.

Spirituality is key to kids' happiness

January 8, 2009

To make children happier, we may need to encourage them to develop a strong sense of personal worth, according to Dr. Mark Holder from the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues Dr. Ben Coleman and Judi ...

Mice teeth explain the troubles with human wisdom teeth

September 26, 2007

During evolution, many of a species’ properties are shaped by ecological interactions. This is readily evident in mammalian teeth, whose many features closely reflect what each species eats. However, for a long time scientists ...

Oldest case of impacted wisdom teeth found

March 7, 2006

The earliest recorded case of impacted wisdom teeth belongs to the renowned "Magdalenian Girl," a nearly complete 13,000- to 15,000-year-old skeleton excavated in France in 1911and acquired by The Field Museum in 1926.

Recommended for you

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...

19 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Yellowdart
2 / 5 (8) May 07, 2010
Proverbs 2:6
For the LORD gives wisdom;from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
Proverbs 1:7
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;fools despise wisdom and instruction.
THoKling
not rated yet May 07, 2010
Although one can look to alleged experts and dictionaries for definitions, most people make definitions up as they go along. Attempting to conform the masses to specifications provided by a handful of unknowns is a lofty goal, and said experts may also be considered lofty in their expectations.
Alizee
May 07, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antialias
1 / 5 (1) May 07, 2010
"Wisdom is uniquely human" is a bit of a bold statement when we have no clue as to the internal states and communications of animals.

That wisdom is solely experience-driven is also debatable. For example one might see a lot of wisdom in buddhist teachings. But many of these teachings aren't experience-driven.
PieRSquare
not rated yet May 08, 2010
Phillip Tetlock: Why experts are usually wrong


Tetlock in both articles is talking about the reliability of prediction. This exercise is descriptive, not predictive. Besides, if he's the expert on why the experts are usually wrong isn't he also most likely wrong? :P
hush1
not rated yet May 08, 2010
Taoism revisited.
If gravity is the root of lightness,
then wisdom is the reflection of darkness. :)
VEERUNCLE
2.3 / 5 (3) May 08, 2010
Greetings...

An Action deliberately chosen to perform self in due consideration amidst all valid and vital choices been valued by Knowledge ( i.e to be awake, aware and acquaint) how to graduate an act especially by selecting 'what not to do ' certain things in certitude of an understanding... This is WISDOM

Knowledge is an element of Wisdom, whilst the manifestation is an Understanding.

Wisdom is your preference ; choice for doing a diligent performance for all of your self into action only by selecting to curtail bare minimum aspects of what not to do...

TO DO ALL OF SELF BY CHOICE GRADUATED BY KNOWLEDGE THAT INFORMS TO CURTAIL WHAT NOT TO DO ... IS WISDOM.

TO DO ALL OF SELF BY CHOICE GRADUATED BY KNOWLEDGE THAT PROPAGATES TO AUGMENT WHAT TO DO ... IS PRUDENCE.

Laconically, misjionder of words as to its use and utility is because beyond grammar and syntax we are not taught fundamental values of etymology and epistemology.

CHARANJEET SINGH LAMBA
cs.astralscientist@gmail.com
Alizee
May 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Alizee
May 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Alizee
May 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
otto1923
not rated yet May 08, 2010
Yellowdart beat me to it. But I have this to add:
"10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
       all who follow his precepts have good understanding". Psalm 111
Translation: Respect for the Inevitable is the beginning of Wisdom. All who fear the consequences of ignoring it have good understanding.
chaman
not rated yet May 08, 2010
Wisdom is the ability to live one's life with equanimity and with neither too much attachment nor too much aversion.
Alizee
May 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
KBK
not rated yet May 08, 2010
Proverbs 2:6
For the LORD gives wisdom;from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
Proverbs 1:7
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;fools despise wisdom and instruction.


I'm not a religious man, but...

the danger on such a statement lies in the idea that externalization maintains the ego, ie --fear the lord. All workable religions are not really religions, they tell you to look inside. Which is why when the elected Gnostic representative stood up to say exactly that at the first council of Nicaea, the gnostic who was there to say that..was punched in the face by a member of the corporate driven Christian/latin/roman system.

The creation of fear, the maintenance of ego via externalization of self realization into a deity was the real sin and crime against human clarity and man of a most heinous and evil nature.

Thus, in that moment of that single punch western religion was doomed into controlist egoic externalization over that of basic human truth.
otto1923
not rated yet May 09, 2010
the first council of Nicaea, the gnostic who was there to say that..was punched in the face by a member of the corporate driven Christian/latin/roman system
Thats because they weren't there to discover the purest way to personal salvation, they were they were there to refine the latest in a series of sociopolitical systems designed to save the world from the ravages of the unfettered human animal.
Thus, in that moment of that single punch western religion was doomed into controlist egoic externalization over that of basic human truth
Western religion was concocted to aid in the spread of order amidst chaos. Belief that some supernatural superman would do you favors if you praised him enough was a pointless viral meme which nevertheless offered a superb mechanism for control of peoples far beyond the tribe. It fed off the equally pointless fantasy that we were composed of some essence which might just survive death.
otto1923
not rated yet May 09, 2010
The trick was to convince ever greater numbers of conquered and subjugated peoples that the state-sponsored religion was the only legitimate source of salvation, and that the state was it's only legitimate source of earthly rule. The state protected religion, religion legitimized the state. The real separation of church and state began when the ancient priest-kings made this brilliant discovery.

Religion saved the world; but it was still just a fantasy, a fairy tale told to children to calm their fears and mind their manners. And suffer and sacrifice and die when it was necessary for them to do so.

Religionists like yourself think the state religions destroyed the real ones, but in truth all religion is a lie. It is time for humanity to grow up and accept this. The time for fantasy is over.
kwikit
not rated yet May 09, 2010
I'm not sure enough information was provided in the summary above to justify the research conclusions, but in my opinion, Wisdom is the ability to use one's limited knowledge / intelligence / experience to generate successful deductions repeatedly. It includes hesitation / pause, contemplation, consideration, detachment, cunning, creativity, and so on. Without an active mind, wisdom cannot arise... but that activity has to be sophisticated to look beyond the merely visible, to the essence. Wisdom is also culturally defined (which wise choices or wise judgment is valued depends on the context) but the condition or act of wisdom is universal.

I don't think wisdom has anything to do with compassion, emotions, or sentimentalism. Those are ascribed by the authors. But I also don't believe that thought and feeling can be separated... they're intrinsically connected, so perhaps wisdom includes a feeling of some sort.
Yellowdart
not rated yet May 11, 2010
KBK,

It would seem that since modern government wishes to implement itself as the salvation of men for purposes of control, that it would not be a religion problem, so much as a man problem.

Otto,

The first council of Nicaea was over the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity/humanity of Christ.

Frankly, a gnostic would have been lucky to leave with only a busted nose...they didnt believe in either, or the authority of Scripture.

If men were not corrupt, there would never have been a Bible written. It's whole point and purpose is to the redemption of corrupted man, man that can even abuse and distort religion for his own selfish purposes.

In other words, religions failures have been due to man's corruption, and sense so, one can not attribute man's failures as evidence against religion...especially one with the concepts expressed in the Bible. Its central figure, came not for power or control of the world, but for sacrifice to restore what is broken.
otto1923
not rated yet May 13, 2010
If men were not corrupt, there would never have been a Bible written. It's whole point and purpose is to the redemption of corrupted man, man that can even abuse and distort religion for his own selfish purposes.

In other words, religions failures have been due to man's corruption, and sense so, one can not attribute man's failures as evidence against religion...especially one with the concepts expressed in the Bible. Its central figure, came not for power or control of the world, but for sacrifice to restore what is broken.
Like most all religionists you are seriously deluded. The bible is ALL about saving the world from the kind of people who would fall for that crap. Like yourself.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.